The FBI is saying the case is still open, but it's not kidding anybody. This one could take a while, the way these cases sometimes do. Take the Huberman Strad, for instance. That was gone for 51 years and then recovered. Another Stradivarius, a violin dubbed the Duke of Alcantara, was missing for 27 years before it was found.
As for this case, except for an occasional call to, or from, an interested party, there isn't any movement. The crime scene -- a sprawling apartment on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue -- has been cleaned up and re-let. The violin sconces, the portrait of the violinist cradling her instrument, the music stands, books and piano are all gone. The old lady who lived there, the famous violinist -- dead and gone.
But the violin itself, that's what this is all about. This is a violin more valuable, more famous, more beautiful than any one person who could play it. And it is every bit as gone as the violinist, with a marginally higher chance of coming back. It lived over there in the silver closet, cramped in among the pickle dishes and gravy boats. A stupid place to put a Stradivarius. Everybody told the old lady that. A God-awful mistake to store the legendary Davidoff Stradivarius in there with your chafing dishes and serving spoons. Why, anyone could get hold of the skeleton key and get in there and snatch the Davidoff off the shelf.
And someone did.
In the universe of beloved objects, there is a special place reserved for the works of Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 18th-century Italian artisan who turned out hundreds of instruments at his workshop in Cremona. Experts can't seem to settle on what makes a Stradivarius unique. Maybe it is the old wood, they argue, or the varnish, filler or sealer. Stradivari may have smoke-cured his woods, or soaked them, which could account for their rich sound. They are exquisitely carved instruments. Even if it never emitted a note, a Strad would merit veneration as sculpture. The curves, curls and F-holes mimic the body of a beautiful woman. A bad day for Stradivari would have been a career day for a lesser artisan. And on a career day for the master? That's the Davidoff violin, made in 1727 and named for a 19th-century Russian owner.
Appraised at $3.5 million, the 272-year-old Davidoff Stradivarius is one of only a handful of truly magnificent instruments that have been played by generations of virtuosos. Among musicians, these instruments aren't merely renowned. They are legendary, mythical, almost divine. Richard Errante, a violinist from Wilton, Conn., made a pilgrimage into New York to visit the old lady who was its final legitimate owner and get a look at the famous violin. The last person known to have played the Davidoff, he describes the instrument this way: "It hadn't been played in years. But the moment I touched the strings, it was so responsive. I mean, you know you're dealing with wood and strings. But it sounded like something alive."
The Davidoff Stradivarius put its owner, Erica Morini, on the map twice. First when she was young and famous and making the violin sing in the world's great concert halls. And then, 40 years after the end of her career, as the violinist lay dying in a hospital bed at Mount Sinai, her beloved and vastly underinsured violin was snatched from her closet shelf. The thief substituted another violin case for the one the Strad was housed in, closed and locked the closet door and slipped away.
Morini died not knowing her violin had been stolen, but with the theft she posthumously has reclaimed some of the fame and stature she chased all her life. Morini and her violin, together for 70 years, disappeared off the face of the Earth at around the same time. And while her acquaintances and family are only too happy to leave her at peace, the violin's disappearance became the center of a major investigation by the FBI and one gigantic $3.5 million game of musical chairs.
Erica Morini was a prodigy. Her father, who ran a music academy in Vienna, recognized her talent early and pushed her. In 1925, he presented her with the Davidoff Stradivarius, which he had bought for $10,000. When the 16-year-old Morini made her American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1921, she was instantly recognized as a world-class talent. The New York Times referred to her as "a second Kreisler, a Heifetz, an Elman. There was unanimous recognition of her genius and virtuosity," the paper said. Morini's talent was so astonishing that Harold C. Schonberg, the chief music critic for the Times, described her as "probably the greatest woman violinist who ever lived."
