Ode to avarice and ego

It’s often said that nothing happens in a vacuum. A recent theft from a Milwaukee musician exemplifies the truth of the old adage. As the New York Times reported last week, thieves stole a 1715 Stradivarius violin from the concert master of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The robbery was awful in a number of respects. In the first instance, the violinist, Frank Almond, was leaving the auditorium at Wisconsin Lutheran College after a concert that was arguably the pinnacle of his career. His performance was so masterful that the concluding notes drew an uncommon reaction: The audience sat silently for nearly 20 seconds before erupting into thunderous applause.

Almond gathered his possessions, including his violin — known as the Lipinski Strad — and walked to his car in a nearby parking lot. As he neared the vehicle a man with a gun emerged form the shadows. He shot Almond, grabbed the instrument and ran to a waiting maroon minivan, being driven by a woman.

The Lipinski, like the other 650 extant Stradivarius violins, is an exceptionally rare instrument. Apart from being 300 years old, Strads are often regarded as the ultimate achievement in violin-making. A representative of the Milwaukee Symphony told reporters that the Lipinski is worth “in the high seven figures.” This particular violin was on “permanent loan” to Almond from an anonymous donor.

As such, we have a theft of something precious and valuable from the man who made the instrument sing in angelic tones. We have a theft from a benefactor who doubtless paid several million dollars to possess it.

Perhaps more consequently, we have the theft from the rest of us of something pure and beautiful — the music it is uniquely capable of producing.

The theft has garnered worldwide attention, not just among the music-loving crowd, but within the global law enforcement community. The Milwaukee Police Department has some high-powered help in its efforts to solve the crime and recover the instrument.

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the program manager of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Art Theft Program, said her agency has 14 special agents who investigate “art crime,” one of whom is based in La Crosse, Wis., and will act as a consultant to the Milwaukee Police Department.

“Artwork crosses boundaries very rapidly. It can change hands five or six times before it finally surfaces as a stolen work of art,” Magness-Gardiner told reporters.

She further explained that since 1985, the FBI has had 11 cases of stolen violins in the United States, six of which were Strads. Of the 11, only three were known to have been recovered.

To be certain, it’s not as if the robbers stole the cure for cancer or a nuclear bomb. They stole a violin. While this theft probably won’t have much of a direct effect on very many lives, it nonetheless diminishes all of us.

When great works of art are stolen, they usually go to eccentric ultra-wealthy individuals in Asia and the Middle East. Often they are secreted away and never seen again. They are not appreciated for what they are — gifts to the world. They become instead monuments to avarice and ego.

While the Lipinski is “just a thing,” it’s a thing that represents something much larger than itself. It represents three centuries of musical history, virtuosity and beauty. And it represents a small piece of the good that is all of us.