The violin thief

The violin thief

Philip Johnson was a promising musical prodigy. Then he stole a teacher’s prized Stradivarius.

Published on March 17, 2016

He is dying, Q-tip elbows poking through a baggy shirt. Friends visit, spooning him ice cream and playing music. His daughters are around as well, stopping in after school, too young to process the grim scene. And there, carefully placed in the closet, out of view in the room his ex-wife has set up, is the Stradivarius.

Philip Johnson’s fingers are no longer strong enough to play any violin, never mind one so unforgiving. So he keeps the Strad in a plastic crate. The instrument is the only thing he has of value. It is also his biggest secret.

When he’s gone, the news will shock them all, from the FBI to his family to the daughters of Roman Totenberg, who stand to inherit the instrument. They will ask how this once-promising, later penniless eccentric stole an 18th-century violin worth millions — and got away with it. After all, he was the only suspect when it was taken in 1980. As death approaches, Johnson, usually the loudest voice in the room, keeps his mouth shut. It is the fall of 2011. This has been his secret for 31 years.

Johnson, who was never able to hold a job, a mortgage or a relationship, somehow accomplished something most everyone thought impossible: He played Totenberg’s Stradivarius in plain view until the end.

He did this through chaos and control, by building an impenetrable wall between his past and present. Those who suspected Johnson of the crime lost track of him. Those who knew him during the last two decades of his life had never heard of the Totenberg theft. They just thought Johnson had an old violin.

“Why,” asked Gregory Maldonado, a friend and fellow violinist, “would Phil have a Strad?”

Philip Johnson and his future wife, Thanh Tran, visiting the Grand Canyon during a cross-country move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Thanh Tran)

The trail remained ice-cold even after Johnson died of pancreatic cancer two weeks before Thanksgiving 2011. Then, last summer, Thanh Tran, Johnson’s ex-wife, decided to look into selling the violin. She had no idea it was a Strad.

A friend suggested she contact Phillip Injeian, a dealer in Pittsburgh. It was Injeian who, working off e-mailed photos, saw that it matched a Stradivarius built in 1734 and stolen from the late Totenberg.

Injeian arranged to meet Tran in New York in late June. He also called the FBI. Within hours of her showing him the violin, two agents with the agency’s art theft team swooped in to claim the Strad. They contacted the Totenbergs, including daughter Nina, the longtime National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent.

In August, during a packed news conference in Manhattan, the authorities returned the violin to the family.

[After 35 years, a stolen Stradivarius finds its way home]

Across town, in the locker room of the Metropolitan Opera, two musicians got ready for a rehearsal.

“Did you hear about Totenberg’s Strad?” asked cellist Jerry Grossman.

Abe Appleman paused. A name the violinist hadn’t thought of in years popped into his head.

“Was it Phil Johnson?” he asked.

“That’s exactly the guy,” said Grossman.

Johnson was sitting in the first violin chair at left for a photo of the Ridley High School Orchestra in the spring of 1969. (Photo courtesy of Tia Zink)

The secret

The crime defies logic. The young violinist, with so much ahead of him, brazenly acts while the master mingles in the next room. He leaves town under a butt of suspicion. And even as he squanders his career, he refuses to reveal his secret. This delicate, hand-crafted masterpiece of wood and gut strings is his to possess, to play, to imprison.

There were hints all along. Only now, in the months after the discovery, can those who came into contact with Johnson piece together how this cocky amateur became a professional thief.

His siblings think of his childhood just outside Philadelphia. The parents coddling the baby of the family, sparking a lifetime sense of entitlement. The ex-wife points to his anxieties, the ones that seemed to haunt his mother, and the manic behavior. The symptoms led her to consider the possibility of undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder. Others note Johnson’s relationship with God. He grew up deeply religious but later lost faith, railing at anyone who believed in a higher being.

In the end, Johnson’s sister admits that she will never fully unpack the mystery.

“Can we ever figure out what makes someone else tick?” Carol Anderson asks. “Do we really know ourselves that well? The Bible says, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ ”

One thing Johnson did know. The beauty of a Stradivarius.

The stringed instrument, named for the Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari, is considered the finest one can play. It is also very rare. Experts estimate that of the 1,000 or so violins crafted before Stradivari’s death in 1737, about 500 survive today.

“The magic of a Strad is very hard to put in words,” says violin star Joshua Bell. “It’s sort of the difference between listening to Pavarotti sing and listening to a very good tenor. When you play a Strad, a great Strad, there’s something about it. Like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what a violin should sound like.’ ”

In 2001, Bell paid nearly $4 million for a Stradivarius with its own fascinating history: In 1936, a journeyman player named Julian Altman snuck into Carnegie Hall and stole the violin from Bronisław Huberman, disguised it with thick layers of shoe polish and performed on the Strad in B-rate gigs for decades. The Altman theft was uncovered only when he died in the mid-1980s.

The story, in some ways, mirrors that of Totenberg, who knew Huberman and was also a supremely gifted Jewish violinist from Poland. There is an important exception.

Johnson was never meant to be a journeyman. At one time, he was thought by many, including his college teacher Joseph Silverstein — one of the great orchestral violinists of the 20th century — to be a dynamic player with considerable promise.

“The secret. I think the secret killed him,” says Maldonado, who knew Johnson for decades.

Concert, then a crime

It is May 13, 1980, and Totenberg is playing an all-Mozart recital at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. He is not just the star attraction that night. He is also the school’s director.

TOP: The Strad’s owner, Roman Totenberg, performs with composer Samuel Barber. ABOVE: Totenberg conducts a student orchestra. He led the string department at Boston University when Johnson studied there. (Totenberg family photos via NPR)

Johnson, here to attend the concert, isn’t famous, but after four years as a student in the tightly knit Boston music community, he’s a familiar face.

He is 27, a handsome man with Beatlesque brown hair. That night, Johnson brings a violin case to Pickman Hall and takes his seat. This case will be remembered later as authorities try to piece together how somebody could have smuggled a 246-year-old violin out of a crowded building.

Today, if you walk into Longy’s main building on the edge of Harvard Square, you’ll be captured on camera. That wasn’t the case in 1980. You could easily disappear within the building’s winding hallways.

That night, about 200 people packed Pickman to hear Totenberg perform with pianist Lily Dumont.

After performing, Totenberg scoots across the lobby and leaves the Stradivarius alone, in a dressing room connected to the director’s office. He steps out to mix with the crowd. When he returns, his violin case is gone. The FBI says that it was found nearby, but empty.

Who took it? Immediately, talk centers on one suspect. Phil Johnson.

“He had been seen in the building that day, and it was odd because he wasn’t a fan of Mr. Totenberg,” recalls Irene Quirmbach, a violinist who had studied with Totenberg. “We didn’t really understand why he was there.”

Kenneth Sarch, one of Totenberg’s former assistants, says Johnson was overheard grumbling that night that the aging master didn’t deserve such a fine instrument.

Karen Marie Marmer, then a young violinist visiting from New York, remembers running into Johnson in the lobby of Longy. She thinks it may have even been the night after the concert. He was agitated.

“I can’t believe they’re accusing me of something like this,” he told her.

Johnson as a boy. His older brother, Bobby, said: “He just kept at it and kept at it, and by the end of the summer, when it was time to go to school, he could play every hymn in the hymn book. We were absolutely dumbfounded.” (Family photos)

Folsom, Pa.

The Johnson family’s neighborhood, just a half-hour southwest of Philadelphia, is made up of the neat, modest brick houses that sprang up all across postwar America.

It was not a happy home. Robert, his father, had studied to become an artist before giving it up to become a machinist. Marion, his mother, is paralyzed by anxiety and depression. By the time the children come along — Robert Jr., Carol and finally Philip — Marion won’t so much as leave the house for the supermarket.

“She would say, ‘It’s like the day you were born, my life ended,’ ” Carol recalls being told.

Life for the baby is different. He arrives early in 1953. Carol isn’t allowed to get up from the table unless she finishes all of her carrots. Phil eats gobs of butter, sometimes dipped in ketchup. Bobby, 11 years older, finally speaks up. Why is he getting away with everything?

“You keep your mouth shut,” his father shoots back.

Bobby plays the violin first. But he lacks discipline. When Phil is 7, he notices the instrument. He asks whether he can try it.

“I could barely think of what to show him,” Robert Johnson Jr. says today. “He said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll see what I can do with it.’ He just kept at it and kept at it, and by the end of the summer, when it was time to go to school, he could play every hymn in the hymn book. We were absolutely dumbfounded.”

He takes lessons in elementary school, immediately standing out.

“Phil was hands down the best violinist,” says Stephen Nazigian, a classmate. “He used the entire bow when others were scratching back and forth. He really knew what he was doing. He would practice an hour a day when other kids would be hard-pressed to do 15 minutes.”

[How old-fashioned research unlocked Philip Johnson’s story]

With the boy outgrowing the school program, the family tracked down Jerome Wigler, Juilliard-trained and a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Today, at 95, Wigler still remembers Johnson. But not so much for his playing.

Wigler remembers his proselytizing. It bothered him, how Phil stood outside Wigler’s house, eager to pitch any emerging student.

“He would try to get them to join the church,” says Wigler. “He had all sorts of propaganda. He would just talk religion.”

After graduating from Ridley High School, Class of 1970, Johnson headed south to Florida Bible College. And that’s where something shifted.

