A rare, 281-year-old Stradivarius violin stolen in 1980 from a beloved musician and teacher has been found, according to Nina Totenberg, the National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent and daughter of the late violinist Roman Totenberg.
The prized Strad, crafted by the famed Italian luthier in 1734, disappeared after a performance by Totenberg in 1980 in Cambridge, Mass. Later today, at the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City, the instrument will be returned to his three daughters. Nina Totenberg declined to speculate on its value, though a Stradivarius violin sold for more than $15 million in 2011.
Roman Totenberg, a Polish-American violinist who played with major orchestras and became a leading teacher in the Boston area, died in 2012 at the age of 101.
“The agent said to me, that’s his one regret, that they didn’t get it back in time for him to see it and play it again,” said Nina Totenberg. “He was practicing two weeks before he died in 2012. But you know, I like to think that somewhere, somehow, he and my mother know about this. And who knows, maybe they made this happen.”
Totenberg rarely, if ever, spoke about the Strad, his daughter says. It had been stolen from his office on a Thursday night after a concert on May 15, 1980.
“It was like a death in the family,” said Totenberg, who will accompany her sisters, Jill and Amy, to today’s ceremony. “You just move on. But I’m sure he thought about it.”
The story of the Strad’s disappearance and recovery, as told by Totenberg in an interview, is a surreal tale that sounds like a cross between “The Thomas Crown Affair” and a Robert Ludlum novel. That night, Totenberg, 69 at the time, had performed a concert at the Longy School of Music, where he served as director. The instrument was taken from his office during a post-show reception. Totenberg’s suspicions centered on a young musician, Philip Johnson, whom he saw milling about after the performance. But Totenberg never had enough solid evidence to convince legal authorities to search the musician’s home.
It took 35 years, but in the end, he was right. Johnson, who moved to California in the 1980s, died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 58. He left his ex-wife an instrument in a locked case. It wasn’t until earlier this year, Totenberg said, that Johnson’s ex finally cracked the combination lock. She found the Stradivarius and sought an appraisal from an expert. The appraiser examined the violin, contacted the FBI Art Theft team and it was seized. The Totenbergs repaid the insurance company the $101,000 doled out back in 1980 so they could reclaim their father’s violin. The sisters will sell the Strad, but not to just anybody.
“What we know is that we’re not selling to somebody who is a collector unless it’s with a specific purpose of being played by somebody,” Totenberg said. “We all agreed it has to be sold for the purpose of performance.”
Nobody knows how much the instrument will fetch. Totenberg bought it for about $15,000 in 1943.
To celebrate the recovery, the Totenberg sisters plan to meet for lunch after today's presentation. Every evening, around 6 p.m., Roman Totenberg would have a shot of vodka along with cheese and crackers.
“We drank a shot of vodka to him when we buried his ashes,” said Totenberg, “and we’re going to do the same at lunch.”