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What It’s Like Having a Rare Instrument Stolen

Chicago musicians share horror stories of losing their instruments—and in some cases, much more.

Charles Pikler’s viola, which was missing from 1996 to 1998   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

In January 2014, a Stradivarius violin once again became the subject of national conversation. It wasn’t because the $5 million instrument had sold for an obscene sum at auction, but because its owner, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, had been assaulted with a stun gun, the violin disappearing into the night.

The robbery and recovery of Almond’s 1715 Lipinski Strad has since become a case study in instrument theft. While the perpetrator, self-described “art thief” Salah Salahadyn, is now behind bars, the antique instrument—appraised at $5 million in 2012—continues to permeate national news. That’s best explained by the rarity of instrument theft, a phenomenon increasingly confined to America’s classical hubs.

Chicago, of course, is not immune. Each day, hundreds of musicians shoulder their livelihood on the bus, the L, and through the aisles at the grocery store. Almond’s $5 million Strad may make for a grabby headline, but what of the $30,000 viola bought in lieu of a down-payment on a house, or the legacy violin passed down from generation to generation? Instrument insurance can help assuage the financial burden of a theft, but no bump in the bank account can replace the profound connection a player develops with an instrument over decades.

Becca Wilcox, a principal with the Northbrook Symphony, describes “physically shaking” upon realizing her violin had been stolen while shopping at an Uptown thrift store in 2014. She’d strapped her case to the lower frame of a cart while strolling the aisles with a friend. “I was in utter anguish,” says Wilcox, still unable to explain how a thief unbuckled the instrument and disappeared without her knowing. Only upon the police’s arrival was Wilcox told that the store had experienced multiple thefts that same day.

Lori Ashikawa, a violinist with the Baroque Band, can sympathize with having an instrument plucked from right under her nose. In 2009, amid renovations to her Andersonville home, an intruder broke in, scaled an unfinished staircase, and made off with her Gagliano violin while she and her husband slept. “It felt like losing a family member,” says Ashikawa, echoing a common refrain among victims of instrument theft.

Ashikawa’s story, like Almond’s and Wilcox’s, is an outlier: Most instrument thefts don’t occur with the musician present. More often, an unattended instrument or vehicular smash-and-grab frame these stories. Such was the case for Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist Charles Pikler, who left the symphony’s $175,000 Montagnana on a sidewalk while packing up his car in 1996. Or Highland Park Strings founder Larry Block, who returned to a Sears Tower parking spot in 1975 to discover his car window shattered and his prized Reuter cello gone. Susan Rozendaal, a young mother in the early ’90s, unwittingly left her $90,000 Carcassi violin on a curb outside her East Rogers Park condo while shuffling three kids and a load of groceries. And Wheaton College violin professor Lee Joiner, while shopping for bows in Ireland, returned from an impromptu hike at Wicklow Gap to a breached car and vanished violin.

Because Frank Almond’s $5 million Stradivarius is more or less a Milwaukee treasure, its heist drew concentrated efforts from the Milwaukee Police Department and FBI. But Chicagoans describe a more nonchalant response from local law enforcement. Says Wilcox of her episode in the thrift shop: “There was a visible apathy when they arrived.” 

Pikler, after being called into the police station multiple times to examine recovered violas that were clearly not his Montagnana, came to a similar conclusion. “It’s disappointing when someone in law enforcement doesn’t care to investigate the issue,” he says. “Were the authorities really trying to find it? I don’t know. But the viola had so many unique characteristics, it would be impossible to mix it up with any other.”

A common thread in victims of instrument theft is acute embarrassment, especially when their instruments were left in a vehicle—a chief taboo some insurance companies don’t cover.

For Ashikawa, the comments sections of news stories were most painful. “People were saying it was a scam, that I was trying to collect money from the Chicago Symphony, [who’d insured the instrument],” she says. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time that Ashikawa had left a key under a flower pot near the door—a claim she resolutely denies, believing a contractor may have left it for a subcontractor—which further stoked public victim-blaming.

For Rozendaal, the humiliation came with having to call her father, a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra and Rozendaal’s first teacher. “Here I am, an adult that’s left a very, very valuable 18th century Italian violin in an alleyway,” she says. “I was like a five-year-old little girl when I realized I’d have to call and tell him we were going to have to make a major claim on his insurance policy.”

Because Frank Almond’s and Charles Pikler’s instruments were owned by their respective orchestras, both were subjected to polygraph tests that cleared them of foul play.

The silver lining of these losses, however, is that instruments quickly lose value once stolen and often show up in local music and pawn shops. This was the case for  Lori Ashikawa whose Gagliano turned up at Sherry-Brener Ltd., a music shop on the same block as Symphony Center. Charles Pikler’s viola was discovered two years after it had disappeared in the garage of a man fingered in a murder-for-hire scheme. In 2011, Larry Block got a call from local music shop Fritz Reuter & Sons telling him that his cello, gone for 36 years, had allegedly been found in a garbage bin. Block remembers the poignancy of the moment: “I went into the next room to tell my wife, and I could hardly do it, because I was crying.”

To Block’s point, many Chicago musicians have been so overjoyed to find their instruments that they’ve seldom sought legal recourse. Susan Rozendaal’s story is particularly heartwarming: Within an hour of realizing she’d left her violin outside her condo, her doorbell rang. “I went down to the vestibule and saw this enormous man with my violin cradled in his arms. I smothered him in kisses and hugs and said, ‘You have my violin!’ He said, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t sound very good.’ So I invited him in and after a half-hour, it was clear he was mentally handicapped, and very sweet. He didn’t perceive that he had stolen a violin.” When Rozendaal’s guest told her he’d like to learn to play, she offered him free lessons and an instrument to borrow. After giving him her phone number and seeing him out, he later called her home to let her know, “This one doesn’t sound very good either.”

Not all victims of instrument theft enjoy such a sweet coda—Wilcox’s and Joiner’s violins have not been found—but the lack of a black market for stringed instruments means almost no incentive for targeting musicians. Says Almond, “My experience in Milwaukee is unique to the point that it’s used by the FBI as a case study. It is the only time anyone has tried to get a high-end instrument in an armed robbery.” And in the case of Rozendaal, preventative technology came down to the cheap plastic luggage tag that directed her instrument safely home.

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