Mary Schmich: Stealing a violin is more than a property crime

By MARY SCHMICHFebruary 23, 2014 

And the little violin made it home safe and sound.

If you followed the drama of the Stradivarius snatched recently from Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, you know that police found it this month in a suitcase in the attic of a Milwaukee home. Three people have been arrested.

In the days following the violin's abduction, a lot was said about its monetary value ($5 million) and its historical value (built in 1715 by the famous Italian artisan Antonio Stradivari).

Less was been said about its true value, which is as a living thing.

That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

Not if you've ever loved a musical instrument.

Shortly after the Strad was stolen, Almond told a reporter that his connection to it was like "a primary human relationship, with all its twists and turns."

You don't have to play an instrument as grand as a Stradivarius to get that, to comprehend an instrument as a partner in a relationship. You touch it, hold it, talk to it, curse when it won't do what you want and adore it when it does.

Losing that relationship can feel like a death or a divorce.

My mandolin was once stolen -- more on that later -- and I felt like someone had kidnapped my dog or sliced off my fingers. When it went missing, so did some part of me.

Many musicians have a stolen-instrument story. Steve Doyle, a teacher at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, tells this one:

On a snowy night in 1995, his two guitars were ripped off from his locked van in a Chicago alley. One was a 1935 National guitar, the other a Gibson that he'd bought at the age of 16 with all of his savings.

After the guitars vanished, he decided not to be so attached to instruments.

"I started thinking they're just objects," he said. "It's just a hunk of metal and wood, screw it."

Then one day almost 10 years later, he walked into a Chicago music store and felt his heart jump.

"Holy !@#!" he thought. "That's my guitar."

There was the old National, with its case. Doyle bought it back, with help from his band. Since then, he's felt a rekindling of the old romance for the hunks of metal and wood.

"It's like I got this old friend back," he said. "I miss the other one to this day."

Ronnie Malley, another Chicago musician, tells the story of his stolen oud (think of it as a Middle Eastern lute). Malley was in a restaurant just outside Paris with his instrument, when another musician, with the same passion, walked in.

"Instead of shaking my hand," Malley recalled, "he came and started caressing the oud. I knew what he was there for." Before Malley could stop him, the guy walked off with the instrument.

"It's like somebody has taken your child," Malley said. "You've cultivated a relationship with this thing. It's not only an object. It becomes an extension of you."

In his case, the thief's identity wasn't a mystery, but the fate of the instrument was, until a year and a half later, when one of Malley's former students came to visit. The student said he'd bought the oud -- from the thief, as it turned out.

"My first feeling was relief that it was safe," Malley said, speaking the way you might of a loved one, "that it was with somebody I trust." The student gave the oud to Malley as a gift.

After my 1923 Gibson A2 mandolin was stolen many years ago -- by a neighbor out for some quick cash to support his prescription-drug addiction -- the cops finally found it at a music shop in Chicago. An officer called to say I could have it back if I came to the station and played it. I explained that I'd bought it because it was beautiful, but hadn't really learned to play it yet.

They police gave it to me anyway, and years later, I did learn to play it. How could I not? My beloved had come back to me.

On any given day, there are countless stolen instruments, from the humble to the grand, floating around the world, waiting to make it home.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email, mschmich@tribune.com, twitter.com/maryschmich, facebook.com/maryschmich.

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