SAN FRANCISCO — The vigilante got her stolen viola back -- strings attached.
In a case of dogged detective work and a remarkable dash of good fortune, a 24-year-old Conservatory of Music student here recently tracked down her purloined 1898 vintage Italian-made viola, foiling the thief as he tried to fence the $46,000 instrument at a Seattle violin shop.
To retrieve her father's cherished gift, Min Jong Shon and three friends set up a makeshift command post at a fellow student's apartment, using cellphones and laptop computers to send pictures of the orange-toned Giusette Deciato viola and its $10,000 bow to 300 music stores across the West Coast.
At one point, soon after the Oct. 26 theft, Shon phoned a San Jose music store moments after the thief had walked in to sell her viola. The man escaped, but police say they have identified the culprit, who had sold a $27,000 violin belonging to another conservatory student for $5,500 at the same store the day before.
Authorities this week issued an arrest warrant for Hyun Min Kim, 32, of Los Angeles, who is wanted in connection with a string of instrument thefts in at least two states. Kim is reportedly an accomplished musician who told storeowners that he once played for the Baltimore Symphony, police said.
San Francisco police say Shon played a near-solo role in solving her theft. "She's one very thorough detective," said burglary inspector Richard Leon. "I'd hire her in a heartbeat."
Shon, a shy woman who practices four hours a day, refused to take credit for breaking the case.
"I just feel so great," she said. "When I found that my instrument was gone, I couldn't do anything. I just kept thinking, 'Find my viola. Find my viola.' "
In the music world, thefts of expensive instruments are rarely solved but have profound effects on the victims.
Such capers have been portrayed in the film "The Red Violin," which shows how one coveted instrument, over a few centuries, survives war and theft, even going to the grave with one owner. Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell, who performed in the movie, purchased an instrument in 2001 that, he soon found, had its own exotic past.
Decades earlier, after a 1936 concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, a Stradivarius violin was stolen from Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman by a 20-year-old violinist who worked in a restaurant nearby.
For the next 50 years, the thief, Julian Altman, played the signature violin in both elegant Manhattan martini clubs and seedy dives. In 1985, he made a deathbed confession to his wife that he had stolen the instrument.
Shon's viola was stolen after she left a school practice room on a break. "The thief is a musician and is extremely targeted," said Carla Pasqualini, Conservatory of Music spokeswoman. "What he did was incredibly specific. He knows this community, knows music and knew the value of certain instruments."
Just this summer, a $3.5-million Stradivarius cello was stolen from the front steps of a cellist's home in Los Angeles. The instrument was found three days later near a Silver Lake trash bin by a woman who turned it in to police.
When Shon realized that her viola, bow and case were missing, she made one of the most difficult telephone calls of her life: to her father in Seoul to report the theft of the uninsured instrument she had owned for four years.
"My father bought it from my instructor in Korea and told me, 'You have to extend yourself with this viola,' " she said. "When I called, he tried to make me feel good. He told me, 'It's just an instrument.' "
Conservatory Dean Mary Ellen Poole said Shon applied the same dedication she used to become an accomplished musician to getting her viola back. "She didn't expect us to do anything for her," she said. "She just got on with it herself."
Shon's efforts to retrieve her viola illustrate the fierce protectiveness musicians feel for their instruments, Poole said.
"For those who play the viola, it goes even deeper: Their instrument is made of wood and was once a living thing," she said. "It's an instrument that's shaped like a person, like it's almost human."
Shon nearly cracked the stolen viola case two days after the theft when she called the San Jose music store. The thief realized that Shon was looking for the viola and, offering the storeowner a ruse, slipped out. Shon later learned he had previously gone to a local bank with the storeowner to withdraw some money, so she got a copy of the bank surveillance tape as evidence.
Realizing that Shon was on his tail, the viola thief vanished. Shon and her friends kept contacting music shops.
"We called a few in San Francisco and realized that he probably wouldn't try to sell the viola so close to home," she said. "So we spread the search."
Shon contacted Seattle music shop owner Henry Bischofberger, among hundreds of others. Days later, a man entered his shop looking to trade a viola.
The would-be seller asked to play a few violins, and Bischofberger took him to a practice room.