Morini never liked that kind of gender-specific praise. "I am either a great violinist or I am not," she would say. But it was never that simple. Morini was a musical genius onstage and a spoiled child the rest of the time. She had a virtuoso-size ego; she was a diva with perfect pitch. As her younger brother Frank recalls: "She was an absolute perfectionist. Every note had to be perfect. When she was playing well, she said she was floating. If everything was going well you were an angel, and the next day she would scream at you."
Age was not kind to the child prodigy. Once her spectacular career dropped off in the '60s, Morini, suffering from heart disease and arthritis, taught privately. One of her students was Steve Delco, now a securities analyst in New York. His weekly lessons in 1976 lasted for six months. Morini was a harsh teacher, and didn't keep students for long.
"She was compulsive and obsessive about being perfect," he remembers. "Morini never had to work at her own playing, so she didn't understand having to learn something."
Morini was so compulsive about being perfectly in tune, he said, that entire lessons were spent adjusting the instrument and not playing. As a result, Delco spent his violin lessons with Morini mainly "just absorbing her greatness." His admiration for Morini's talent never wavered, and he kept in touch with her until her death. But her decline was hard to watch. Morini's husband, Felice Siracusano, a diamond broker, catered to her whims, treating her like the great star she had been. He did the marketing and housework. He handled her affairs. He even tuned the Stradivarius for her. But his death in 1985 left Morini alone in the world for the first time. People in her circle say she became increasingly difficult. "She became suspicious and paranoid," her brother says. Her longtime accountant called her "very demanding, very stubborn and very stingy."
Though Morini was a wealthy woman, her thrift was such that Delco remembers her returning returning a toaster received as a gift from a friend to the store for the money. She hoarded cash and stashed rolls of bills in her apartment. Most important, Morini refused to insure the Stradivarius properly. According to her accountant, she didn't want to pay the $11,000 premium for full coverage. She also refused to keep in a safe, preferring to keep it within reach, in her closet. Over the years, Morini toyed with selling her violin. Dealers would come and go, visiting her apartment and bringing prospective buyers. Jacques Francais, an Old World violin dealer in New York, stored the Davidoff Strad in his vault when Morini went to Europe in the summers. He also introduced her to a young violinist who was interested in buying it. After an initial meeting, he says, the violinist went on her own to Morini's apartment. Jacques Francais says he doesn't remember the details, but does recall that when it came to the point of sale, Morini didn't go through with it: "She couldn't part with her violin."
Steve Delco, who was in touch with Morini at the time, says she was asking $2 million for the Strad. According to Delco, when the buyer expressed serious interest in purchasing the Davidoff, Morini raised the price by a million dollars.
By 1995, Erica Morini had lived too long. She was 91 years old when she was wheeled home from the hospital to die in her bedroom, up there above Fifth Avenue. In her final delirium, she asked often about the violin, which by then had been missing for two weeks. No one had the heart to tell her it was gone, so her accountant arranged to put a lesser instrument in its place, so that if she asked, someone could point to it and say, "See, it's still there."
On Nov. 1, 1995, she died quietly in her own bed, unaware that sometime during the previous month, someone had gotten into her apartment, unlocked the closet door and taken her great treasure.
It was an inside job. Anyone who has ever played a game of Clue could tell you that. But who did it? The circle of people in Erica Morini's life was small. The opportunity in dealing with an old forgetful woman was ample. And for $3.5 million, there was plenty of motive to go around.
Two weeks before Morini's death, on the night of Oct. 18, a 911 call was made from Apartment 5B at 1200 Fifth Ave. Morini was just down the street at Mount Sinai, refusing food and treatment, obstinately trying to die. A woman named Erica Bradford and her daughter, Valerie, had let themselves into the apartment, using a key they say they had taken from the night table next to Morini's hospital bed. Their purpose for being there, they say, was to make sure the apartment was properly outfitted with medical equipment before Morini's final return home. In the weeks leading up to the old woman's hospitalization, a steady succession of attendants couldn't keep up with her mounting medical needs and personal outrages, and the Bradfords had surfaced sometime during the previous spring to help out. Erica Bradford was Erica Morini's goddaughter and namesake, and though she had had little contact with the virtuoso over the years, beginning in the summer of 1995 she would drive down from her home in Connecticut a couple of times a week to be with her. Bradford's 34-year-old daughter, Valerie, who lives in New Haven, took the train south several times a week and was trying to coordinate round-the-clock nursing care. Valerie, ambitious and underemployed (she was working as a babysitter in New Haven), says she was hoping to establish a relationship with the violinist, to assist her with her daily needs and perhaps ultimately move into her rent-controlled apartment. She admits she was also hoping that the violinist would leave her something valuable in her will -- a hope Morini may have encouraged when she rasped to Valerie in the hospital, "My dear, come close. I want you to know that you will be rewarded with something."
Those hopes were dashed, however, when Bradford sneaked a look at the will, which was in a closet she was cleaning. ("The place was a mess, and if I saw a document or a bank statement, of course I would look at it," she explained.) The vast bulk of Morini's $7 million estate was earmarked for charities. Valerie was to receive a gold choker. While she says she is "honored and grateful to be remembered" by Morini, "of course it would have been nice to be rewarded monetarily."
The Stradivarius was a particular fascination of Valerie's. "My mother and I had never seen the violin," she says. "So one time we asked Erica to show it to us. Mom, Erica and I sat down in the study and I opened the door to the closet and I took the case out and put it in her lap. I opened the case. The violin was wrapped in a silk scarf that Toscanini's wife had given her. She picked it up by the neck and she was touching it and she started to cry. And she said, `Maybe I'll start playing it again.'
"I wanted to hold it. But she said, `Oh no no no. No untrained hands on this.' And she showed me how to hold it. And I did and it was wonderful."
According to Valerie, she and her mother checked on the violin on several occasions during Morini's long hospital stays. "Mom and I knew that there was a very valuable instrument in there, and we were quite fascinated by that . . . I would say that five times Mom and I opened the closet and saw the violin there."
On Oct. 18, Bradford and her mother left Morini's bedside at Mount Sinai and let themselves into the apartment. The skeleton key to the silver closet was in a box of keys in the bedroom. Erica Bradford picked through them until she found the one with the round tag marked "silver."
"I went into the room and opened the door and there on the shelf where the Stradivarius had been, there was a different case sitting there and I gasped. And I said, `Val! Come here! It's gone!!' "
Valerie called 911. "I said, `I don't know how to explain it to you, but there has been a theft of a very valuable article. A violin worth approximately $3 million." I said to my mom, `Oh my God, we're calling the police and we're standing here and it looks bad.' "
Valerie raced down to the lobby. She was right to think people might be suspicious of them. The doorman on duty that night said, "Mrs. Morini didn't have any visitors for two or three years and then when she got sick and was dying . . . they were like vultures descending. Valerie Bradford said, `I'm a niece of Mrs. Morini' and she started coming around a few weeks before Mrs. Morini's death. And then in the evening when Mrs. Morini was in the hospital, Valerie came running down here screaming, `The violin's been stolen!' and I'm sitting here thinking to myself, it's almost as if she's trying to establish an alibi or something."
Like her mother, Valerie Bradford says she has no idea who took the violin. But she thinks someone in the small group who had hovered around Morini at the end has to have it. "You have to know that there is a big-time thief and a liar in that handful of people," she says. She herself has been polygraphed twice by the FBI. "I guess the test was not as successful as an innocent person would like it to be," she said of the first exam. The second one had the same result. She keeps failing lie detector tests and doesn't quite know why. "I guess I get nervous," she laments.
She says her negative response to one question in particular keeps setting off the polygraph: "Do you know who took the violin?"
