"When he fashioned it more than three centuries ago in his shop in Cremona, Italy, the master violin-maker Nicolo Amati could never have guessed that one of his fine creations would produce such dissonance. But that's how the legal dispute between an Islip violin-maker and a White Plains violinist over the ownership of a violin valued at more than $300,000 might be characterized. She says it was stolen from her locked car in 1963. He says he purchased it 20 years later, grimy and covered with grease, for less than $100.
"It nearly knocked me off my chair," Frances Magnes said, recalling the news last May that her missing instrument had turned up at the London shop of a respected violin dealer, Charles Beare.
For Magnes, 76, a concert violinist of renown in the 1940s and '50s, "It was just totally hard to believe that after all these years this
fiddle had surfaced, that it was in one piece. These instruments are masterpieces."
According to papers filed by Magnes' attorney in December in State Supreme Court in White Plains, Anthony Donato, owner of the Donato Family Music Shop in East Islip, may have had some notion that the violin was a masterpiece when he appeared last spring at Beare's shop with the intention of having it appraised and sold. Beare, however, recognized it as one on which he had worked in the 1960s as an apprentice violin-maker at the Wurlitzer violin shop in New York. He verified that the violin was on the international Registry of Stolen Instruments and informed Donato he would have nothing to do with it.
"Then, Mr. Beare was intrigued enough to try to see if I was still alive," said Magnes, who abandoned her solo concert career in the late 1950s to raise a family and begin a career as a violin teacher. Months of negotiations followed as her Manhattan attorney, Irving Golomb, attempted without success to negotiate the return of the violin from Donato. Golomb, himself a violinist, said when he first contacted Donato last summer, Donato told him he frequently buys old instruments at garage sales, auctions and the like for about $50, fixes them up and later sells them for as much as $1,000. "He said he purchased the violin for $100 from someone who was leaving the country."
"What I can tell you is right now there is a dispute," Donato said from his home in Islip. A spokesman for his attorney, Brian Neary of
Huntington, said he had no comment, as the matter was in litigation. At issue is a rare Grand Pattern Amati violin, which Magnes
describes as "certainly the best violin I've ever had." It also occupies a special place in her personal history. Loaned to her by a dealer for an important concert engagement in 1944, she later discovered that her father-in-law, Dr. Judah Magnes, first president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had purchased the violin to present to her as a gift.
The instrument is described in promotional literature for Magnes' concert appearances as "an Amati made in 1641 by the famous violin craftsman and teacher of Stradivarius, Nicolo Amati, whose instruments are distinguished by their graceful lines, their beauty and power of tone."
"In Europe at that time, everyone was copying Amati," said Jacques Francais, a respected Manhattan dealer in rare violins. Francais said the $300,000-value attributed to the Amati violin is certainly accurate. For Magnes, the instrument's value is measured in more than monetary terms. "It's a very personal thing," she said. "It becomes a part of you. When the Amati was stolen, it was as if my arm was gone. A piece of me was missing.""
Disputed Violin Still Tugs At Virtuoso's Heartstrings, Bob Suter, Newsday, New York
"He tells us about his violin, which he has had for less than a year. ‘I was playing a Guarneri del Jesu, and then this instrument came into my hands. I played it for a couple of hours, and I couldn’t part from it any more. It’s a Niccolò Amati from 1641. I knew that Amati violins had a rich sound, but I never could imagine that an Amati could have such a big sound. It’s the oldest instrument I ever have played. Now I understand why Amati was not only a good violin maker but a good teacher, because the violin makers whose names are most familiar were pupils of Amati - he was the father of them all.’ "