In 1996, Joshua Bell fell in love. The object of his affection was a 1713 violin, then known as the “Gibson Strad”—so named for its creator, famed Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari, and, according to custom, for an early owner. He and the Gibson first crossed paths before Bell’s performance with British violinist Norbert Brainin, who owned it at the time.
The moment Brainin permitted him to play a few notes, Bell was enthralled by the violin’s rare combination of clarity and volume. To most of us, a Stradivarius or almost any fine violin sounds beautiful, but an aficionado like Bell hears more. “There are so many levels to the sound,” Bell has said. “It’s like a fine wine. Once you get to know wines you realize the depth; it’s the same with the sound.” Seeing the spell his instrument cast on Bell, Brainin teased the young musician that he could buy it some day—if, that is, he could come up with $4 million.
The Gibson Strad had a tumultuous history. Having passed through the hands of some of the greatest players of the 18th and 19th centuries—like Paganini and Jewish-Hungarian luminary Joseph Joachim (who rescued it from a fire)—the instrument Bell coveted had also been stolen. Twice. And from the same owner, noted virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish-born Jew who in 1936 founded the “Palestine Orchestra,” precursor of today’s Israel Philharmonic.
Huberman was living in Vienna in 1919 when the dulcet-toned instrument first disappeared. Police recovered it within weeks. But when it was taken again in 1936, this time from backstage at Carnegie Hall, Huberman wasn’t as lucky. He accepted an insurance settlement from Lloyds of London, for its full value of $30,000. The purloined Strad remained at large until 1985, when it emerged that a little-known violinist from Connecticut—already in prison for child molestation—had stolen it. The Gibson’s return to public life made headlines worldwide.
The Strad encountered yet another twist when Bell learned by chance in 2001 that Brainin was close to selling it—to a German collector. Bell pleaded for the sale to be delayed so he could buy it instead, matching the German’s offer of nearly $4 million. It is now the only violin that accompanies him from city to city around the world. “It’s like carrying around a baby,” Bell has quipped about tending to an almost priceless instrument. “Is there anything more valuable than a baby?”