The FBI is in hot pursuit this Christmas season of a thief who may have music on his mind: A rare 18th century violin has gone missing from a Los Feliz residence.
The stolen violin is a 1710 Amati, a glossy, curvaceous object made from curly maple and alpine spruce that was crafted by one of the most important violin makers in musical instrument history, Hieronymus Amati II. It’s in excellent condition and, according to auction records, sold for just over half a million dollars in 2013 — it would likely be worth more than $700,000 today.
The 310-year-old violin belongs to Rowland Weinstein, who is not a musician but an art dealer who splits his time between Los Angeles and San Francisco. His Weinstein Gallery, specializing in surrealism and abstraction from 1920 through World War II, is based in San Francisco. The violin, which he allowed musician friends and professional violinists to play, was in his white Tesla, parked outside his Los Feliz home, when someone stole the vehicle from his property Dec. 8.
Weinstein said his car key — which automatically locks the Tesla once the driver, key in hand, exits the vehicle — had slipped out of his pocket and landed behind the driver’s seat. So the car was unlocked.
Ironically, the reason the violin was in the car in the first place was that Weinstein had moved it from a previous location he felt was not safe enough. He’d intended to leave the instrument in the car only momentarily; when he returned from inside the house, he found the car gone and called the police and then the FBI.
A spokesperson for the FBI, Laura Eimiller, said no suspects have been identified and no one has been charged yet. Neither car nor violin has turned up and it’s not certain, she said, that the instrument was the thief’s target.
“According to LAPD, a car thief is believed to have been in the area,” Eimiller said. “It’s possible that the person who stole it may not have known the value and discovered it [later] and may try to pawn it or sell it overseas. So it’s critical to get the information to the public so that hopefully somebody who received it, or is offered it, can identify it and return it to its rightful owner.”
Weinstein — who is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the violin’s safe return — said he is “heartbroken.”
“I’m responsible for a piece of history and that piece of history got away from me,” Weinstein said. “It’s so fragile. My biggest fear is that someone who doesn’t know what they have will put it in the wrong environment and it will get damaged or destroyed.”
Weinstein bought the violin in October 2013 at Tarisio, an online auction house specializing in stringed instruments and bows. According to Tarisio’s records, Weinstein paid $507,436 at a London sale. He said he had it insured. Such rare instruments appreciate annually, according to Tarisio director Jason Price, adding that the 1710 Amati would likely sell for $700,000-$900,000 today.
In 2018, another Amati violin, circa 1700, sold at the London-based auction house Ingles & Hayday for $917,453.
Weinstein's instrument was so valuable because it was made during a seminal “golden period” in the history of violin making — 1700-1720 — and because the Amati family is credited with birthing the modern violin. The family crafted string instruments in the Italian town of Cremona starting in the mid 16th century. Two generations later, Nicolò Amati ramped up the family workshop and its profile in the 17th century.
Nicolò’s son, Hieronymus Amati II, made Weinstein’s violin.
“Hieronymus the second is a very special violin maker because he’s the last of the Amati lineage,” Price said. “They essentially created the modern violin as we know it — its proportions, its measurements, its tuning and its number of strings.”
Gary Green, a longtime violinist and founding conductor of the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic, said the instrument’s value cannot be overstated — historically, musically and personally.
“When you play a string instrument — I’ve had mine 60 years — it’s a very personal thing,” Green said. “You hold a violin very close, under your chin, you create the sound together. ... And an Amati — whoa, what a loss.”
Though Weinstein himself did not play the instrument, “I’m the caretaker of it,” he said. “I feel extremely close to it because it’s a part of history that has touched so many lives. Not just the lives of people who have been lucky enough to play it, but those who have heard it over 300 years.”
This is not Weinstein’s first run-in with a thief. In 2011 a 1965 Pablo Picasso pencil drawing, “Tête de Femme,” was stolen from his gallery, then located near Union Square (it's now in the South of Market area). Authorities recovered the sketch in about 24 hours and Mark Lugo of Hoboken, N.J. — a.k.a. the “Thomas Crown of art thieves,” who had casually walked out of the gallery, in broad daylight, with the art work tucked under a newspaper before hailing a taxi — was sentenced to 16 months in prison. The work still hangs in Weinstein’s gallery; he doesn’t plan to sell it.
“It became part of the lore of my career, it’s part of my story,” he said.
Weinstein said he’s baffled by the coincidence of being targeted, twice, by thieves.
“It’s beyond anything I’d ever anticipated,” he said. “I just hope the violin has the same happy ending as the Picasso.”
Price was optimistic about the violin’s return. The auction house maintains a free database, accessible to the public, of about 60,000 fine musical instruments that includes a registry of stolen ones — both cold cases and instruments that have been recovered. It’s considered one of the largest such compilations in the industry, and Price has noticed patterns.
“They go off the map for years sometimes, but then they often resurface,” Price said of stolen pieces. “It’s really difficult to sell an instrument like this because it’s so known and would attract so much attention wherever it popped up for sale. They don’t stay stolen long.”
Berkeley Law lecturer Carla Shapreau, a violin maker who specializes in, among other things, stolen cultural objects, suspects Weinstein’s violin may still be close to home.
“This doesn’t appear to be a planned theft, it seems to be a crime of opportunity based on the facts, so it’s potentially still in Los Angeles, possibly in someone’s home,” Shapreau said. “When a theft is planned, there’s often a customer for it. When someone sees a car unlocked, they’re more likely to try and pass [an item found inside] locally. But it would be difficult to transfer this in the stream of commerce, especially if it’s well publicized.”
“It’s hard to sell these things if they’re well documented,” she said. “But if you don’t have a way to track them, memories fade.”
The FBI case agent in charge of the Amati violin, Elizabeth Rivas, was not allowed to comment on an in-progress investigation, Eimiller said. Rivas is a member of the FBI’s national art crime team, based in the Los Angeles field office.
The FBI is continuing to investigate the case, Eimiller said, and asks that anyone with information call (310) 477-6565.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.