The Sourest Note

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN THE MUSTY YET ELEGANT MANHATTAN apartment of violin virtuoso Erica Morini, violins are etched into the light fixture in the hallway. A violin-shaped vase hangs on a kitchen wall. Violin paperweights secure piles of mail in the master bedroom. But the Vienna-born Morini, who died of heart failure on Nov. 1 at age 90, kept her real treasure concealed: Locked for 20 years in a bedroom closet was the touchstone of her life, a 268-year-old Stradivarius, appraised at $3.5 million. As Morini lay in Mount Sinai Hospital before coming home to die, she often spoke anxiously of the instrument. "She would say, 'Is my violin all right?' " recalls family friend Erica Bradford, 63, who looked after the childless widow. "She was starting to think people were stealing from her."

And she was right, as Bradford discovered on Oct. 18 when she double-checked the closet and found the Stradivarius missing. There was no sign of forced entry, suggesting that whoever took it had used a set of keys.

Morini, who died unaware of the crime, had willed any profits derived from selling the violin, along with the remaining $2 million of her estate, to charities serving the blind, the elderly and handicapped children. The FBI has issued an international alert for the instrument, and the executor of her estate has offered a $100,000 reward for its safe return. Fencing it will be a daunting challenge: Known as the Davidoff Stradivarius, after a Russian cellist who once owned it, the violin is well-known to dealers.

Even among the coveted Stradivari—about 635 violins made by Antonio Stradivari, the great Italian craftsman of the 17th and 18th centuries, still survive—this instrument is special for its rich tones. "I've seen a lot of Stradivari in my time," says violin maker and rare-instrument dealer Brian Skarstad, 44. "But this one was like opening a treasure chest."

Morini's father, a music teacher, had purchased it for her 70 years ago in Paris—for $10,000. By then Erica was performing around the globe. Fleeing the Nazis, she moved to New York City in 1938 and married Felice Siracusano, a Sicilian diamond broker, who died in 1985. Morini was often called the world's greatest female violinist, gender-specific praise she loathed. "Either I am a great violinist," Morini snapped a half-century ago, "or I am not."

In 1976, plagued with arthritis in her fingers, she retired. Isolated at the end, she clung more passionately than ever to the instrument. Skarstad recalls visiting Morini earlier this year and watching her—frail and almost blind—listen as another musician played it. "It filled the room, like a great violin should," he says. "To see her eyes light up when she heard it was wonderful."

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