Thousands of violins have passed through John Montgomery’s violin shop on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh in its more than 30-year run. But one, brought to him last Monday, made a special impression.
Built in the 18th century by Italian violin maker Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi, the violin was a masterpiece, worth roughly $200,000. And the man who wanted to sell it to Montgomery, Leslie Edward Fields, could not keep his story straight.
The violin, as well as three others that Fields and another man sold to Montgomery earlier this spring, had been stolen from violin shops near Atlanta. Montgomery’s recognition of the theft resulted in the arrests of the two men, and the recovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stolen musical instruments.
“Mr. Montgomery is really the big hero in this,” said Megan Hallam, office manager for Atlanta Violins, which recovered five stolen violins, worth $40,500. The $200,000 violin was stolen from Ronald Sachs Violins, also in the Atlanta area.
Montgomery, 61, buys, sells and restores violins, in addition to building his own. Fields, 52, of Atlanta was a “fast-talker,” Montgomery said, but when pressed on how he came into possession of the valuable Landolfi violin, he started tripping over his words.
At one point, Fields told Montgomery that he would not disclose where he got the violins.
“I won’t buy your instruments until you can tell me where they’re from,” Montgomery remembers telling him, and so Fields wrapped the violins in cloth and left. Strange that he would not protect such valuable instruments in cases, Montgomery thought.
Montgomery took to the Internet to find out more about the violins Fields offered. He identified them using details such as marks in the wood or design features of a particular maker. Expensive violins are more similar to a painting than a middle school trumpet; they typically do not have serial numbers.
“I’m an expert,” Montgomery said. “I’ve worked with them all my life so I know the differences.”
He found the violins in the online inventories of the two Atlanta-area violin shops. Ronald Sachs Violins, which lost the Landolfi, had reported the theft already. Atlanta Violins did not know any were missing.
Montgomery purchased another violin from Fields a week prior, as well as two from Gary Crouse, 60, of Roswell, Ga., under similar circumstances. He looked into those, too, after Fields aroused his suspicions, and they were missing from the same shops.
“He must have walked out with them,” said Hallam, adding that staff saw Fields in the store wearing a suit jacket. She said the shop suspects the jacket was modified to conceal the instruments. Security camera footage from Ronald Sachs Violins shows Fields taking the violin to a bathroom, concealing it in his jacket and walking out of the store.
After speaking with the shop owners, Montgomery notified the Violin Society of America, a professional group for violin shop owners nationwide. The group’s president, Lori Kirr, sent an email alert to its members.
“If either of these men come into your shop, call the police and if you can try to stall them safely until the police arrive,” Kirr wrote of the two thieves that Montgomery identified.
The community of violin shop owners is tight-knit and connected online, Kirr said. She said that organized thefts are extraordinarily uncommon, and shop owners rallied quickly in support of each other.
“If you try to sell stolen violins, it’s not going to be so easy,” Kirr said.
The nationwide alert proved unnecessary when Crouse showed up at Atlanta Violins. Staff recognized him from a photocopy of his license that Montgomery had shared with them. He made the copy when he purchased the violins from Crouse in April.
Atlanta Violins staff called police and talked with Crouse to keep him in the store. He was strangely eager to talk, Hallam said, having come to the store looking for free violin cases, claiming to represent a children’s orchestra.
“It felt a little bit like being caught up in a spy caper,” Hallam said.
Roswell police arrived and questioned Crouse, then trailed him to a nearby hotel room, unable to arrest him on the spot for the thefts. They later executed a search warrant for the room and recovered the stolen violins in addition to oboes, trumpets and a clarinet.
Ronald Sachs Violins is still missing two violins that were not recovered after the arrest and are worth $35,000, staff members said.
Crouse and Fields were charged with felony theft by receiving stolen property and are being held in the Fulton County (Ga.) Jail. Fields has a lengthy criminal record in Georgia, including theft charges earlier this year.
Montgomery said he was encouraged by the way the community of violin shop owners came together to put a stop to the scheme. He said his experience with the craft not only allowed him to pick out the stolen goods but also made him especially committed to putting a stop to the operation.
“We’re connected, we’re supportive,” Montgomery said of violin shop owners. “This is something that no one would wish on anybody.”