Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Case Still Open on 1936 Violin Pilfering

HARTFORD, Connecticut -- Julian Altman wore a bulky overcoat the night of Feb. 28, 1936. He slipped it on over his white satin gypsy blouse and baggy black Cossack pants.


Then he put some fine cigars in his pocket.


He told a lie, went out into the cold, clear night air -- and committed the perfect crime.


Altman slipped into the Carnegie Hall dressing room of the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman and stole his Stradivarius as the violinist was performing on stage with his other prized instrument.


It is a crime that lives on today in a '90s kind of way -- in litigation before the Connecticut Supreme Court, where Altman's daughter and widow are fighting for the $263,000 "finder's fee'' awarded when the violin was finally returned to its insurer.


Altman played the violin for years - in the swanky martini clubs of New York and later in less elegant, smoke-filled nightspots until his imprisonment for molesting a child and his death in 1985.


"Julian Altman was a fine violinist, so his mother made up her mind early on he needed for his beautiful hands a beautiful violin. So she moved heaven and earth to put the family in a position where she could affect getting a violin,'' said his widow Marcelle Hall, who is now 78 and lives in New Hampshire.


Eugenie Altman moved her handsome violinist son and her gifted pianist daughter near Carnegie Hall, where she plotted to have her son steal a fine violin.


At the time, 20-year-old Julian had landed the job of strolling violinist at the Russian Bear, a classy club next to Carnegie Hall.


Altman made friends with the musicians at Carnegie. For a cigar or other trifle, guards would let him listen to concerts from the wings.


That night, Huberman opened his season at Carnegie Hall. It was known he had two fine violins -- the 1713 Stradivarius and a Guarnerius he planned to use that night.


Huberman was targeted because he was "someone who did not live in the United States, who would be anxious to get back to his country -- to take the [insurance] money and run,'' Hall explained.


As Huberman took the stage that night, Altman took a break from the Russian Bear and brought a fine cigar to Carnegie's doorman, who went outside to smoke it.


To the sounds of the Bach Concerto in E Major, Altman rushed upstairs to Huberman's dressing room, grabbed the violin, tucked it in his coat under his arm, and dashed home, returning to the Russian Bear in time to play "Hungarian Rhapsody.''


Altman was never questioned by police, and Huberman received a $30,000 insurance settlement from Lloyd's of London.


Altman did not confess until he was on his deathbed in 1985, where Hall said he recounted the story to her.


Hall negotiated a finder's fee with Lloyd's. In 1987, she returned the violin to the insurer and received a $263,000 reward.


Lloyd's sold it to British violinist Norbert Brainir for $1.2 million.


Hall, who lives in a mobile home park, said the reward is long spent -- in gifts to charities, taxes and other uses.


But that has not stopped Altman's lone surviving descendant, Sherry Altman Schoenwetter of Buffalo, New York, from pursuing a share of the finder's fee from her stepmother.


The case is now awaiting the judgment of the Connecticut Supreme Court.