Lost Masterpieces

Who Stole Erica Morini’s $3.5 Million Stradivarius Violin?

In 1995, as 91-year-old Erica Morini lay in hospital, her beloved violin was discovered missing. The thief’s identity has never been established, and the instrument never found.

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An image search for Erica Morini returns a veritable life album of the violinist posing with her beloved Stradivarius violin. As she ages through the years, her instrument—and the look of contentment and tenderness on her face as she glances down at it—stays the same.

It was a portrait like this that hung in the New York City apartment where Morini lived out her last years.

She may have retired twenty years earlier, but she kept the Stradivarius violin that had been her closest companion for most of her life nearby—locked up in the china closet. Her friends pleaded with her over the years to find a more secure location for the violin worth $3.5 million. But Morini didn’t listen.

The exact date their warnings proved prophetic is unknown. What is known is that on October 18, 1995, a friend dropped by to check on the apartment while 91-year-old Morini was in the hospital. The door to the apartment was locked and everything seemed to be in its place. So, the friend, Erica Bradford, along with her daughter Valerie, went to check on the violin as was her habit. She retrieved the key from a box where it was hidden in the bedroom, opened the china closet door, and found a different case sitting in the place the Strad’s had occupied for so many years. She opened the imposter and discovered that it was empty. The violin was gone.

Since that day in October, the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius has received top billing as one of the FBI’s top ten unsolved art crimes, sharing space with a Caravaggio, two Van Goghs, and one of the biggest art heists of all time at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

But despite the high profile of the theft, the instrument seems to have vanished without a trace. The only lingering crumb of justice is that Morini never found out about the crime committed against her; she died on November 1, only two weeks after the theft was discovered.

For nearly 100 years in the 17th and 18th centuries, Antonio Stradivari crafted what are now considered some of the premier stringed instruments in existence.

He plied the luthier trade in Cremona, Italy, what was then the violin capital of the world, and produced 650 instruments that would become treasured for both their sound quality and their beauty. They were works of art in and of themselves.

But the problem with functional pieces of art like Stradivarius instruments is that it is a sin to keep them locked away behind glass. Of course, several of these have found homes in the permanent collections of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But they also deserve to be played—and it would be a shame for their music to be silenced forever in pursuit of protection.

But that also means that, over the years, the Strads-in-the-wild have grown targets on their backs. As their reputation for exceptionalism solidified over the past three centuries, many of these instruments have caught the eye of ne’er do well music lovers.

There was the Huberman Strad, stolen from a Carnegie Hall dressing room and missing for 51 years before it was recovered through a death-bed confession.

There was the Duke of Alcantara Stradivarius, which went on a joyride for 27 years before it turned up once again. The case of the Lipinski Stradivarius, a crime of the taser-steal-run variety, was solved in only a week, while the Ames Stradivarius went missing for 35 years before it was discovered by the thief’s ex-wife. The guilty party? A fellow violinist.

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And therein lies the problem with setting your sights on one of the finest instruments in the world. As with most famous works of art, it is very hard to offload a stolen Strad.

The instruments are so high-profile, so well-known, that it is impossible to sell them at a legitimate auction. The best case scenario for a potential thief is that he or she is undertaking a contract crime on behalf of a buyer or that it is a crime of passion as in the case of the Ames Stradivarius. Otherwise, the million dollar “acquisition” is nearly worthless—there is no place to sell it without risking discovery.

Erica Morini’s association with the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius goes back to the early twentieth century. Born in Vienna the daughter of musicians, Morini was discovered to be a child prodigy when she was barely out of the womb.

The story goes that she would listen as her father gave music lessons; if his students botched a note, little Erica would play the correct key on the piano or sing it out loud. At the age of 5, she played for Emperor Franz Joseph. By 12, she had gone professional. On her sixteenth birthday, Morini arrived in the U.S. to launch a 60-stop solo tour of North and South America.

The New York Times archives contains page after page of reviews of her performances throughout the mid-twentieth century. At the onset of World War II, Morini relocated permanently to New York, although she would make frequent trips back to Europe after the war ended.

The former music critic for The New York Times, Harold C. Schoenberg, once described Morini as “probably the greatest woman violinist who ever lived.” But that praise was not received well by the musician. Her obituary in The New York Times reports that she responded that, “a violinist is a violinist and I am to be judged as one—not as a female musician.”

Throughout the majority of her storied career, Morini showed off her talent on the Davidoff Stradivarius that her father had purchased for her in Paris in 1924 for $10,000. The violin was crafted in 1727, and it was originally named after a Russian cellist who had owned it in the 19th century, although it would later become known as the Davidoff-Morini Strad.

“This one, tonally, was the best violin I ever heard, of all the violins I’ve ever heard. By far. It’s not close,” Brian Skarstad, a rare instrument dealer who had appraised the violin told The New York Times after the Strad was reported missing.

While her career made more headlines in her younger years than her older, Morini continued playing in the finest venues, with some of the finest conductors and orchestras until 1976, when she gave her farewell performance and officially retired. It is believed that she hardly ever touched her violin towards the end of her life.

Still, it remained a beloved possession. The Washington Post reported that many violinists made pilgrimages to see the instrument.

One, Richard Errante, reported “It hadn’t been played in years. But the moment I touched the strings, it was so responsive. I mean, you know you’re dealing with wood and strings. But it sounded like something alive.”

That all ended in October 1995 when someone—most likely someone in her close circle of acquaintances and aides—absconded with the Strad.

After Bradford and her daughter discovered that the instrument had gone missing, they did the only thing they could think of doing in an emergency—one called 911 while the other rushed madly down to the doorman to report the crime. In retrospect, they acknowledged how suspicious this scene may have seemed. What better way to cover up a crime, after all, then to be the ones who reported the crime in the first place.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bradford duo were the culprits. In her detailed investigation of the crime in The Washington Post, Amy Dickinson reported that a bevy of hangers-on began to collect around Morini as it became clear that she was nearing the end of her life.

The violinist had allegedly been notoriously thrifty—not to mention a diva and not all that pleasant to deal with—during her life. When she finally passed away, she was going to leave behind a tidy fortune, not to mention the valuable violin. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie.

And so, the list of suspects assembled by the FBI became a veritable “who’s who” of the important people in Morini’s life at the end. On the top of the list is Bradford and her daughter. Suspicion may have been thrown on them when they discovered the crime, but it also didn’t help that Valerie scored two negative readings on an FBI polygraph when asked “Do you know who took the violin?”

Then, of course, there is Morini’s brother who helped take manage her affairs and Skarstad, the rare instrument dealer and appraiser of Morini’s Strad who was quoted in The New York Times. There was her accountant and her neighbor. And then there was the parade of aides who cycled through her life for shorter periods of time at the end (due to the diva’s temper).

All of these attendants knew about the treasure that was not-so-securely locked up in her possession. And they knew how to get to it without raising suspicion. Despite knowing that the culprit had to have been someone close to the violinist, no arrests have been made in the two decades since it was taken. The culprit remains a mystery, albeit one who is sitting on a seriously valuable treasure.

Morini, who remained in the dark about her missing treasure until the end, left the bulk of her estate to charity, while her violin, which thanks to her thriftiness was egregiously underinsured, was consigned to the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.

But all hope is not lost. As the many stories of the stolen Strads show, it’s a long game when it comes to reclaiming these centuries-old instruments. As Dickerson wrote, “This is a violin more valuable, more famous, more beautiful than any one person who could play it. And it is every bit as gone as the violinist, with a marginally higher chance of coming back.”