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Lost and Found. And Lost Again?

In 1967, this Stradivarius was found along an L.A. freeway. Twenty-seven years later, UCLA sued to bring the violin back home. But its odyssey may be far from over.

February 12, 2006|Carla Shapreau | Carla Shapreau is a violin maker and lawyer. She is the coauthor of "Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and Lawsuits in England and America."

Los Angeles, 1967

Nadia Tupica was driving down the freeway in her cream-colored convertible Thunderbird when she spotted what looked like a small body. She pulled over to investigate.

As Tupica approached the object on the ground, she must have been alarmed that someone was hurt--or worse. The searing August heat pulsed against her skin. The wall of sound from cars racing by filled her ears. But as Tupica got closer, she realized that what she had seen was not a body but an oblong case protected by a canvas cover lying among bits of trash, ice plants and poisonous oleander growing along the freeway corridor.

It would have been tempting to open the case right there. Perhaps Tupica leaned down, popped the two fasteners and lifted the lid. Sitting snugly within the case's plush green velvet lining were two violins and two bows. One violin looked far older than the other; its wood had aged amber-brown beneath worn varnish with plum-red remnants. Tupica picked up the case by its leather handle, put it in her T-Bird and drove off.

By the time I learned about Tupica she was dead. Having missed her by nearly two decades, I could not ask her what she thought when she opened the instrument case, or when she peeked into the f-hole carved into the belly of the older violin.

It was an f-hole, or sound hole, not unlike the ones I have carved on many violins. Squinting into the dimly lit interior cavity, Tupica would have seen the old rag-stock paper label, which bore the Latin version of the maker's name printed in black ink, still affixed with brittle hide glue to the violin's maple back. And this was not just any name; it was the name in the violin world: Antonius Stradivarius. Did she recognize the pedigree straight off? Could she have missed it somehow?

Tupica was 57 the day she found the violin. She never married. She had no children. After more than 30 years of teaching Spanish, she was enjoying her recent retirement. I thought of her as a spinster. Beyond that, though, my imagination could not muster any flesh on her bones. That is, until I began talking to several of her former students and fellow faculty at South Pasadena High School.

Miss Tupica was the Spanish teacher everyone wanted. By several accounts, she was more than beautiful. She was striking, a free spirit. Tall and elegantly dressed, she exuded confidence when she talked and moved. "She didn't walk; she strolled," one former student told me. On school days, she arranged her long, wavy brown hair in a stylish bun, into which she regularly stuck a pencil. Good-natured but strict, she "could wither you with a look if you talked in class," the student recalled. She taught sitting on a tall stool and exercised complete control over her class.

But Tupica wasn't all seriousness. Her T-Bird convertible and tales of youthful surfing at Los Angeles beaches on a redwood surfboard made quite an impression on her teenage students. One who knew her particularly well told me that Tupica also played the violin and viola. "Her warmth and great humor, combined with her unconventional lifestyle, made her the constant subject of fond gossip. I haven't met anyone before, or since, who had such an impact on me. And I'm not the only one."

For 11 years Tupica kept her freeway find. Each time she held or played the Stradivarius, the moisture and salt from her skin left their invisible traces, absorbed into the instrument's wooden cells. Tupica, like others before her, subtly wore away the varnish, the spruce and the maple, transforming the violin's appearance into the sum of those encounters.

Surely, she must have asked herself how the violin had ended up on the side of the road. When she edged toward sleep, when she played it, when she drove by the place where she first saw it, Tupica must have flipped the facts around in her mind and considered the possibilities. Was the violin stolen or abandoned? Why was it dumped among the freeway jetsam? If someone had thrown it out, maybe she thought it was her destiny that the violin had come to her, to enjoy and to protect. Was it tossed from a passing car by design, for some strange revenge? Had it landed on the freeway by mistake--left on the roof or trunk of a car by an unwitting driver?

However the different scenarios swirled like snowflakes in Tupica's mind, they evidently came to rest in a way that let her comfortably proceed with her life, keeping the violin as her own.

The Stradivarius sat stranded under Tupica's bed until shortly before she died from colon cancer at the age of 68, in April 1978. She lived with her mother, Wanda, on North Maltman Avenue in Silver Lake. The house, Tupica and her mother are now gone. Only the violin remains.

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