‘Only 1 in stock!’ The mystery of a stolen stradivarius takes a twist

Stradivarius violin. (Bloomberg)
Stradivarius violin. (Bloomberg)


  • The ‘Lamoureux-Zimbalist’ violin, worth millions, went missing in 1962, leading the FBI on a chase that went from New Jersey to Japan to a dark-web user in Norway

When violinist David Sarser got a last-minute call on Aug. 16, 1962, to perform at NBC Studios, he went to his Midtown Manhattan music studio to grab his prized Stradivarius violin. It was gone.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation pursued the violin, crafted in 1735 and worth millions today, for decades. Agents traced it to Japan, but the case eventually ran cold.

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Mr. Sarser and an FBI agent who looked for the instrument for years both died.

Then, a few years ago, an advertisement to sell the Strad for $500,000 appeared on the dark web, an encrypted corner of the internet best known for illegal drugs and fake identification documents.

“It was totally bizarre and strange," said FBI Special Agent Christopher McKeogh, a member of the bureau’s art-crime team, who had reopened the case in 2017.

Agent McKeogh traveled to Norway to meet the man who posted the ad and claimed his father was the thief, but the encounter didn’t solve the crime—the violin wasn’t recovered—and only deepened its mystery.

The instrument, nicknamed the “Lamoureux-Zimbalist" after two of its former owners, is one of at least eight stolen Stradivarius violins that are still missing. Made by Antonio Stradivari, an Italian master luthier, the violins are regarded as among the world’s best and most valuable because of their beautiful tone and craftsmanship. He made more than 1,100 string instruments, about 650 of which survive today.

Stradivari made the “Lamoureux-Zimbalist" when he was thought to be 91 years old, just two years before his death in 1737. It was acquired by French conductor Charles Lamoureux in 1870 and later owned by violinist Efrem Zimbalist.

After the 1962 theft, Mr. Sarser, a onetime member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, stopped playing violin altogether, instead working in audio engineering. But he continued to search for his beloved Strad for decades, calling his music-world contacts for news, documenting his search and becoming close friends with the FBI agent assigned to the case. He died at age 92 in 2013.

“It was a part of him," said his son, Pip Sarser, of the instrument.

David Sarser fell in love with the Strad’s sound as a teenager in 1937 when he heard Mr. Zimbalist play the Bach Double Concerto. About a decade later, Mr. Sarser, then 27 years old, bought the fiddle from Mr. Zimbalist, who wanted to sell it to a young artist at an affordable price.

After the theft the insurance company Chubb paid Mr. Sarser $32,500, the amount for which he had insured the violin. The insurer would own the instrument if it were found.

The FBI has never determined who stole the violin, but its original investigation found a New Jersey fine-arts dealer named Harold Schuster eventually possessed it.

In the 1970s, Mr. Schuster repeatedly contacted Chubb to ask about purchasing ownership documents and whether—“hypothetically," Agent McKeogh said—there was a reward.

Chubb declined to comment. There is no evidence Mr. Schuster obtained the documents or a payout from Chubb. He died in 2017. Mr. Schuster’s children didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In 1979, Mr. Schuster brought a violin to Cleveland to show it to a potential buyer, Agent McKeogh said. People present said it was the “Lamoureux-Zimbalist."

In 1981, Mr. Schuster filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court against Mr. Sarser and a former Chubb employee, contending, without citing evidence, that Mr. Sarser had sold the violin and then pretended it was stolen. Mr. Schuster is “desirous of attempting to locate a violin which may be the violin in question," the suit said.

The suit said the Chubb employee had written a letter to several people, including a prosecutor in New Jersey, saying Mr. Schuster had the violin and wouldn’t return it.

“Until the violin is returned, it continues to be stolen property and the possession thereof is a criminal offense," the Chubb employee had written, according to the lawsuit.

The suit was dismissed.

In 1981, a London broker picked up the violin from Mr. Schuster’s wife in Morristown, N.J., flew it to London, and stored it in a bank vault, according to Agent McKeogh. In early 1982, a Tokyo dealer bought the fiddle for $200,000.

Japanese authorities confirmed to the FBI in the 1980s that it was sold to the Tokyo dealer. The Japanese authorities said the owner didn’t return it after he was told its history.

In Japan, a person who buys a stolen item in good faith—meaning they didn’t know it was stolen—legally owns it after three years. The legal status becomes unclear if the item leaves the country.

The FBI put the case aside. No clues surfaced about whether the instrument left Japan, and it went cold.

In 2015, Agent McKeogh helped recover the 1734 “Ames" Stradivarius, which is thought to have been stolen by its owner’s former student in 1980. The student’s wife found it after his death.

Determined to find other missing Strads, Agent McKeogh reopened Mr. Sarser’s case.

He encountered few leads until 2018, when he saw a post on the online forum, Reddit, saying that the “Lamoureux-Zimbalist" was advertised on the dark web.

“It was a head scratcher," said Agent McKeogh. He had never seen a violin, much less a valuable one, on the dark web.

The FBI determined the listing had been on Hansa, a dark-web marketplace shut down by Dutch law enforcement in 2017. The seller, using the name Stradman, said his father, who had been involved with the NBC Symphony, had taken and then cared for the violin.

“I know this violin from my youth, as my father would from time to time play it in his study," the listing said.

“Before he died, almost as a deathbed confession, he told me that he had taken this violin many years ago," Stradman wrote, asking for 642.0051 bitcoin or $500,000. “Only 1 in stock!" the listing added.

Agents tracked the posting down to a man in Norway. Coincidentally, Agent McKeogh said, Stradman had been arrested by Norwegian law-enforcement in 2017 for selling drugs on the dark web.

In the summer of 2018, Agent McKeogh interviewed Stradman in Norway. He left confident that Stradman didn’t have the violin at that time. “We aren’t certain whether he had it at any time in the past," he said. He declined to give Stradman’s name.

Agent McKeogh is keeping up the search. He said his next step is to add the violin to the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, a public database. The bureau had previously kept its investigation secret in the hope of catching someone unawares who tried to sell or travel with the fiddle.

The best outcome investigators are hoping for is to recover the instrument. Bringing criminal charges wouldn’t be possible because of expired statutes of limitations.

“It doesn’t matter how long ago the theft occurred," Agent McKeogh said. “We are trying to right a wrong."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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