How a Stolen Stradivarius Surfaced After 35 Years

Roman Totenberg was right to suspect Phillip Johnson: FBI
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 6, 2015 9:40 AM CDT
How a Stolen Stradivarius Surfaced After 35 Years
This handout photo shows The Ames Stradivarius, recovered by the FBI in June.   (FBI via AP)

Violinist Roman Totenberg always suspected who stole his $250,000 1734 Stradivarius violin from his office in Cambridge, Mass., after a concert in 1980. Security cameras spotted violinist Phillip Johnson, then 27, lingering outside the room and Johnson's ex-girlfriend later said he had taken it. Without proof, Totenberg could only hope he would one day see his "musical partner of 38 years" again. His wish went unfulfilled: He died in 2012 at age 101 without knowing where his violin—the Ames Stradivarius—was. Today, it falls back into the hands of the Totenberg family at a ceremony in New York, reports the violinist's daughter and NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg. She says the FBI called her in June to say the violin had surfaced in a locked case left to Johnson’s ex-wife when he died of cancer in 2011.

Appraiser Phillip Injeian, contacted by Johnson's ex-wife, doubted the Stradivarius' authenticity since just 550 are known to exist. Photos looked "so remarkably good," however, that he arranged a meeting. After half an hour, "I said these words, 'Well, I've got good news for you, and I've got bad news for you,'" Injeian says. "'The good news is that this is a Stradivarius. The bad news it was stolen 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg.'" Injeian reported the discovery to FBI agents, who found its measurements precisely matched those of Totenberg's instrument, as did pearl on the tuning pegs. Nina Totenberg tells the New York Times the Strad, now likely worth millions, will be sold to "another great artist who will play it in concert halls all over the world." She adds that her dad's bow, "made by the Stradivarius of bow makers, Francois Tourte," has not been recovered. (More Stradivarius violin stories.)

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