Ebony and Larceny

Info:Correction Date: 07/30/1998
Ebony and Larceny

How did a stolen Steinway concert grand end up in North Miami? It's a long and sordid tale.

By Kirk Nielsen
Jonathan Rosen, a 34-year-old entrepreneur of the well-coifed, Italian-loafers-with-no-socks variety, has a very hot commodity: a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. He bought it in May for $5000. When he learned the instrument was worth more than that -- it originally cost $72,000 -- he practically danced a mazurka. There's just one problem. The piano was stolen in 1995.

Now Rosen must contend with Steinway, which owned the piano, and St. Paul Fire and Marine, which had insured the piano before it mysteriously disappeared from a moving van in Broward County. The company has already paid off Steinway. "In general, if we pay for it, we own it," says Lynn Halverson, a St. Paul claims manager.

Steinway concert grand pianos are among the most coveted in the world. The Long Island-based company builds only about 50 of them per year. In February 1995 workers at the factory loaded the nine-foot-long instrument into a moving van. Destination: a weeklong National Chopin Piano Competition at the Gusman Center in downtown Miami. An equally pricey Yamaha concert grand and three smaller pianos were also onboard.

The truck drivers were directed to stop at Hale Piano in Pompano Beach, where technicians would fine-tune the instruments. On the evening of February 24, the drivers checked into the Ocean Lodge Motel in Fort Lauderdale, police report. By the next morning the van was gone. It turned up in a ditch in Miramar.

What happened next is still "nebulous," according to Mike Savas, Hale's vice president of marketing. After recovering the van, the two drivers proceeded to Hale Piano. When they flung open the truck's doors, the men discovered something more minimalist than a John Cage composition -- empty space. Savas is still vexed. "For some unknown reason the drivers were surprised that the pianos weren't there," he recalls.

Savas reported the theft to Fort Lauderdale detectives, but the investigation languished. The Chopin competition went on without the prized pianos and the crime was largely forgotten.

Then the Steinway reappeared at a storage facility in the north of the county. How it got there is a mystery. Much about the instrument is still unknown, but here's what a New Times investigation turned up: On May 22 a Haitian junk dealer named Ben bought a nine-foot grand piano for $1100 at an auction at Security Self Storage Warehouses on NW 167th Street. During the bidding, the piano was covered by a packing cloth and could not be inspected or appraised. Ben, who declined to tell New Times his last name, did not know what kind of piano it was.

About a week later, Jonathan Rosen and Lev Reysher, a 45-year-old Belarussian junk dealer, determined that the piano was a Steinway. Though Reysher attended the auction and tried to buy the instrument, he was outbid. So they purchased it from Ben for $5000 and moved it to the air-conditioned house of a friend in North Miami.

So how did Rosen and Reysher find out their new piano was hot? Enter piano technician Lazaro Vega, owner of Everything for Pianos, a repair shop in North Miami. The 24-year-old Cuban exile is a classical music aficionado who attended the 1995 Chopin competition and heard about the thefts. "I remember that day I started thinking, 'Where are those pianos going to end up?'" says Vega. "I was thinking about that for a month, and then I forgot about it." He was reminded after Rosen asked him last May to appraise the Steinway.

When Vega spread his fingers on the keyboard and began a Rachmaninoff arrangement of the "Star-Spangled Banner," a cacophony issued forth. The instrument was terribly out of tune. Vega also found several cracks in the wooden soundboard inside -- the heart of a piano's sound quality. Rosen insists he was flabbergasted when Vega voiced his hunch that the piano was the stolen Steinway. When Rosen contacted Steinway, the number on the piano -- 139 -- struck a chord with the instrument's makers.

"I wouldn't have thought in a million years that it had been stolen," Rosen bristles. "Who goes and steals a concert grand piano and then puts it in a storage facility?"

What happens next? The piano rightfully belongs to the St. Paul insurance company, says Kristi Bettendorf, Miami-Dade deputy chief assistant state attorney. But Rosen's lawyer Sean King says the company must take legal action to reclaim the Steinway. "They will have to sue him to get this thing," he remarks. King says Rosen bought the piano in "good faith," so he should be allowed to keep it.

Rosen recently contacted the insurance company to propose a compromise: He would keep the piano and pay a settlement. But so far the company has not responded to the offer. Eventually Rosen and Reysher plan to sell it. Reysher, who was a construction engineer in Belarus before coming to the United States five years ago, still hopes to use proceeds from the piano's sale to attend college. He wants to leave the salvage trade. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of what you get is junk in this business," he laments. "You take this merchandise, you go to a flea market, you sweat all day long, and it's only enough to pay your bills, that's it.

Published:Owing to a reporting error in Kirk Nielsen's article "Ebony and Larceny" (July 16), the number of correct grand pianos manufactored annually by Steinway & Sons was misstated. The firm produces 120 each year.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen