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Finding stolen cello after 16 years was music to his ears

Vahe Hayrikyan thought his 200-year-old instrument was gone for good. But a cello teacher nicknamed 'Columbo' called to say he was sure he'd cracked the case.

June 09, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Vahe Hayrikyan, left, is reunited with his artfully crafted cello that was stolen out of his car 16 years ago and later fell into the hands of Gary Mandell, right, owner of Boulevard Music in Culver City.
Vahe Hayrikyan, left, is reunited with his artfully crafted cello that… (Kathleen Weil )

At 2 o'clock on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 1996, cellist Vahe Hayrikyan of Sun Valley parked on North Martel Avenue in Hollywood and entered an apartment building to meet with his pianist about a recital. Twenty minutes later, he stepped back outside to find his car window smashed.

His car stereo was gone, but that was replaceable. Also gone was his cello, a 200-year-old blond beauty, which was not. Nor were his two bows, one of which had been given him by a dear friend and was worth roughly as much as the cello.

"I felt as if I was having a heart attack. Everything stopped," said Hayrikyan, a music teacher and member of the Pasadena Orchestra.

His hands knew every inch of the cello's fine maple features and artfully crafted scroll. He was told that the instrument might be Italian-made and probably worth far more than the few thousand dollars he had paid for it.

"It becomes a part of your life, of your soul, of your body," said Hayrikyan. "I felt a very deep emptiness."

It was a feeling he'd experienced once before. Hayrikyan bought the cello in Armenia in 1986 but couldn't get it out of the country because the Soviet Union was restricting the flow of instruments. So Hayrikyan had left his cello with a friend when he moved, in 1990, to the U.S. Two years later, his friend managed to transport the cello first to Czechoslovakia, then England, and finally to Los Angeles, where Hayrikyan and his cello were reunited in 1992.

And then the theft. Hayrikyan kicked himself for having left the cello in his car. But the vehicle's windows were tinted, it was the middle of the day and, regrettably, he was a little too trusting.

Hayrikyan immediately went to the police to file a report, then did a little detective work on his own, to no avail.

"Do you know how many pawn shops there are in Hollywood?" he asked.

His next move was to sign up for a national stolen instrument registry, so that if anyone tried to unload it at a music store, they'd get flagged. But months passed, then years, and hope slowly faded. Hayrikyan bought another cello and moved on, but he never forgot about the one that got away.

I'll get back to him in a moment. But first, a little detour.

Early in 2011, 15 years after Hayrikyan's instrument went missing, Gary Mandell, the owner of Boulevard Music in Culver City, bought a used cello as a rental instrument. He paid $900 to a friend who had been given the cello in lieu of payment for a house-painting job. Mandell forgot about the cello for a few months, then saw an ad in The Times for instrument appraisals and figured he'd find out what the cello was really worth.

Unclear, said the appraiser. Maybe $5,000 or $10,000.

The cello instructor at Mandell's shop, Kevan Torfeh, thought it might be worth far more and recommended different appraisers, none of whom could agree on the true value. Mandell eventually shipped it to Chicago, where a nationally known appraiser was stumped about its origins and sent it back.

Early this year, Mandell decided to try to sell it. Two people were interested, and by chance, I've met both of them.

The first was Mandell's friend Robert David Hall, an actor who lost both legs in a highway collision many years ago and plays a coroner on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Hall introduced President Obama in 2010 at a White House celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I was there along with my friend, former Juilliard student and skid row resident Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers performed at the same event.

Hall offered $7,500 for the cello, which he wanted to give to his wife as a present. But Torfeh, the cello teacher, wanted it too. Torfeh, who has played with my friend Nathaniel in concert with the African American Chamber Music Society Orchestra, offered $8,500, but Mandell had already agreed to the deal with Hall.

Here, I should point out that Mandell calls Torfeh "Columbo," apparently for an occasionally rumpled appearance and a clunky old car. Well, Columbo was at home one night in February when it occurred to him that there was something oddly familiar about the cello. For one thing, the rosin in the case was a French brand favored by a friend of his. And the same friend always went to a repairman named Anthony Lane, whose name was on the bridge of the cello.

The friend was Vahe Hayrikyan, and "Columbo" called him immediately to say he was almost certain he'd cracked the case of the missing cello.

Hayrikyan was elated, but also cautious. He braced himself against disappointment as he drove to Boulevard Music. He was carrying a folder with photos of the cello, but Mandell got all the evidence he needed when Hayrikyan knew the name on the bridge and described a triangle-shaped repair on the neck. Hayrikyan handed him a business card that had a photo of the very cello on it.

Alas, Hayrikyan opened the case to find his cello, just as he'd left it. The two bows were still there, too.

Mandell had just lost out on a $7,500 payday. But as a musician himself, he was thrilled to reunite another musician with a prized instrument that had been on the lam for 16 years.

Hayrikyan covered Mandell's expenses and agreed to give a concert at the shop later this year. To his friend Kevan "Columbo" Torfeh, he gave one of the two bows.

On Friday morning, all three men gathered at Mandell's shop on Sepulveda. Hayrikyan brought the cello with him and, in the quiet of the shop before it opened for business, delivered a beautiful rendition of the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor.

When he was done, and the applause fell quiet, Hayrikyan smiled and said:

"I still can't believe it."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

For more Lopez columns, a 10-year collection can be found at http://www.latimes.com/store

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