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Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tale of stolen Stradivarius cello rings hollow

The Christian Science Monitor

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LOS ANGELES — It was a surreal mixture of humor and pathos, both unintentional.

There were stone-faced cops, cranky journalists, spotlight-grabbing city officials and a restorer of priceless artifacts who spoke cryptically in hushed tones.

All surrounded the guest of honor, presented as "the happiest man in Los Angeles today": an embarrassed principal cellist who looked as if he just swallowed a small string quartet and a couple of percussionists.

All were gathered in Los Angeles' newest shrine to high art, the titanium-skinned Walt Disney Concert Hall, for an example of that rare media phenomenon: a good-news conference.

With national and international media jammed into the Philharmonic's Choral Hall, sound booms were lowered, lights aimed and pens poised.

But somehow, despite the best intentions, the Tuesday event raised as many questions as it answered with this announcement: The Los Angeles Philharmonic's $3.5 million Stradivarius cello, stolen from the cellist's home last month, had been found.

The objet du jour was not there, only oversized, color photos of the vintage 1684 instrument. Perched on giant easels were images of the "victim" sprawled on a white-draped operating table in an unnamed location.

A professorial-looking man in blue rubber gloves hovered next to a bulb-lit magnifying glass, examining damage to the instrument as if it were wounds of a human victim on TV's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigators."

But those wounds — appearing as a nearly imperceptible crack down the cello's face (perhaps 10 inches long), cracks on the back (not shown), and loosened strings — were explained as "routine." The instrument would be restored to full value by October, said Robert Cauer, the philharmonic's string technician.

"I wasn't there to see the injuries happen so I couldn't say," Cauer said, rebuffing a query about what they were and how they could be fixed.

Second on the list of question marks was principal cellist Peter Stumpf, who had been in personal purgatory since the theft. The musician had arrived home late and weary after performing in Santa Barbara on April 25 and carelessly left the cello on his front steps.

How could an instrument — one of about 60 made 320 years ago by master instrument maker Antonio Stradivari — be left like a forgotten sack of groceries? Los Angeles Philharmonic Association President Deborah Borda cheerfully reminded reporters this kind of forgetfulness happens all the time. In 1999, Yo-Yo Ma left his own $2.5 million Stradivarius cello in a New York City taxi.

In this case, a home-security camera across the street picked up grainy images of a young man getting off a bicycle and taking the cello from the porch about 6:30 a.m. It also recorded the crash of his bicycle into trash cans before escaping.

With most of the media eagerly awaiting the chance to question Stumpf, the cellist stepped to the microphone with lowered eyes and Nixonian anxiety. In a low voice, he told the gathering how relieved he was ("this has been an enormous weight on me for weeks") and was whisked out a back door.

"We all came to ask Mr. Stumpf questions," said local TV personality Laurel Erickson of KNBC-TV. "Can't you bring him back?"

Her answer came with a sideways head shake and two words from Borda. "Nuh-uh." (Stumpf, she said, was needed in a crucial rehearsal.)

Last up, LAPD Detective Donald Hrycyk, cut from the same polite-but-taciturn cloth as Jack Webb of "Dragnet." He adeptly sidestepped questions about the crime's investigation, not wanting to play his cards to the cello's thief, still at large.

Hrycyk and assistant chief Jim McDonald merely repeated already-known details. The cello was returned by a Melanie Stevens, 29, who found it next to a trash bin April 28. A homeless man helped her place the instrument, still inside its silver-coated plastic case, in the trunk of her car.

Then Stevens asked her boyfriend, a cabinetmaker, to either repair the instrument or convert it into a unique CD holder. "I had the idea to possibly put a hinge on the front. ... He would install little shelves inside," Stevens said. "I know it sounds crazy."

On May 7, she caught a news report about the missing cello and the $50,000 reward for its return. She logged on to the police Web site to review the mug shot: Length: 30 1/2 inches. Color: golden brown. Identifying marks: original label stating "Cremona 1684."

After peering inside the instrument and making out a faded label that looked as if it read 1600s, she hired a lawyer.

"We are examining several leads and checking into the story of this woman," Hrycyk said.

Frustrated grumbles began making their way through the crowd. ("This story doesn't add up, these details are too squirrelly," one veteran reporter said.) Then City Councilman Tom LaBonge stepped to the microphone.

"Hey, wait a minute, this is a good-news story and you're a part of it," he said. "Go out there and write a good-news story."

It is a good-news story, but an incomplete one. One reason, according to veteran violin restorer Adam Crane, relates to the rarefied and somewhat cloak-and-dagger world of rare and valuable instruments.

"My guess is that they know a whole lot more about what happened and aren't saying because there is so much money involved," Crane said. For reasons of insurance, assessment and resale, the less that is known about a given instrument and how it was damaged, the better off the owner is, he said.

Fictional detective Philip Marlowe might have said the media left the room wearing those plastic smiles people wear when they are trying not to scream.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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