10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
The last sound Richard Steel heard from his violin was the horrible crunching noise it made as a bus ran over it outside the Reading railroad station, about 30 miles west of London. Steel, a music student at Goldsmiths' College in London, was waiting to be picked up when the bus driver asked him if he would move a barrier blocking his way. Steel obliged, forgetting that his luggage—including his violin case—was directly in the path of the bus.
The damage done, Steel gathered up what was left of the fiddle his parents had bought for $35 in a secondhand store 10 years earlier and went to the bus company office to file his claim for reimbursement. There he spotted something that all but unstrung his bow. Inside the wreckage of the violin was a faded sticker that read, "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat 1715—Made by Antonio Stradivarius of Cremona, 1715." Steel was holding what appeared to be a priceless work of art—or at least the remnants of a priceless work of art. "Seeing the inscription, I realized that it could well be a very valuable instrument worth thousands upon thousands of pounds," says Steel. Indeed. Genuine Strads can go for $1 million.
His sense of humor remarkably intact, Steel filled out the necessary claim form. "Crushed violin," he wrote, "possible Stradivarius." Within a few days, however, experts at Christie's auction house in London determined that the violin was not a Stradivarius, but a masterful fake, valued at $565.
Steel, 18, is relieved. "It would have been absolutely shattering if it had been a true Stradivarius," he says. "I suppose one can cynically say I was disappointed I wasn't going to get a lot of money, but I'll have to take the moral stand and say it would have been a tragedy for me as a musician if a real Stradivarius had been destroyed."
A noble sentiment, Mr. Steel. And the bus line's insurance company couldn't agree with you more.