Thief's heir seeks proceeds from stolen Stradivarius Conn. high court to rule on division of finder's fee

November 06, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Marcelle Hall thought she had exhausted her 15 minutes of fame in 1987 when she returned a stolen Stradivarius to Lloyd's of London -- a violin that she said her husband told her on his deathbed he had stolen from a Carnegie Hall dressing room in 1936.

Hall, 78, said the "whole reward" of returning the violin was "to bring this beautiful instrument back to the world," but did receive a $263,000 finder's fee from Lloyd's. Now, in a case before the Connecticut Supreme Court, Hall's stepdaughter, Sherry Altman Schoenwetter, is seeking a portion of that fee.

Schoenwetter, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., is the daughter of Ms. Hall's late husband, Julian Altman, by a previous marriage and is his only other surviving heir.

She contends that Hall, as Altman's executor, should have added the finder's fee to his $40,000 estate, and two lower courts have agreed. The last judge to review the case described it as "more dramatic than the most contrived TV mystery show."

Hall was living in Bethel in 1985, when the 64-year-old Altman -- in a Torrington jail for sexually assaulting a child -- told her that she would learn "the secret" of his violin if she retrieved it from a friend and looked inside the cover of the case. There, Hall found newspaper clippings about a Stradivarius stolen during a concert at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 28, 1936.

Known as the Gibson Stradivarius for its original owner, the English violinist George Alfred Gibson, the 1713-vintage instrument was valued at $30,000.

"I went back and said to him, 'Do you mean to tell me that this is the same violin?' " Hall recalled. After first concocting a story about buying the violin for $100 from a fellow musician, Altman finally confessed, Hall said.

She says he told her that he took the instrument while its owner, the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, was performing with another violin. Altman later described how he and his mother -- who had always dreamed of her son becoming a great violinist -- plotted the crime.

The two chose Huberman as their victim, Hall said, because of the quality of his violin and because he was a foreigner who was unlikely to stay in the United States in search of his instrument. Lloyd's, the violin's insurer, paid Huberman $30,000.

Altman went on to become a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and performed at social occasions and for presidents and politicians with the stolen Stradivarius.

After his death in 1985, Hall consulted experts who confirmed that the violin was the Gibson Stradivarius. Two years later she returned it to Lloyd's and eventually collected a finder's fee of $263,000 (roughly 25 percent of the $1.2 million that British violinist Norbert Brainin paid Lloyd's for the instrument in February 1988).

But instead of going into Hall's pocket, that money should have been considered a part of Altman's estate, Schoenwetter says.

"Hall had a responsibility under common law to treat all assets of the deceased -- including the violin -- as his," said Schoenwetter's lawyer, Christopher Donohue.

Donohue described the case as fairly straightforward. "Since the finder's fee was derived from Altman's possession of the violin at the time of death, the subsequent right to the finder's fee is also possessed by the estate," Donohue wrote in his brief for the Connecticut Supreme Court.

"That's absurd," said Hall's lawyer, Jonathan Flatow. "If my client had returned the violin to Lloyd's while Altman was alive, would the courts have allowed him to sue to get the money? If so, then crime really does pay."

In his argument before the court, Flatow said that a "thief never acquires title to property he has stolen," and therefore neither the violin nor the finder's fee should be considered an asset of Altman's estate.

The Probate Court and the Superior Court have both ruled in Schoenwetter's favor. In his decision, the late Judge T. Clark Hull of the Superior Court characterized Hall's retention of the finder's fee as a "diabolical deed," tantamount "to an unlawful theft of the estate's property."

A decision by the state Supreme Court is expected by the end of the year. If that court upholds Hull's decision, Hall would be responsible for returning the finder's fee, plus interest.

Hall, who lives in a trailer in Claremont, N.H., said she spent the money long ago.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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