Memoir — From the May 2015 issue

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

From the pawnshops of Portland to the con men of Craigslist

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The fiddle came from a recluse. In 1988, Brian Skarstad, a violin maker in Pleasantville, New York, received a tip from a friend in New Orleans. A woman in the French Quarter had died in her apartment, and when police arrived, they found furs, jewelry, and somewhere around two hundred fiddles. Skarstad was a well-respected restorer of violins; he had sold instruments to musicians who had played with the New York Philharmonic. He flew to New Orleans even though his friend there was, in his words, “kind of a madman.” Skarstad recalls seeing violins stacked in moving boxes when he arrived at the woman’s apartment. The executor of the estate had invited Sotheby’s down. Skarstad offered $12,000 on the spot for all the instruments, sight unseen. The executor told Sotheby’s to stay in New York.

Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU

Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU

Most of the instruments in the “mother lode,” as Skarstad now calls it, were mediocre fiddles in rough shape. The identifying labels, which luthiers stick to the inside of their instruments, had been ripped out. Skarstad assumed that the reclusive collector had asked family members in Europe to buy the violins and remove the labels, so that U.S. customs officers wouldn’t know their value. But there were some finds among the piles of beaten German factory fiddles: Skarstad discovered a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume that he sold for about $50,000, as well as a few good Czech violins from the mid to late nineteenth century.

When I was in high school, and playing a lot of classical music, my parents bought me one of the Czech fiddles. It was reddish brown, with a two-piece maple back and a fine-grained spruce top. The back and sides bore a deep flame pattern. The sound was rich and thick on the low end, smooth and forgiving up high. Skarstad estimated the instrument to date from the 1860s or ’70s. It felt heavier to me than other violins, its weight comfortable and familiar.

I visited Skarstad’s shop often. Sometimes I asked for adjustments — once I requested a lower nut and bridge, so I could play chords more easily, and another time I asked for fine-tuners, which fiddlers use and classical violinists don’t. Mostly, though, I brought the instrument in with cracks needing repair, the results of travel and my inability to keep the fiddle at a constant humidity. I’d smile and make up an excuse. Skarstad would smile back fondly. We both knew it was too fine for me.

Victims of violin theft often resort to predictable laments: “It’s like having my arm amputated, it was so much a part of me.” (Seattle Symphony violinist Maybeth Pressley, after her instrument was stolen in 1972.) “Losing it was like losing my voice, my soul.” (Violinist Tom Chiu, in 2007, after falling asleep on a subway and waking up fiddleless.) “The violin is an extension of ourselves, and to take it away is like losing a kidney.” (Jennifer Koh, on hearing about the theft of a $6 million Stradivarius in Milwaukee last year.) Like clichés, these surgical analogies are based in truth. To lose an instrument is to lose an essential piece of one’s identity. It brings its own solitary form of grief.

Last May I traveled to Portland, Oregon, to play a show with a singer I admire at a Mexican restaurant that had no sound system. We had to wait for the Trail Blazers game to end before playing. They lost. It was pretty forgettable, as far as send-offs for vital appendages go.

Two nights after our gig I went to dinner with some friends. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left the violin unattended in public. As a friend parked his car I grabbed the fiddle, then reconsidered. It’s always awkward to bring an instrument into a restaurant with no intention of playing, and now it seemed unnecessary. Tattooed young men and women drifted around the streets, and the sun was shining over the city. It had been a wild spring. Shaken loose by the sudden death of a close friend, I had recently decided to quit my job and move to Wyoming to write full-time. The world felt newly open. I put the violin in the back of my friend’s Ford, along with my laptop and a few bags, pulled a cover over all the stuff, went to eat, and forgot about it. When we returned to the car, the light was on and the cover pulled back. Someone had smashed in the right rear window. Everything was gone. I felt ungrounded and nauseated. I walked away a few times, wanting to leave the scene behind, only to be retrieved by my friends, who told me the police were coming. When a night-shift officer named John Myers arrived, our conversation was brief:

Was anything of value taken?

Yes. A violin.

What kind?

A Czech violin.

What kind of case?

Black canvas, with the Leonard Gardner novel Fat City in the outer pocket.

How much was it worth?

Seven thousand dollars.

How old was it?

One hundred and fifty years, give or take.

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is a contributing editor of Outside magazine. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

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