And even fewer people knew that in 1979, Mr. Roberts lent his Hellier, a second Stradivarius, a dozen other rare Italian violins including one previously owned by Benito Mussolini, and 33 valuable bows to the musical instruments exhibit housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Along with the renowned instrument collection at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian holdings have helped turn Washington into one of the so-called Stradivarius capitals of the world. Three hundred years after they were built, Stradivari’s instruments are surrounded by a mystique that rivals the most timeless enigmas of the art world. No one knows why the Mona Lisa smiles. No one can replicate — although many have tried — the exquisite sound of a Strad.
Mr. Roberts, 75, died June 11 at Georgetown University Hospital from vascular disease, said his wife, Eleanor Little Roberts. Smithsonian curators credited his unprecedented loan — and the inspiration it provided to other donors — with transforming the string instruments exhibit from a modest attic hodgepodge into an internationally celebrated collection.
“It all began with Tom,” said curator emeritus Gary Sturm.
Mr. Roberts moved to Washington in 1980 from Memphis, where he had become a millionaire as chief executive of his father’s company, Southern Boiler and Tank Works. He sold the company, a manufacturer of components for nuclear reactors, in 1978. Just months later came the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, the most serious such accident in U.S. history.
Spared the financial fallout suffered by others in the industry, Mr. Roberts worked as the treasurer of George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. He then served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a government agency whose responsibilities include oversight of the nuclear power industry, until his retirement in 1990.
By then Mr. Roberts had reclaimed his instruments from the Smithsonian to gradually sell them off and devote himself to other collections — 17th-century Dutch paintings, prints by the renowned nature artist John J. Audubon, Imari porcelain. But none quite matched his love for the violin.
He started building his collection in the mid-1970s after his daughter signed up for Suzuki lessons. Knowing next to nothing about violins, he visited a Tennessee music shop and became intrigued by the wild differences in the instruments’ prices. One violin might cost a few hundred dollars, while another one — in no way different to his untrained eye — could command thousands.