As Frank Almond walked to his car the night of Jan. 27, violin in hand following another performance of his "Frankly Music" series in Milwaukee, someone approached the Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster with a stun gun. The person zapped Almond, which knocked him to the ground and allowed the assailant to steal the violin—a 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius, estimated to be worth $3 million to $5 million.
The robber got into a getaway van being driven by an accomplice. As they fled, they chucked Almond's violin case, which contained a GPS unit, as well as Almond's iPad, which they had also stolen.
The theft itself seemed sophisticated. Everything from there seems to have unraveled.
On Thursday, the Milwaukee Police Department announced it had recovered a violin thought to be the Lipinski Stradivarius. Multiple reports indicate that the recovered violin is the Lipinski. That followed the arrest of three people—two men, ages 41 and 36, and a woman, 32—in connection with the robbery. It's likely that the thieves had no idea what to do with the violin once they had stolen it. Hawking a well-known multimillion-dollar instrument, let alone selling it for its true worth, is nearly impossible, said Jason Price, director of Tarisio, the world’s largest auction house for musical instruments.
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There are roughly 600 Stradivarius violins known to exist, and nearly all are accounted for. If one suddenly pops up, people will hear about it—especially those who are part of the small sliver of the high-end music world who would consider purchasing a seven-figure instrument.
“In a cultural property case, the thieves are usually better at theft than sales and marketing,” said David Hall, who worked on the FBI’s art crime team for more than 20 years. “The challenge for them is to successfully sell it, but that’s where they’re exposed to identification and arrest.”
Robert Whittman, an ex-FBI agent who often worked undercover to locate stolen art, said something like the Lipinski might get 10 percent of its value on the black market—but that’s assuming buyers could even be located.
While a number of Stradivari have been stolen over the years, the use of violence is extremely rare. About a dozen Stradivarius violins are currently considered stolen and their whereabouts unknown, Ratcliffe said. The only stolen Stradivari known to have been linked to violence occurred in 1996, when a German violinist was killed over the Muir-MacKenzie Stradivarius, a violin worth $1.2 million at the time. The instrument was later recovered and the thief convicted.
“What’s really scary about this is the violence element,” Price said. “It’s not a common occurrence.”
While a number of stolen art experts suspected the theft was international in scope, it appears to be a more isolated incident. One clue: The violin thought to be the Lipinski doesn't appear to have left Milwaukee.