As Morini slipped further toward death, the police and FBI developed a list of "interested parties" -- they won't characterize anyone as a suspect -- that reads like a cast of characters out of Agatha Christie. In addition to Valerie Bradford and her mother, Erica, there are Frank, the violinist's brother; a violin dealer from Connecticut named Brian Skarstad; Peter Saphier, Morini's accountant; and Lucien Orasel, a Romanian-born academic who lives in the building. Orbiting this core group is a constellation of less prominent "interested parties," including members of the staff who worked in the building, or perhaps one of the many aides and maids who passed through the apartment during the last months of Morini's life.
Hovering around the edges, peeking in, taking notes and trying to put the pieces together, is Jim Wynn, an FBI agent straight out of Central Casting by way of Queens. The "interested parties" seem alternately unnerved and fascinated by Wynn's quiet persistence in the case and they all express admiration for the agent, who during the heavy investigative phase kept turning up in the most unlikely places.
The last days of Erica Morini's life were a misery. She was nearly blind and hobbled by severe arthritis. The only thing all the principals in the case agree on is that she suffered greatly, and passed that suffering on to everyone she knew. She grew increasingly paranoid and accusatory and erratic. While she was still able to get around, she spent sleepless nights ransacking her apartment, looking for lost treasures she claimed had been stolen. She plagued the doormen in the building with calls in the middle of the night. "They're robbing me blind!" she cried. She harangued anyone who would listen with tales accusing her elderly brother of stealing $20,000 and a six-carat diamond that her late husband, the diamond broker, had given her. "He's a gonif!" she would spit.
Frank Morini was 10 years younger than his famous sister. While she was traveling the music capitals of Europe and America exercising her precocious talent, he was at home in Vienna visiting art museums, refining his eye. His apartment on Fifth Avenue is 30 blocks south and a world away from his older sister's. While her home was a sprawling mess, his is lovely and correct. The walls are lined with works by French impressionist masters, which he buys and sells all over the world. He is cool and commanding, a man who is used to holding his cards close to his Savile Row vest, someone who can string a deal along for months, years even, if he has to.
One night, he got a call from a detective. "Mr. Morini," the detective asked, "do you know where the violin is?"
"I said, `Which violin?" Morini recalls, "and he said, `Your sister's violin.' I said, `At home?' And he said, `No, it's gone.' "
"My sister always kept her things stupidly," Morini says. "Two or three years before the violin was stolen, a large amount of money as well as a diamond disappeared from the flat. In my opinion, the same person who stole the diamond and the money took the violin."
Frank was aware of his sister's accusations, but flatly denies that he had anything to do with the theft of the violin or any other theft. "I was on extremely good terms with my sister," he says. "I was her angel, in principle. But if you didn't do what she wanted, you were in Hell."
Like everyone else involved, he believes that someone close to his sister, other than himself, was the thief. "If the Queen of England and the Queen of Holland were sitting here and something is missing, you know it doesn't matter, one of them took it. If there are only six people here, one of the six is a thief. Only somebody with the key to the apartment and potentially the key to the closet could take this. That's it."
Jim Wynn sits at the FBI headquarters in lower Manhattan. He is a bantamweight Irish guy wearing a blue worsted suit, off-white rag socks and brown L.L. Bean loafers. His hair is a faded red and his face reveals the faintest trace of freckles. He looks like a CPA, which he is. Not the type to intimidate or showboat, Jim Wynn seems to be trying to quietly peck the case into submission. A wisp of a smile crosses his thin lips. Wynn won't speak on the record, but Margot Dennedy, until recently head of the office's Major Case Squad, spoke for the Bureau.
"I think based on the way this thing happened," she says, "in that the apartment was entered and there was no evidence of forced entry; the closet was entered, it appears without any forced entry; that there was access, and keys." There was also the matter of the substitute violin case -- not something a random burglar would likely have along.
In terms of the interested parties, and the roundelay of finger-pointing, Dennedy laughs.
"Finger-pointing," she says, "is characteristic of the business. Ours and theirs."
