Safe From Thieves: Joshua Bell’s Storied 1713 Stradivarius

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947)

Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). Public domain image.

Young, world-renowned, child prodigy, world-class violinist. All these titles describe Joshua Bell, the celebrated soloist who will perform with the San Antonio Symphony at the June 14, 2014 season-ending concert at the Majestic Theatre. This, the Symphony’s last official performance in the Majestic, also will usher in the 75th season of the Symphony.

There’s a great story surrounding Joshua Bell and his very famous and expensive violin on which he will perform the hauntingly beautiful Sibelius Violin Concerto. Joshua Bell plays a $4 million 1713 Stradivarius. So what? That could be the end of the story except for a few interesting diversions from 1713 to today. Before Bell owned this prized violin, it was owned by an early 20th century prodigy, who was as famous then as Bell is today, Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947).

SHORT HISTORY

Huberman’s career was that of an international violin superstar. His path to stardom began at the precocious age of 10 in Poland. Just four years later he played for an audience that included Brahms, Mahler and J. Strauss performing the extremely difficult Brahms violin concerto. The 19th century violin superstar, Joseph Joachim, described the concerto as one which was “against the violin, not for the violin.”

Brahms was impressed and showered praise on the youngster.

Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947)

Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). Public domain image.

Bell, like Huberman before him, also was a child prodigy. His early career almost exactly mirrors that of Huberman. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana – home to Bell’s alma mater Indiana University and its highly regarded Jacobs School of Music – young Bell received his first violin after his parents noticed him plucking tunes with rubber bands he had stretched around his dresser drawer’s handles.

By 12 he was serious about the instrument, thanks in large part to the inspiration of Josef Gingold, his beloved teacher and mentor.

Two years later, Bell came to national attention in his debut with conductor Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Carnegie Hall debut, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a notable recording contract further confirmed his presence.

Thus we easily can compare two prodigies with two similar early careers. But Huberman’s career path diverged significantly in the years that followed since the Nazi era was dawning. It was going to be dangerous to be Polish, a Jew or a musician who might be one or the other – or both.

Theft #1 of the Stradivarius

Huberman performed with the violin Bell was to own decades later. And that’s how this story gets really juicy. Public records on the provenance of every Stradivarius instrument are readily available online. And the violin which Bell owns and will play in his San Antonio performance was stolen while Huberman was performing in Vienna in 1916.

The 1713 violin was returned shortly thereafter with the assistance of sympathetic, music-loving mobsters. Ironically, the Treaty of Versailles which settled WWI led to the tragic events culminating in Hitler’s Third Reich. And it was Hitler’s hate for Jewish performers like Huberman which led to the firing of top Jewish musical talent in Germany.

Theft #2 of the Stradivarius

Realizing his fame could affect lives of fellow Jews trapped in Europe, Huberman began the task of organizing their departures to Palestine.

These top musicians would populate the Palestinian Philharmonic, later renamed the Israel Philharmonic. The huge undertaking of populating a new first class orchestra would need lots of funding. Knowing this, Huberman went to New York to play a special 1936 fundraising concert at Carnegie Hall. Traveling now with two valuable violins in a double case, Huberman’s companions were the 1713 Stradivarius and his 1731 Guarneri del Gesù.

While Huberman performing on stage with the del Gesù, a thief lifted the Strad from his dressing room. It didn’t reappear for 50 years, long after Huberman had died.

“MY MOTHER MADE ME DO IT”

The thief was a somewhat talented violinist, Julian Altman, who reportedly was encouraged to steal the Strad by his mother. She apparently believed he needed a violin to match his “talent.”

Known to backstage door keepers, he went in and out largely unnoticed wearing specially designed oversized clothes to disguise the operation. Not until 1985 while dying in a Connecticut prison cell did Altman feel the need to disclose to his estranged wife that the news clippings in his violin case would reveal to her the full secret story of the black shoe polished Strad.

A call to Lloyd’s of London attested to the instrument’s authenticity. Lloyd’s paid a $263,000 finder’s fee to Altman’s widow and then hired J&A Beare Ltd., a string-instrument dealer and restorer to rescue the musical gem. It took nine months to remove the dark shoe polish and 50 years of grime.

Thankfully, the secretive varnish whose chemistry was known only to Antonio Stradivari was preserved. Having paid Huberman merely $30,000 fifty years before, Lloyd’s then sold the precious violin for $1.2 million to Norbert Brainin, an acclaimed English violinist and founder of the Amadeus String Quartet.

BELL HEARS THE PROMISE – SOMEDAY

Joshua Bell. Courtesy photo.

Joshua Bell. Courtesy photo.

Bell, whose worldwide engagements took him to many major cities, now found himself engaged in the same city with this very famous Quartet. Bell apparently had occasion to play the Huberman Stradivarius – now dubbed Gibson ex-Huberman – and loved its sound. Brainin famously told the young artist that “he might own an instrument like this someday.”

Just 12 years later, while out buying additional strings for his Tom Taylor Stradivarius in London, Bell was alerted to the imminent sale of the Gibson ex-Huberman Strad to a German museum collector – for permanent exhibition. Quickly, Bell sold his Taylor Strad for $2 million and bought the now world famous Gibson ex Huberman for a reported $4 million.

So, the intersection of Huberman’s twice-stolen violin with Josh Bell was complete. And San Antonio will have its chance to hear the Gibson ex-Huberman instrument in performance in June with the Symphony. To quote Paul Harvey, “… now you know the rest of the story.”

Featured/top image: Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). Public domain image.

Related Stories:

In the Pit: An Oboist Completes 38 Years in the Orchestra

Constructing Success: Tobin Center Announces Inaugural Season

YPs & the Arts: The Tobin Center “Ghost Light Society”

20 Years of SOLI: From ‘Love and an Earthquake’

Inside and Outside, Tobin Center Aims to Bring Performing Arts to the Whole City

2 thoughts on “Safe From Thieves: Joshua Bell’s Storied 1713 Stradivarius

  1. The story of Huberman’s heroic effort to rescue Europe’s best classical Jewish musicians in the years preceding the Holocaust are intelligently captured in the 2012 film entitled “Orchestra of Exiles,” which has been available on Netflix for many months.

    Berg’s comment about the danger of being “Polish, a Jew, or a musician” is unclear. But what is clear is that it was dangerous to be Jewish in most European countries at this time. Additionally, to attribute the demise of Germany’s musical talent to “Hitler’s hate for Jewish performers” is to distract readers from the wide-spread European anti-Semitism that resulted in the Holocaust, which by the way is never mentioned in Berg’s article.

    Finally, the name of the orchestra was never the Palestinian Orchestra as Berg writes, but was initially named the Palestine Orchestra when it was formed in late 1936, and changed its name in 1947 to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra upon the creation of the State of Israel.

    In forming his orchestra of more than 75 musicians, Huberman saved almost 1,000 European Jews (the musicians and their families) from Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries in Europe, from perishing in the Holocaust. The great Maestro Arturo Toscanini conducted the orchestra’s first concert in Tel Aviv in support of Huberman’s effort, and some of the artists performing in the orchestra today are descendants of its original members.

    Bell’s purchase of Huberman’s violin in order to save it from being purchased and donated to a German museum is a heroic act in itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *