Case of Stolen Stradivarius Hums With Discord
Julian Altman wore a bulky overcoat the night of Feb. 28, 1936. He slipped it on over his white satin gypsy blouse and baggy black Cossack pants. He may have even put some gloves on his delicate musician’s hands. Then he put some fine cigars in his pocket.
He told a lie, went out into the cold, clear night and, accompanied by the strains of great music as in an old movie, committed the perfect crime.
Altman slipped into the Carnegie Hall dressing room of the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman and stole his Stradivarius as the violinist was performing on stage with his other prized instrument.
It is a crime that sounds today, to quote a Connecticut judge, “more dramatic than the most contrived TV mystery show.”
And it is a crime that lives on in a ‘90s kind of way--in litigation before the Connecticut Supreme Court, where Altman’s daughter and widow are fighting for the $263,000 “finder’s fee” awarded when the violin was finally returned to its insurer.
Altman told no one of the theft but played the violin for years--in the swanky martini clubs of New York and later in less elegant, smoke-filled nightspots until his imprisonment for molesting a child and his death in 1985.
To hear Altman’s widow tell it, her husband was born into music and thievery--coached by his mother to commit the crime and blessed with enough talent to use the ill-gotten violin to gain many things, including the affections of his future wife and many other women.
“Julian Altman was a fine violinist, so his mother made up her mind early on he needed for his beautiful hands a beautiful violin. So she moved heaven and earth to put the family in a position where she could effect getting a violin,” said Marcelle Hall, who is now 78 and lives in Claremont, N.H.
Eugenie Altman moved her handsome violinist son and her gifted pianist daughter near Carnegie Hall. From The Oregon apartments, Mrs. Altman plotted to have her son steal a fine violin when the right time came.
At the time, the 20-year-old Julian Altman had landed the job of strolling violinist at the Russian Bear, a classy club next to Carnegie Hall. He performed nightly in a gypsy costume of a white or green satin blouse with a high neck, baggy black Cossack pants and high black boots.
Altman made friends with the musicians at Carnegie Hall, where he became well known to doormen and guards and earned points as a nice guy for bringing his mother and daughter to concerts. For a cigar or other trifle, guards would let him stand in the wings and listen to concerts while he was on a break.
He was, friends said, a bit of a ladies’ man and a charmer.
On the day of the violin theft, Altman procured some fine cigars and put the plan into action.
Huberman was set to open his season at Carnegie Hall. It was known that he had two fine violins--the 1713 Stradivarius known as the Gibson after its original owner, George Alfred Gibson, and a Guarnerius he planned to use that night.
Huberman was chosen because he had two fine violins and was “someone who did not live in the United States, who would be anxious to get back to his country--to take the money and run,” Hall said.
Altman’s mother even coached her son on how to tuck the violin under his bulky overcoat.
“When the time came, he was really orchestrated,” Hall said.
As Huberman took the stage that night, Altman told the Russian Bear’s manager he needed to go home and get some stomach medicine. Instead, Altman slipped half a block down the street to the back door of Carnegie Hall. He gave the doorman a fine cigar and offered to keep an eye on things while the guard went outside and smoked it.
With the sounds of the Bach Concerto in E Major reverberating through Carnegie Hall, Altman rushed upstairs to Huberman’s dressing room, grabbed the violin, tucked it in his coat under his arm, and resumed his post at the foot of the stairs.
After the guard returned, Altman lingered awhile, Hall said, then deposited the violin at home, grabbed the stomach medicine and returned to the Russian Bear in time to play “Hungarian Rhapsody” to a blond beauty at the club.
Huberman’s secretary noticed the violin was missing during the second half of the performance. The next day in the New York Times, Huberman recounted telling police he did not think a musician committed the crime; violin bows worth $1,500 each had been left untouched.
Altman was never questioned by police, and Huberman received a $30,000 insurance settlement from Lloyd’s of London.
Though many people later recognized the high quality of Altman’s violin and wondered where he got it, Altman did not confess until he was on his deathbed in 1985 at a Torrington hospital, where Hall said he recounted the story to her.
“It was a secret until the end, and he was very cool about it--if you were going to steal it, you’d have to be smart about it,” said Frederic Von Stange, a friend of Altman who lives in Huntington, N.Y.
Hall negotiated a finder’s fee with Lloyd’s. In 1987, she returned the violin to the insurer and received a $263,000 reward. Lloyd’s sold it to British violinist Norbert Brainin for $1.2 million.
Hall, who lives in a mobile home park, said the reward is long spent --in gifts to charities, taxes and other uses.
But that has not stopped Altman’s lone surviving descendant, Sherry Altman Schoenwetter of Buffalo, N.Y., from pursuing a share of the finder’s fee from her stepmother.
After two findings in Schoenwetter’s favor--in one case, a retired state Supreme Court justice who heard the case in 1995 as a special referee declared Hall’s pocketing of the finder’s fee a “diabolical deed” amounting to theft--the case is now awaiting the judgment of the Connecticut Supreme Court. The high court is expected to rule soon.
Schoenwetter’s lawyer, Christopher Donohue, said Hall had an obligation to include the finder’s fee in Altman’s estate. “It wasn’t his violin--there’s no disputing that--but in resolving whose it was, Marcelle Hall’s claim was not better than his,” Donohue said.
Hall and her lawyer, Jonathan Flatow, deny that the estate had any right to the finder’s fee. And Hall said she is being penalized for trying to do the right thing--return a stolen violin.