Instrument theft, unfortunately, is a common reality, with a recent study revealing that 24% of musicians have had gear stolen. But there are some stand-out cases, not least those involving instruments of illustrious heritage and eye-watering expense. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the most famous stolen instruments in history.


1. Paul McCartney’s 1961 Höfner bass

In 1961, Paul McCartney of the then-little-known Liverpool band The Beatles, ordered his first bass: a Hofner 500/1, which he used solidly until October 1963 and continued to cherish for several years after that (pictured above). It’s the instrument he played in the band’s first single ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962, as well as ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. But soon after the Beatles filmed the ‘Get Back/Let It Be’ sessions in January 1969, the instrument disappeared - possibly stolen from the Beatles’ lock up at Abbey Road Studios - and has never resurfaced since.

2. 1734 Ames Stradivarius

The Polish virtuoso Roman Totenberg loved and played this violin for decades, until it disappeared, one night in 1980, from his dressing room at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had just played the violin at a concert, and the thief was an aspiring young violinist named Phillip Johnson, who had been seen loitering outside Totenberg’s office. With too little evidence to justify a search warrant, however, the violin remained in Johnson’s clutches for three more decades.

Apparently whenever Totenberg was asked if he thought his violin would ever be found, he always answered: ‘after I have kicked the bucket’. He turned out to be right: he died in 2012, aged 101, the year after Johnson’s own early death from cancer at the age of 58. The violin was found four years later, amongst Johnson’s belongings, while his ex-wife was doing some spring cleaning. It is now estimated to be worth $5 million.

3. Tubas and sousaphones in California

Here was a confounding case: a series of tuba and sousaphone thefts in several Los Angeles high schools between 2011 and 2013. More than 20 brass instruments, priced around $2000-$5000 each, were stolen from at least eight schools, leaving their marching bands bereft of tubas. Many suspected that the stolen goods were selling on the black market for banda ensembles, a traditional Mexican music - highly sought after at parties in California - in which tubas play a dominant role, and which can make at least $3000 for a night’s work.

More like this

4. 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius

It happened nine years ago in a Wisconsin Parking Lot. Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, had just performed at Wisconsin Lutheran, and was putting his violin case in the back seat of his car, when he noticed a flashing light. He thought someone was trying to take his picture. But a few seconds later, he was on the ground, struck by a taser, as a van sped out of the parking lot carrying his violin and two bows.

That violin happened to be the 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius, constructed during the luthier’s ‘golden period’ and worth $5-6 million, with a heritage almost as famous as its sound: it had been played by Giuseppe Tartini, it had survived the Cuban revolution, during which its sale helped a Havana musician flee to the US, and it had been played in concerts across Europe by a woman who escaped the Nazis.

All of which turned out to be the robbers’ undoing, since hawking an instrument of such fame and expense is pretty impossible: the culprits - two men and a woman - were arrested by Milwaukee police on 3 February 2014.

5. George Harrison’s ‘Lucy’ guitar

Another Beatles story, this one involving a cherry-red Les Pauls electric guitar belonging to George Harrison. Affectionately named ‘Lucy’ after the redhead comedian Lucille Ball, it was gifted to Harrison by his friend Eric Clapton in 1968, around the same time that the Beatles were recording the White Album. Harrison went on to play it as one of his principal guitars, not least in the promotional videos for ‘Revolution’, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and the 1970 documentary film ‘Let it Be’. But in 1973 Lucy was stolen from under his bed in a burglary at Harrison’s home in Beverley Hills. It was sold, and resold, eventually ending up in the hands of a musician in Mexico, before being returned to Harrison in a lengthy notation process. Harrison kept Lucy until his death in 2001.

6. 1719 Lauterbach Stradivarius violin

Named after Johann Christoph Lauterbach, a virtuoso German violinist, who bought it in the mid-19th century, this violin has a dark and murky life story: it was deposited for safekeeping with the National Museum of Warsaw during the Second World War but was stolen from the museum chapel in 1944 by the retreating Germans - and nobody is quite sure what happened next.

