A Local Life: Tom Roberts, violin collector and anonymous Smithsonian donor, 75

The name “Tom Roberts” appears on no plaque in the Smithsonian Institution’s musical instruments collection. At no concert, even when Mr. Roberts was in attendance, did Smithsonian chamber musicians reveal that he was one of their greatest benefactors. Among museum curators, he was known as “Mr. Anonymous.”

Only a few of his closest acquaintances knew that for nearly two decades, Mr. Roberts owned one of the most prized instruments in the world — the “Hellier” violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari at the end of the 17th century.

(Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution/COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION) - Antonio Stradivari's "Hellier" violin, one of the most fabled musical instruments in the world. Thomas M. Roberts, who loaned the Hellier to the Smithsonian Institution from 1979 until 1987, died June 11, 2012, at age 75.

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.

Mr. Roberts picked up the book “A Thousand Mornings of Music,” an account by Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor of Esquire magazine, about his own romance with the violin. In Mr. Roberts’s copy, either bought from or never returned to the Memphis Public Library, a faint pencil mark indicates the address of the first dealer he visited: the storied William Moenning & Son in Philadelphia.

His research led him to Alfredo Halegua, a sculptor and violin dealer in Washington, who over the next several decades guided Mr. Roberts through the world of fine violins. In an interview, Halegua said he was not at liberty to reveal how much Mr. Roberts paid for his instruments or how much he received when he sold them. Many Strads have fetched a million dollars or more, and sometimes many millions.

The Hellier, which Mr. Roberts bought in 1979 from a member of the Wurlitzer family in New York and sold in 1998 to collector Herbert Axelrod, was the jewel of his collection. During his career, Stradivari is believed to have built about 1,100 instruments, with only about a dozen of them embellished with intricate patterns of inlaid wood and other delicate accoutrements. Of the decorated instruments that exist today, the Hellier — named for the Englishman who is said to have bought the instrument from Stradivari’s workshop in the 1730s — is the best preserved, Smithsonian curators said.

When Mr. Roberts was preparing to move to Washington in 1980, Halegua proposed the Smithsonian as a temporary home for the collection. Mr. Roberts liked the idea, largely because he knew that at the Smithsonian, unlike at some museums, the instruments would be used for concerts and recordings.

Today the institution has — and routinely plays — five Stradivarius instruments, including a set of four donated by Axelrod in 1998. The collection also includes six instruments (one of them a donation from Mr. Roberts) built by Nicolo Amati, the reigning master before Stradivari, as well as a dozen instruments made by other important 17th- and 18th-century Italian craftsmen.

By playing such instruments, said Kenneth Slowik, the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, “you can have a chance to hear being made real something that existed only in your imagination.”

Thomas Morgan Roberts was born April 14, 1937, in Memphis. A 1959 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he served in the Navy for three years before joining his father’s business. He became chief executive at 32.

In his second term on the NRC, several members of Congress called on Mr. Roberts to resign because of his alleged favoritism toward the nuclear power industry and “malfeasance” involving the leak of a government document to a Louisiana power plant.

Mr. Roberts denied any wrongdoing and insisted that as a commissioner he had voted his “mind and . . . principles,” and remained on the commission until the end of his term.

His first marriage, to Elizabeth Boyle, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Eleanor Little Lombard Roberts of Washington; three daughters from his first marriage, André Roberts Koester of Bronxville, N.Y., Elizabeth Roberts Dalgard of Chevy Chase and Elinor Roberts of Brooklyn; two stepchildren, Laura Lombard of Brooklyn and John Lombard of Northampton, Mass.; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Despite his contributions to classical music, Mr. Roberts did not play the violin.

He tried to learn in retirement, but the lessons went so badly that he sheepishly refused to practice while his wife was at home.

At Mr. Roberts’s request, no eulogy was delivered at his funeral service. In fact, his name was mentioned only in passing.