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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now the story of a string quartet, a subway thief and a priceless violin that went solo on the New York City subway system.

Mr. TOM CHIU (Violinist): My violin definitely took a curious journey.

ELLIOTT: That's avant-garde violinist Tom Chiu. His story begins and ends underground.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Chiu who you hear playing here was returning home from a gig a couple of weeks ago with his string ensemble, the Flux Quartet.

Mr. CHIU: We finished the performance. It was pouring rain that night. And then when I get down to the subway, it was, you know, more humid and hot and it was past midnight and I just - I dozed off.

ELLIOTT: And slept pretty soundly apparently. He had with him his violin, a laptop…

Mr. CHIU: …and a backpack and an umbrella.

ELLIOTT: An umbrella. So you wake up…

Mr. CHIU: …and only my umbrella was there.

ELLIOTT: To understand what happened next, you have to know what Tom Chiu lost in a flash. He lost a 13-year intimate connection with his instrument. When Stefano Scarampella handcrafted the violin nearly a century ago, he created an instrument with a balanced tone, beautiful curves, and Chiu says, a royal back.

These days, Scarampella violins can cost up to a hundred thousand dollars, but Chiu says the monetary value doesn't compare to his relationship with the violin he has played for most of his adult life.

Mr. CHIU: You know, it sings to me like, obviously, in a way that no other instrument does. It takes time - it takes a long time for a violinist to develop that bond with an instrument.

ELLIOTT: So what did Chiu think when he woke up with only his umbrella.

Mr. CHIU: I think my first thought was no thought at all. I was just completely mentally frozen. I don't even know how to describe it in words. It's definitely, I think, the closest personification to a nightmare that I really wanted to wake up from.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: This is one of the pieces Tom Chiu played with the Flux Quartet the night his violin disappeared. Over the next six days, he played a backup violin and contemplated life without his Scarampella. He alerted musical antique dealers to be on the look out and prayed his thief would keep the violin safe. Then on Tuesday, the phone rang. A voice said…

Mr. CHIU: …are you missing an item? I think that was what it was. Are you missing an item?

ELLIOTT: It was a transit official in Coney Island. The violin had apparently changed trains and gone as far south as it could go underground. But its journey remains a mystery.

Mr. CHIU: It was brought in anonymously. So I still don't know who, when and how it was brought in.

ELLIOTT: Just before midnight, Chiu rushed down to the Coney Island station to reclaim it from the late shift subway workers.

Mr. CHIU: My wife and I were so joyous, and I guess our joy must have spread to them. And I gave a little impromptu performance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: What did you play?

Mr. CHIU: There was some request for Vivaldi, so I played a little Vivaldi.

ELLIOTT: Then perhaps in a nod to his brush with disorganized crime, Tom Chiu played the theme from "The Godfather."

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Maybe in the end a Scarampella is like an old mobster. There's only one real way to prevent its escape.

Mr. CHIU: One of my colleagues said the violin should be handcuffed to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Nonetheless, Tom Chiu did take the subway to our New York bureau for this chat, violin in hand and no shackles in sight. By the way, Chiu's laptop computer remains at large.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Well, Tom Chiu, congratulations on being reunited with your beloved violin.

Mr. CHIU: Thank you so much and I just wanted to thank everyone who helped me along the way.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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