I was privileged to carry out a meticulous, time-consuming cleaning procedure and then, in 1987, a full restoration of the "Gibson"
Over my 21 years of work at this renowned establishment I was privileged to restore and study numerous precious antique instruments. Among these were a number by Stradivari. This was an invaluable experience for my later career. A few restorations during this time remain very memorable for me. Probably the most famous violin I was privileged to restore in our workshop was the so-called "Gibson" Stradivari of 1713, also known as the "Huberman". The story of the "Huberman" has inspired a novel by the French writer Frédéric Chaudière, himself a violin maker.
This violin had been in the possession of the Polish virtuoso Bronislav Huberman. While he was playing a concert on his Guarnerius violin on the 28th February, 1936, at Carnegie Hall in New York, the Stradivari disappeared from his double case. Huberman, who was informed of the theft during the interval, was not too distressed since the violin was adequately insured. Lloyds settled his claim later with a payment of £8000, a fraction of its value today.
In 1986 a violinist called Julian Altman was dying in his home when he asked his wife to take care of the violin under his bed. She looked into the case and found not only a violin, labeled "Stradivarius", but also some old, yellowed newspaper cuttings that told of the theft of the "Gibson". When questioned by his wife Altman admitted that this was, indeed, the "Gibson", saying that he had bought it from the thief for $100 shortly after it had been taken. Altman, who was described by his wife as an alcoholic, a gambler and worse, had, with the help of this instrument, made quite a career as a tearoom and pub fiddler. But he also played in the Washington Symphony Orchestra and found jobs at private high society parties and political gatherings. Nobody ever guessed the identity or exquisite nature of the dirty instrument on which he performed.
After the death of Altman, Charles Beare was requested by Lloyds to identify the violin. He flew to Connecticut with an old colour photograph of the "Gibson" that he had acquired from the Wurlitzer Violin Shop of New York and knew at first sight that the famous "Gibson" Stradivari of 1713 had indeed, after over 50 years, surfaced again.
When I first glimpsed it across the workshop as Charles held it up to me, I thought that this must be a fine French instrument. I was invited to look a little closer. There was certainly a layer of dark brown dirt but beneath it was an intense, deep red varnish, and beneath that an unmistakably vibrant and highly reflective Cremonese ground.
I was privileged to carry out a meticulous, time-consuming cleaning procedure and then, in 1987, a full restoration of the "Gibson" which took many more weeks. Then, 274 years after its creation, the violin was flown back to its birth place, Cremona, for the Stradivari exhibition. The violin was later bought by Norbert Brainin who played it for several years before selling it to Joshua Bell, who remains the owner of the "Gibson" Stradivari.