All’s well that ends well in the story of the Lipinski Strad. Lent by an anonymous owner to Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, the $5 million violin was stolen at the end of January 2014. Almond was shot with a stun gun and the robber fled in a minivan driven by an accomplice.

With help from Taser International, the makers of the stun gun used in the robbery, police were able to arrest and charge Salah Salahadyn, a Milwaukee resident who had previously served five years in prison for art theft. The instrument was found in a suitcase in an attic. Salahadyn is claiming that he was forced to steal the violin by an Asian gang that threatened his family.

Not all tales of violin theft end that quickly. The Gibson, a Stradivarius made in 1713, was stolen from Bronislaw Huberman’s dressing room in 1936. It was the second time that the instrument had been stolen in the 25 years that the Polish virtuoso had owned it. The first time, the violin had been removed from his hotel room but was recovered hours later when the thief tried to sell it.

This time, Huberman was not so lucky. The thief, a second string violinist called Julian Altman, held onto it for 50 years, long after Huberman’s death in 1947. Only on his deathbed did he tell a colleague from the Danbury Symphony to retrieve the instrument and look inside a hidden pocket. There, a collection of documents relating to the theft of the violin was enough to reveal its identity. It took restorers nine months to remove 50 years of built-up grime.

Found by the road

The Gibson Strad is now owned by Joshua Bell and but not all stolen instruments end up in such good hands. The Violin Site, which lists the location of all known Stradivarius violins, notes that fifteen of them have been stolen at one time or another. Eight of those instruments, the website says, have yet to be recovered. The Art Loss Register, a database of stolen art, goes even further. It claims that eighteen Stradivarius violins are still missing.

Whether Salah Salahadyn stole the violin under pressure or because he thought he could make a quick buck, the motivation behind the theft of a valuable instrument is clear. For a criminal, that’s not a musical instrument capable of producing unique art; it’s a means to a large pile of money.

Unless the thief is a violinist. Julian Altman disguised his stolen Stradivarius with shoe polish and played it in every pickup orchestra, church gig, and club date that he was hired to perform. The Duke of Alcantara, a 1732 Stradivarius, was lent by UCLA’s music department to David Margetts in the 1960s. It’s not clear whether the instrument was stolen or was forgotten on the roof of a car but it went missing in 1967 and was only recovered in 1994. It was being played by an amateur violinist who said he had found it on the side of the road.

It’s a sobering thought. Somewhere out there are some of the world’s most valuable and beautiful instruments. And someone is probably playing them.

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