A burglar stole a cello worth $250,000. But its value could actually doom this “art heist.”


The burden of grief that Sarah Rommel carried at Boston’s Carriage House Violins on Tuesday morning felt much heavier than that of the 134-year-old cello she had been carrying around since 2022. The Seattle-based chamber musician was reluctantly looking for a rental instrument for an upcoming performance with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston.

Nine days earlier, a brazen burglar had left shock and heartache at the site of Rommel’s prized 1890 Enrico Marchetti cello, worth about $250,000.

“It’s hard to convey the gravity of such a loss to people who have no real connection to a thing and not to a person,” Rommel told KUOW. “But it’s like losing a loved one.”

The thief also left a wrench in the front yard of their home in Seattle’s Central District, which he used to break a window and gain entry while Rommel was traveling. In addition to the cello, they took two bows – one worth about $20,000 – as well as two cameras, a camera lens and a backpack containing other valuables.

But it’s what the burglar didn’t take — “an almost identical bow case with a much cheaper bow, about $4,500” — that suggests the break-in wasn’t random, Rommel said.

“There are these elements that make me and those we’ve spoken to about it feel like it was targeted,” she said.

Retired FBI agent and art crime investigator Robert Wittman agrees with that assessment.

“There is someone who knows them (and knows what kind of instrument it is”), said Wittman, who is not involved in the burglary investigation. “It’s not a random break-in.”

Rommel said that to her knowledge, few people in her social circle were familiar with the value of the cello. Seattle police have not publicly identified any suspects.

“The first people I would talk to would be all the people who knew them, knew about (the cello) and then talked to their families and went from there,” Wittman said.

Even though the thief may have disappeared from the scene of the break-in, attempting to sell such a clearly identifiable instrument could jeopardize his luck.

“When you have a piece that valuable and that old, people in the industry who would be interested in buying it know what kind of piece it is,” Wittman said. “And they might also find out that this was stolen.”

Trying to sell the instrument at a pawn shop probably wouldn’t go over well, Wittman said.

“If you go to a pawn shop and try to sell a cello, you might get $100 or $200,” he said. “It’s not like jewelry where you can pop out the stones or melt the gold. It must be kept in good condition and identified for what it is. And then you have to offer it to someone who knows exactly what they’re buying.”

Caption: WARNING: STOLEN, THIS IS AN ART ROBBERY, reads a handout from Rommel's office at the University of Washington.

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Additionally, flying with such a large and fragile instrument could attract unwanted attention. Airlines typically require you to purchase an airplane seat in order to safely store a cello in the cabin.

Rommel, in turn, notified the Port of Seattle police and local luthiers, warning them that their stolen instrument could be coming their way.

“We probably had a message in the inbox of every luthier or luthier from Vancouver, B.C. to Portland letting them know,” Rommel said.

In the meantime, the show must go on.

At Carriage House Violins on Tuesday, Rommel tried out many bows and cellos but couldn’t identify with any of them, she said.

“Today was one of the more difficult days for me in terms of dealing with the shock and sadness of no longer having my instrument and potentially losing it forever,” Rommel said. “(Trying out instruments) would normally be an exciting and fun thing. But I really didn’t want to be there. I didn’t think anything could compare to my Marchetti cello.”

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