Isabelle Weilbach-Lambelet (Foto: Matthias Lehmann)
Stories from the Orchestra

Lost for 13 Years

When a violin disappears, it's a nightmare. Isabelle Weilbach-Lambelet experienced it. And also the happy ending, much later, when no one expected it. No wonder, she has a very special relationship with her instrument.

"During my studies, I attended a master class in London with my piano trio. That was in 2005. The lessons were held in a stately home and they said you could leave your instruments there afterwards without any problem. Most did, but I've always been very careful, so I took my violin with me. One evening we went out for dinner with my trio and then took the train back to our accommodation. I put the violin on the luggage rack. For a moment I thought maybe that wasn't a good idea, but I left it up there anyway.

It was already pitch dark and we were deep in conversation about the future of our trio, so we almost missed the station where we had to get off. So we rushed out of the train at the last moment. Since my colleague didn't have her cello with her, I didn't notice anything at first. A few minutes later, however, our pianist asked me: 'Where's your violin?' In that second, my heart stopped, I immediately knew: it was on the train.

It was horror. I ran back to the station in a panic, but by now it was already midnight, no one was there. At a central number I could call, they said they knew of nothing, nothing had been handed in. This was followed by a pointless and desperate journey to Paddington Station in the hope of finding an open counter there. At 1am, of course, everything was closed. The next day I went to the lost property office and the police, filled in all sorts of forms about the lost instrument. It was a very beautiful old Italian violin. The policeman was briefly shocked at the value of the instrument, took the forms – and put them in a drawer.

That evening we had the final concert of the master class. For that, the lecturer lent me his violin. It was a highly emotional concert ..

Search – but how?

The next day I went back to Hamburg, where I was studying at the time. There I sat in my one-room flat, without a violin. It was terrible, I didn't have a replacement violin either. I felt infinitely lonely and helpless. Of course I kept looking, but it was difficult, also because the internet didn't offer as many possibilities as it does today. I constantly asked myself if I had really done everything possible.

At the same time, my studies and concert dates continued. My friend lent me his violin, and when the insurance fortunately paid, I was able to buy a new one after a long search. It was a very good instrument too, but it wasn't really mine. It was as if I had lost my voice, my sound, my identity as a musician.

Later I moved to Munich to continue my studies and then came to Zurich in 2009 to join the Tonhalle-Orchester. I kept my German phone number then, luckily! Because in 2018, 13 years after the drama in London, I had a message on my answering machine: please call me urgently, there was news.

Prevented auction

In fact, my old violin had turned up at a big auction house in London. When it was offered, the violin maker who had once sold it to us happened to be there. He recognised it, told the people in charge that it was a missing violin, and ultimately made sure that it was not auctioned. I saw a photo of it on the auction table on the internet. It was indeed my violin, and it was intact. So tangible and yet still out of reach. I was deeply touched and overjoyed!

But then it got really complicated, because of course I didn't just get the violin back. It stayed in the safe of the insurance company. The people who had brought it to the auction insisted that it was their grandfather's violin, which they had found in the attic. It was quite possible that this grandfather had once found my violin on the train, so from their point of view the story was true. But they couldn't provide any proof that the violin belonged to them. I, on the other hand, had the proof of purchase and photos of me with the instrument.

Time passed, nothing concrete happened. At some point I went to London, I just had to see my violin. What an emotion! First the sight of it – together with my two bows – and then the first notes on it. The lawyers only let me play it for ten minutes, but it was like 'coming home'. An incredible feeling of familiarity and happiness to find my sound again. Nothing had changed, the instrument had probably never been played in 13 years.

After that, another few months passed until everything legal was settled. A year after the news, I was allowed to pick up my violin in London. I flew back home as if in a dream. It was as if I had a loved one with me again. A miracle!

Now I have been allowed to play my violin again for four years. Every time I pick it up, I am filled with joy and deep gratitude to be reunited with it."

Recorded by Susanne Kübler

Translated with

published: 14.07.2023