Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Strad, a Mobster, and a Priest

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
Martha McDermott and Miranda Crawford

Recently, I read a news story about a former priest pleading guilty to helping his mobster friend find a supposed Stradivarius hidden inside a wall of a home in Wisconsin. My inner ears perked up! What could be a better story? The Mafia, a supposed Stradivarius hidden inside a wall, a corrupt priest, a few hundred thousand dollars (in cash, of course), a bunch of loose diamonds, FBI raids, and a heartfelt confession. Sounds too good to be true. But it is!

Frank Calalbrese, Sr.

So here's the information we've been able to gather. By the way- we have NO inside knowledge of this series of events and all the stories are readily available from news sources.

Frank Calabrese Sr.,  Chicago Outfit made man and caporegime, ran a number of loan sharking operations.  After one juice loan (A type of "loan" you get under pressure from the mob. Interest rates get hiked up for any number of reasons, sort of like when you miss a payment on your credit card, only much, much worse) went sour, he accepted a violin as payment. A Stradivarius, of course.

As a quick aside to the general absurdity going on here- At least a few times every year I appraise a supposed Stradivarius violin that someone's father, grandfather, uncle, etc took as payment for a gambling debt, loan, bar tab, etc. And not once (Not once!) has the violin turned out to be anything other than an inexpensive German violin with a facsimile Stradivarius label. The archetypical $5 fiddle from Sears or Wards.

Calabrese supposedly hid this violin in the walls of his summer home in Wisconsin. Why inside the walls of a house? Hmm, good question. Not the healthiest of places for a valuable violin to hang out. But a fairly good hiding place. As long as you remember which wall and which house.

In 2007, Calabrese, Sr. was convicted for orchestrating fourteen murders between 1970 and 1986. In 2009, he was sentenced to life in prison as well as restitution of $4.4 million to the victims' families. He managed to get pretty much solitary confinement, probably because as the guilty charge was announced he turned to the prosecutor and mouthed "You're a f^%#!ng dead man".  I'm not sure why he was so angry at the prosecutor. It was his own son, Frank Calabrese, Jr. that spilled most of the Family Secrets. The only people who could visit Frank, Sr. were the prison warden and his priest.

Frank Sr.'s Oak Brook, IL home was raided by the FBI in 2010. And they found appraisal papers for a violin. Not a Stradivarius, but a 1764 violin made by Giuseppe Antonio Artalli. They also found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and loose diamonds worth millions. But no violin. I'm curious whose appraisal named a violin as an Artalli. Artalli was a very obscure maker from Milan, working in the 1760s. Very few people have seen much or any of his work. I guess it doesn't really matter. All the FBI found was paperwork. No violin.

How did Calabrese know he had a valuable violin? A friend had watched a show on the Discovery Channel and told him it was worth about $26 million. I can tell you that watching a Discovery Channel show is not a very good way to get a definitive appraisal on a violin. But for some odd reason, Calabrese believed him.

While in prison, Frank was only allowed to see his prison warden and his childhood friend, now his priest, Eugene Klein. Frank, Sr. started passing notes to Rev. Klein about the valuable violin and other things. They would hide the notes inside candy bars and religious items they passed back and forth.  He convinced Klein to get the violin from the walls of the Wisconsin house.

Calabrese told Klein to connect with another mutual friend and pose as potential buyers. Then, distract the real estate agent and get the violin out of the wall. Details such as "bring a flashlight with you" and which exact wall it was in the house were passed in notes hidden in candy bars and religious items. "Make a right when you go into that little pull out door. Go all the way to the wall. That is were the violin is." Little details like how you distract a real estate agent while you break open a wall were left out. This cunning plan quickly went to crap when Klein made a call to the real estate agent only to find out the house had already been sold.

But... the prison folks had figured out that Calabrese and his priest were not passing notes of confession and forgiveness. In February, 2015, Klein pleaded guilty to trying to defraud the government and prison protocol violations. Unfortunately, the government used a value of $1million for the yet to be seen violin. That translates to a five year prison sentence for Klein. And he's no longer a priest. And the violin has yet to be found. In or out of any home's walls. Ouch!

Former priest & prison chaplain Eugene Klein

You would think the story would end here. But wait, there's more! Klein's lawyers presented a police report form 2004, long before Klein agreed to look for the violin, that showed the Wisconsin home had been broken into and robbed then. Maybe the violin was stolen from the mobster by other mobsters, or crooks, or just average home break-in chumps.

In 2012 , Frank Calabrese Sr. died at the age of 75 with the violin never having been recovered.

Here is a 2011 interview with Frank Calabrese Jr. on their family secrets

Oh! By the way- the 1930s gangster machine gun of choice, the Thompson submachine gun did not fit inside violin case. It was a viola case. I happen to know that as fact from Kenneth Warren, Sr., who sold a lot of viola cases from his Chicago shop in the 1930s.

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