From Sonic Youth's Guitars to LA Tubas: 4 Famous Stolen Instruments

Karl Walter / Getty Images
Karl Walter / Getty Images

1. Sonic Youth’s Guitars

Fans of the rock band Sonic Youth were shocked to see an online letter from guitarist Lee Ranaldo in July 1999 complaining that a thief had broken into the band’s truck and stolen its equipment before a gig (warning: some NSFW language). The stolen goods included everything from guitars to amps to drums, although Ranaldo warned that some of it was “mostly older and either very modified and/or f***ed up/beat up.” Still, the band was forced to purchase all new equipment for the rest of their shows and recording sessions.

Slowly, some of the equipment has been coming back. In 2005, two guitars were returned to the band by a man claiming to be the nephew of one of the original thieves. And in 2009, a Sonic Youth fan in the Netherlands saw a red and orange guitar on eBay that looked like one of the stolen instruments. He outbid the competition and posted the news on a message board with the title “The OH MY GOD! I BOUGHT ONE OF SONIC YOUTH'S STOLEN GUITARS thread.” He contacted the band and returned the guitar, which was confirmed to be Ranaldo’s. There’s still plenty of equipment missing, so fans should be advised to keep an eye out on eBay.

2. The Tubas of Los Angeles

Band teachers and school officials are baffled by a string of thefts in the Los Angeles area. The loot? Not computers or money, but tubas. In the past year, there have been 23 tubas reported stolen from L.A. schools. Security footage has even shown thieves breaking in and specifically targeting tubas and sousaphones, bypassing anything more valuable or easier to carry.

Police haven’t been able to figure out what’s behind the crime spree. Some think the instruments are being sold for scrap metal. But others say there’s a booming black market for the instruments due to the growing craze of banda music. Banda, a dance music similar to polka, uses the tuba as its strong bass, putting the instrument in high demand. According to the Los Angeles Times a high-end tuba sells for $5,000, but a beat-up one stolen from a school could bring in as much as $2,000.

3. Stradivarius Violins

With just some 450 Stradivarius violins still around today, it’s incredible to note how many have been stolen. For example, one violin, worth about $2 million, was nabbed in 2010 from a London sandwich shop right under the nose of violinist Min-Jin Kym. The thieves were nabbed less than a month later after trying to sell the instrument to a stranger for around $150 (they were seen in an Internet café looking up “Stradivarius”). But the violin has not been found and investigators fear it is no longer in Britain.

Another missing Strad remained MIA for nearly 50 years after being stolen from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of Bronislaw Huberman in 1936. It was only recovered in 1985, when violinist Julian Altman made a death bed confession to his wife that the violin he had been playing for years was the same one that had been snatched. Whether Altman actually took it is still unclear (he claimed he bought it on the night of the theft). It actually marked the second time that violin had been stolen – the first time, the instrument was recovered a few days later. That violin now belongs to classical superstar Joshua Bell.

One of the more famous stolen violins may actually have never been stolen, but the $800,000 Duke of Alcantara violin did fall into a sensational ownership struggle. The instrument was being watched by UCLA musician David Margetts in 1967 when it went missing while he was running errands. He says it may have been stolen or he may have left it on the roof of his car and driven away, but either way the violin somehow ended up on the side of the highway. The instrument was found and later passed down to a number of unsuspecting owners until it ended up in the hands of musician Teresa Salvato. When a music repair shop realized what she had, she and the university got in a lengthy court battle over the instrument before it was finally returned. For more details, the Los Angeles Times tracked the instrument’s fascinating path, although the story came before the final settlement.

4. Rosanne Cash’s Guitar

To anyone, a guitar signed by Johnny Cash would be valuable. But to Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne, the guitar given to her with a note from her father was priceless. So she was heartbroken when she got off a plane in 1979 and found out the guitar had not arrived with her. The guitar has not yet turned up, but Cash hasn't given up hope that it will be returned, especially since it's inscribed to her and can't be mistaken for another.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

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Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

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New Online Art Exhibition Needs the Public’s Help to Track Down Lost Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, and More

Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh's original Portrait of Dr. Gachet wasn't stolen, but it hasn't been seen in 30 years.
Vincent van Gogh, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you wanted to compare both versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in person, you couldn’t. While the second one currently hangs in Paris’s Musée d'Orsay, the public hasn’t seen the original painting since 1990. In fact, nobody’s really sure where it is—after its owner Ryoei Saito died in 1996, the precious item passed from private collector to private collector, but the identity of its current owner is shrouded in mystery.

As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) is one of a dozen paintings in “Missing Masterpieces,” a digital exhibit of some of the world’s most famous lost artworks. It’s not the only Van Gogh in the collection. His 1884 painting The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was snatched from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren museum earlier this year; and his 1888 painting The Painter on His Way to Work has been missing since World War II. Other works include View of Auvers-sur-Oise by Paul Cézanne, William Blake’s Last Judgement, and two bridge paintings by Claude Monet.

Paul Cézanne's View of Auvers-sur-Oise was stolen from the University of Oxford's art museum on New Year's Eve in 1999.Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new online exhibit is a collaboration between Samsung and art crime expert Noah Charney, who founded The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art. It isn’t just a page where art enthusiasts can explore the stories behind the missing works—it’s also a way to encourage people to come forward with information that could lead to the recovery of the works themselves.

“From contradictory media reports to speculation in Reddit feeds—the clues are out there, but the volume of information can be overwhelming,” Charney said in a press release. “This is where technology and social media can help by bringing people together to assist the search. It’s not unheard of for an innocuous tip posted online to be the key that unlocks a case.”

The exhibition will be online through February 10, 2021, and citizen sleuths can email their tips to missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]