According to United States military records, the instrument was found in 1948 by Stefan P Munsing, an American officer, at the home of Theodor Blank, a former SS member, in Heinrichsthal, Germany. The Americans insisted that it was later returned to Poland - a fact that the Polish Ministry of Culture later denied. Then, in 2022, an anonymous individual contacted Musique et Spoliations, an organisation in Paris that locates musical instruments confiscated by the Nazis, to confirm the provenance of their violin: it was tentatively identified as the missing Stradivarius.

7. Francesco Goffriller cello

In this disturbing incident from 2018, the award-winning French cellist Ophélie Gaillard was robbed at knifepoint of her 1737 Francesco Goffriller cello, worth around £1.3 million, outside her home in a Paris suburb. But the attacker, who also ran off with her mobile phone and her 19th century Persoit cello bow, evidently got cold feet after Gaillard put an appeal on Facebook, broadcasting the theft and value of the cello.

Presumably realising the risks involved in any attempt to sell such an instrument, the thief smashed the window of a car on Gaillard’s street, placed the cello inside, then made an anonymous phonecall telling Gaillard where to find it. ‘Beautiful and amazing news!’ Gaillard later posted on Facebook, ‘The Francesco Gofriller cello…and my Jean-Marie Pursuit bow, were found in Pantin this morning in good condition. These past two days have been appalling. I was devastated. A part of myself was torn off…I have had incredible luck which I wish on all victims of this kind of trauma!’

8. 1713 Huberman Stradivarius

Now belonging to the violinist Joshua Bell, this striking, flame-backed instrument comes with a remarkable history of theft and recovery, given that it was stolen not once, but twice, from its previous owner, the Israeli violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The first theft took place in 1916, when it was briefly taken while Huberman was on tour in Vienna, and recovered just a few days later. The second time, however, in 1936, it disappeared for nearly 50 years after being stolen from Huberman’s dressing room while he was playing his second violin in a Carnegie Hall concert.

Nobody is quite sure exactly why it was stolen, or even who stole it. What we do know is that it ended up the hands of a Juilliard-trained freelance violinist called Julian Altman. Some say he had purchased the violin from the thief for $100, others that he had stolen it himself. Either way, he played the instrument for the next few decades, taking pains to disguise it by covering its varnish with shoe polish. But in 1985 he made a deathbed confession to his wife, revealing the instrument’s real identity. She took it to Lloyd’s, who, after a lengthy restoration, sold it to Norbert Brainin, first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet. He played it for the remainder of his career, until selling it to Joshua Bell for around $4 million in 2001. It’s worth at least $14 million now.

8. Baby Steinway Grand

You’d think it would be pretty hard to steal a piano, let alone one from a busy hospital, in broad daylight. But in 2013 three men did just that, brazenly wheeling a baby Steinway grand out of Toronto General Hospital on a trolley. When staff asked them what they were doing, they said they were taking the instrument to be tuned, and it took four days for volunteers at the hospital volunteers to notice that the piano, estimated to be worth around $27,000, was missing. Luckily the culprits - all in their twenties - were caught on CCTV and the piano was recovered about a week later.

10. Sally Beamish’s viola

When the composer and viola player Sally Beamish went to bed one night in 1989, without taking her instrument upstairs with her as usual, she had no idea she was about to reach a crossroads in her life. The following morning she woke to the sound of a door closing quietly downstairs: the house had been burgled and amongst the stolen items was her precious viola: a 1747 model made in Florence by Gabriele with an ‘M’ branded on the back to show that it once belonged to the Medici family.

Losing the viola, she later recalled, was the darkest moment of her life, particularly when, after weeks of scouring markets and antique shops, she had to give up hope of ever finding it. But it was also a pivotal moment: she credits it with giving her the courage to start composing full-time, a career choice that Beamish, who was awarded an OBE in 2020 for services to music, has never regretted.


Photo: Paul McCartney with his 1961 Höfner bass © Getty


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.