The Violin Dealer
Brian Skarstad grew up in Ogden, Utah, and now lives in Upstate New York, where he is a violin maker and dealer. In 1994 he contacted Erica Morini, hoping to persuade her to let him sell the Stradivarius. Over the next year, Morini dangled the violin in front of him.
"She expected the star treatment, and that violin was her ticket to have me step and fetch it. And I was glad to do that. I really sucked up. I can't do it for any long period of time, but in her case, where the violin was so great, I could realize a good profit from this. She wanted $4 million, and that was difficult because a Stradivari hadn't sold for $4 million, at least publicly. You know, this $4 million instrument -- people would theoretically kill for this. It's a lot of money in a very small package."
When Skarstad realized that the violin was kept in the closet, he urged Morini to increase the insurance coverage from $800,000 or have it put in a vault. She refused. Holding out some hope that she would let him find a buyer, Skarstad allowed himself to become embroiled in the chaos that marked the final decline of the great violinist. "She was using me, but I felt really sorry for her," he says.
She would call him long-distance and say in her feeble voice, "You know, Brian, I really would love some toast. And could you bring some of that marvelous marmalade?"
"She had alienated everyone in her life, even the help at her apartment. I would hear them yelling at each other, these horrible screaming fights." At one point before the violin was discovered missing, Erica and Valerie brought in a caretaker named Avis Walcott to live at the apartment. She lasted one day. Skarstad got a call. "Morini was sitting in an armchair in the foyer of her apartment and she wasn't moving from that spot. She sat there with big swollen legs, but sitting there like a queen. And she was yelling at Avis and accusing her of terrible things, of poisoning her food. And there she was, stuck to this chair, almost blind, in this faded old "Great Expectations," Miss Havisham apartment, but ultimately there was a great violin in that apartment."
Skarstad paid Walcott the $300 that Morini owed her for her time, and she left. Carrying a large black suitcase.
"That suitcase was definitely big enough to fit the violin in," Skarstad says. "And I thought to myself, `Now, what's in there?' and I thought, `Now I'm being paranoid like Morini always was.' "
From her job as a nanny in Newington, Avis Walcott had this to say about the theft of the violin: "If I had taken it, I wouldn't be a nanny here, I tell you."
Peter Saphier sits behind his crescent-shaped desk in an overheated beige office in midtown Manhattan. It is his busy season, tax time, and files are piled in neat rows in front of him. Saphier worked as an accountant for Morini's husband, Felice Siracusano, for 45 years. When Siracusano died in 1985, Saphier took over Morini's affairs. "Her husband took care of everything for her," he says. "He pampered her to such an extent that she became helpless."
Saphier helped draft and redraft Morini's will, and was named executor. Her music and papers were to be sent to the Mogar Music Library at Boston University. The violin was to be sold to the highest bidder and the money put into the estate, to be divided among three charities.
"I saw the violin for the first time six months before she went into the hospital. I wanted to see what a $3 1/2 million violin looked like. And it looked like . . . a violin," Saphier recalls. He says he added his voice to the futile chorus urging Morini to increase the instrument's insurance or have it stored in a safe. Since the theft, Saphier has been questioned by detectives twice.
"I know the Bradfords are suspects, just like I am, and Skarstad, and the brother, because we all knew where the violin was and vaguely how much it was worth," he says. "I don't exactly love being a suspect, but it's the way it is. I don't think I'm at the top of the FBI's list, though."
Lucien Orasel sweeps into the living room like an actor in a B-movie. He stoops and elaborately kisses the hand of a visitor. He doles out a string of compliments in a thick Romanian accent.
"Oh, I see you've met my mommy," he says. Mommy is Christine Tomberg, first cousin to Morini's late husband. Well into her nineties and sharp as a tack, she tells stories about serving in the Resistance in Vichy France. After the war, she and her husband moved to America and eventually into Morini's apartment building. Orasel came to America in 1979 when he was 42, after spending six years as a political prisoner in Romania. He learned English quickly, attended the University of Virginia and Harvard and, trading on his staunch anti-communist political credentials, started moving in Republican circles in New York. In 1984, he attended a Republican fund-raiser on the East Side, where he met Tomberg, who was by this time a widow.
