Story Of His Violin

New York Daily News
A Fiddle Found
Sunday, January 4th, 2004

For 50 years, Julian Altman scratched out a living in New York as a journeyman violinist. He never managed to earn a chair with the city's premier orchestras, and he lacked the chops of a great classical soloist.

But he was a decent string-section player, and he kept busy from the 1930s to the '80s with club dates, church gigs and runs with the scads of pickup orchestras in the region, which rely on traveling New York freelancers rather than contract players.

Altman was known for his scruffy tuxedo and even scruffier fiddle. The instrument sounded decent enough, but it was covered in a sticky black grime that some of his stand partners at gigs thought looked and smelled like shoe polish.

The violin obviously had not been to a shop for cleaning and maintenance in decades - with good reason, it would turn out.

Altman's life fell apart in the '80s.

First, he was convicted in Connecticut for molesting the granddaughter of his second wife, Marcelle Hall. After his conviction, Altman entrusted his old fiddle to the care of a colleague from the Danbury Symphony.

But just before packing off to prison, Altman was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He lived the last weeks of his life under guard at a hospital in Torrington, Conn.

On his deathbed, Altman instructed Hall to retrieve his violin and search inside a hidden pocket in the case for important documents.

She did so and found a cache of newspaper clippings from 1936 concerning the theft of a rare Stradivarius violin from Carnegie Hall. The wife did not need to be told that Altman's ugly duckling fiddle was the stolen Strad.

Remarkable pieces

The victim was Bronislaw Huberman, the virtuoso Polish violinist, who carried a double violin case with two remarkable pieces of cargo made in Cremona, Italy, in the early 18th century. One slot in the case held the Gibson Stradivarius, named - like many Strads - for an early owner, George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. The second slot held an equally precious violin made by Antonio Stradivari's Cremona colleague, Giuseppe Guarneri.
On Feb. 28, 1936, Huberman performed a Carnegie recital on the Guarnerius, leaving the Stradivarius in his dressing room. During the second piece, a Franck sonata, Huberman's valet noticed the Strad was missing. She hurried on stage during applause and whispered the news to Huberman.

It was the second theft of the Gibson Strad in the 25 years that Huberman had owned it. A hotel-room thief stole it in Vienna in 1916, but the instrument was returned hours later after the burglar tried to sell the famous fiddle.

Huberman must have supposed the same thing would happen in New York. He told reporters the thief surely was an amateur because he had overlooked six rare and expensive bows in the same case as the Stradivarius.

But the violinist was not so lucky the second time. His beloved Gibson Strad was still missing when Huberman died in 1947.

Stradivari crafted 1,116 string instruments during his lifetime, 1646 to 1737. Of those, 540 violins, 50 cellos and 12 violas survive today.

Experts offer many theories about why those instruments produce such magical tones - the wood, the varnish, the water of Cremona. Many have tried to reproduce the sound of a Strad. No one has succeeded.

Their rarity has pushed Stradivarius violins into the realm of fetish theft objects, like the stolen Rembrandt painting that can never be openly sold.

Yet thefts of Strads occur with surprising frequency. The Art Loss Register lists 18 missing Stradivarius violins, including two stolen in New York.

Le Marien, a 1714 Strad, was discovered missing April 9, 2002, from Christophe Landon Rare Violins, near Lincoln Center. Its owner, Dallas businessman Barrett Wissman, bought the fiddle for $1.1 million in 1998. He collected $1.9 million from insurance and sued Landon.

In November 1994, someone swiped the Davidoff Strad, built in 1727 and valued at $4 million, from the Fifth Ave. apartment of Erica Morini in the last days of the violin virtuoso's life. Her relatives concealed the theft from her.

She died at age 91 cradling a copy of her precious Stradivarius, which had been a gift from her father when she was just 21.

Blamed mother

At the Connecticut hospital in 1985, Julian Altman told his wife the story of how he had acquired the Gibson Strad.
He blamed his long-dead mother.

As a mother will, Mrs. Altman apparently ascribed more talent to her son than he possessed. She believed that such a talented violinist deserved a great violin. The mother couldn't afford to buy her son a Strad, so she concocted a plan to steal one.

In the winter of 1936, Altman had a regular gig playing Gypsy music at the Russian Bear, a restaurant near Carnegie Hall. When his mother read that Huberman, famous for traveling with his two rare violins, would appear at Carnegie on Feb. 28, she urged her son to have a look in his dressing room while the violinist was on stage and relieve him of whichever fiddle he wasn't playing.

Altman did just that.

Wearing a coat over his stage costume of a billowing white blouse and black Cossack britches, Altman went to the Carnegie stage door during a break from his gig. He plied the guard with a cigar and explained he was a violinist working nearby who idolized Huberman. He begged to be allowed to listen backstage for a few minutes.

The guard let him pass.

Altman found Huberman's dressing room open and unattended. He grabbed the Strad from the double case, tucked it inside his coat and strolled out past the guard. He apparently did not explain to Hall why the guard had not stepped forward, once the theft became public, to report the suspicious stage-door visitor in a Gypsy getup.

Altman used shoe polish to disguise the Gibson Strad, which he played at every two-bit fiddle gig he had over the next 48years.

Finder's fee

After Altman died on Aug. 12, 1985, Hall had the violin authenticated and approached the authorities with her story. The instrument was owned by Lloyd's of London, which had compensated Huberman $30,000 for his loss. Fifty years later, the violin was valued at $1.1 million.

Hall turned the Strad over to Lloyd's in 1988. Remarkably, the insurer paid her a $263,000 finder's fee. At last word, Hall, 79, had spent every cent and was living in a trailer park in New Hampshire.

And what of the Gibson Strad?

J&A Beare Ltd., a string-instrument dealer and restorer, spent nine months removing the shoe polish and 50 years of accumulated grime without damaging the Strad's precious varnish. Lloyd's then sold the fiddle for $1.2 million to Norbert Brainin, an acclaimed English violinist.

In the summer of 2001, American virtuoso Joshua Bell learned that Brainin was about to sell the violin to a wealthy German as a museum piece.

Bell said, "It made me nauseous, the thought of that. ...I said, 'You cannot take this violin.'" He paid Brainin nearly $4 million for the 1713 Gibson Strad, raising part of the money by selling for $2 million his own 1732 Tom Taylor Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for the film "The Red Violin."

In October, Sony released "Romance of the Violin," Bell's first recording with the long-missing Gibson Strad.