By 1988, Tomberg had legally adopted Orasel. Now he lives in her comfortable apartment as her son. He volunteers vague details of positions as a lobbyist, foreign-policy analyst and political fixer but declines to elaborate. The bulk of his time, he says, has been spent bettering himself.
Orasel has been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the missing Strad. People who work in the building, as well as other principals in the case, note that Orasel seemed to have insinuated himself into Morini's life. Some believe he had keys to her apartment, though he firmly denies it. "I was only in her apartment twice," he insists. He also denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of the Stradivarius.
Orasel says this of his relationship with Morini: "I felt sorry for the old lady and I was helping her out." He claims his good intentions turned into a burden. "She would say, `Lucien, pick up my medication,' $200. She would say, `Put me in your car,' just to avoid taking a taxi. Erica owes me about $3,000. She used me for everything. She treated me like garbage. Everybody who helped her out, instead of tipping them she would say, `I'm putting you in my will.' We know now that she had $3 million. Nine hundred thousand dollars cash. We know it from the will."
Orasel turns to Tomberg: "You should give this lady a copy of the list of what she had. You won't believe it."
Tomberg returns with a legal document that was mailed to Morini a few days before her death. Included in it is a detailed list of her assets, including the Stradivarius. How Orasel got a look at Morini's will and how he came into possession of a court document addressed to Erica Morini, he won't say.
"Don't forget, my mommy brought that document to you," he says. Orasel himself offers a possible solution to the mystery. "The violin might be in somebody's house," he says, "and Erica had given it to them, and after the newspapers came out" -- publicizing the theft -- "it was difficult for them, but they have papers from Erica showing that she wanted to do this."
Is Orasel speaking of himself? Does he have the violin? "This," he sniffs, "is ridiculous."
Morini's funeral was held at Riverside Memorial Chapel on the Upper West Side. It was quite an occasion. At the event were all the FBI's "interested parties." Agent Wynn waited across the street. "I couldn't believe it when I came out of the chapel and saw Wynn there," Skarstad says. But the violin dealer hadn't yet met Wynn; how did he recognize the FBI agent? "Have you seen the way he dresses?" Skarstad asks.
After the short memorial service, Frank Morini ordered a limousine to take the mourners from the chapel to the cemetery in New Jersey. The interested parties piled in. According to Margot Dennedy (who finally slipped, and used the word "suspects" after all), "We wanted to have all the suspects in one car, tow it away to the pound and get the answers."
But the FBI never did get the answers. After countless hours of sifting through stories, repeated polygraphs and a trip to the grand jury, the FBI has not been able to shake loose a prime suspect, much less an indictment. Since the violin disappeared, the Japanese economy, which had been driving up prices for exquisite goods to astronomical levels, has tanked, and the instrument's value has fallen somewhat, though for people who care deeply about such things, the issue is not money and it never has been.
The insurance company has offered a $100,000 reward for the recovery of the Davidoff Stradivarius. No questions asked. Jim Wynn is hoping someone will be nudged into giving up the violin.
Meanwhile, the principals in this case exist in a state of investigative limbo, a sort of Orient Express where all the interested parties are stuck together, endlessly replaying their stories, relationships, motivations and denials. They each say they think of the violin, and its owner, often.
Erica Morini would no doubt have loved to see so many people dancing to her tune.
CAPTION: Valerie Bradford, left, and her mother (and Morini's godchild), Erica Bradford, were the first to discover that the violin had been switched. Valerie has had problems passing lie-detector tests. "I guess I get nervous."
CAPTION: The 272-year-old Davidoff violin, one of the best of the best.
CAPTION: Erica Morini, called the world's greatest woman violinist, and the even greater Davidoff Stradivarius, now worth millions.