He dropped out of school, began freelancing for orchestras in Florida and by the time he headed north to Massachusetts in the mid-’70s — why, it’s not clear — he was no longer a believer.

In 1976, Johnson, now 23, entered Boston University to study music. The department’s faculty featured some of the most storied players in the field, including Totenberg.

Other teachers were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Joseph Silverstein, the violinist who would become Johnson’s teacher, remembers one of the many things that set him apart.

Most entering students were known quantities, referred by former teachers.

“Not Phil,” said Silverstein. “He just came out of nowhere. I still don’t know where he’s from.”

A natural whom nobody forgets

In Boston, Johnson immediately made his mark, though not for the right reasons.

His first teacher, Roger Shermont, a longtime BSO violinist, found him too difficult to teach. Silverstein agreed to take Johnson on.

It was a lucky stroke. As the BSO’s concertmaster, Silverstein was one of the most important orchestral players of his era. For a young student, it would be like working in the batting cage with Mickey Mantle while he still roamed center field for the Yankees.

Silverstein died in late 2015 at age 83. But two weeks before his fatal heart attack, he was asked by The Washington Post whether he remembered Johnson.

The kid was a fast sight reader and had a talent for jazz. He scored a prestigious fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s summer home.

“He also had a certain native charm about him,” Silverstein said. “There was something about this wild kid. He was a natural. His playing was undisciplined, but it was attractive.”

Then there was his other side. Johnson did not treat others with respect. Not his peers, not his superiors.

“You would assign him a particular piece of music and he’d come up with something else,” said Silverstein. “He was a rebel, and we were really trying to harness the kid and get him to focus.”

Silverstein remembered Johnson being dismissive of Totenberg, who taught at BU until he left for Longy in 1978.

“But listen, Phil was dismissive of almost everybody,” he said. “He was quite an arrogant kid. A vestigial remnant of the ’60s.”

Other students snickered as Johnson, in the BU hallways, wore gloves, ostensibly to protect his hands, even during warmer months. Backstage before a performance, Johnson would not softly run through his scales. Instead, he’d blast out excerpts of major works, performing with an intensity meant for the stage.

“He would be bragging and mentioning his solo performances,” Quirmbach recalls. “It was always about him.”


Roman Totenberg performs with the Stradivarius in the 1950s. Johnson, playing the Strad in 1994. (Photos from the Totenberg family, via NPR, and Thanh Tran)

The master and the wild child

They are both gone. That makes it impossible to know how closely Totenberg and Johnson interacted. They certainly knew each other. Twice a year, every music student had to play for a jury made up of department faculty. But did Totenberg and Johnson ever really talk?

One thing’s for sure. Totenberg didn’t need to brag. Born in Poland, Totenberg played in front of Franklin D. Roosevelt at 25, moved to the United States at 27 and, just before his 33rd birthday, purchased his Stradivarius. The instrument cost $15,000 in 1943.

It took years to break in. The hand-crafted instruments are notoriously persnickety and demand nearly perfect technique. But this Strad, with its distinctive wood-grain finish, would become Totenberg’s primary performance tool as well as one of the instruments he used for lessons. And it was at Boston University, where Totenberg led the string department from 1961 to 1978, that some noticed how careless the aging master could be when it came to his Strad. He sometimes treated it like an old winter coat.

“He would kind of shove it behind the sofa and leave it with the door unlocked,” says violinist David Dyer, a student during the 1970s.

Totenberg and Johnson left BU at about the same time, though under vastly different circumstances. In 1978, Longy hired Totenberg as its new director. The following spring, Johnson’s academic performance dropped. He withdrew from three courses and received two F’s and an incomplete. BU expelled him.

He would never tell family or friends about this, his academic dismissal not revealed until 2015, when The Post acquired his transcript.

And Silverstein didn’t remember Johnson’s exit. He did remember that, for years, there had been debates over whether to keep him there.

“Everyone was down on him, saying ‘This kid is so wild, he’s never going to amount to anything,’ ” Silverstein says. “The one person who was sort of his champion? Roman Totenberg.”

Did he play the Strad?

On a chilly Manhattan morning, Bruno Price opens a desk drawer to reveal the reddish chestnut body of a Stradivarius.

This is not a photo op. In fact, Price won’t allow any cameras in the room. The instrument could be worth millions. Now, it’s in pieces, part of a delicate restoration underway at Rare Violins of New York, a shop a block from Carnegie Hall. Totenberg’s daughters, Nina, Amy and Jill, hired Price late last summer to ready the Strad for a sale later this year.

Standing here, Price admits he worried when the sisters called last August with news of the violin’s recovery.

A Stradivarius needs more than TLC. It needs to be maintained. But a thief can’t bring a hot fiddle into the shop for a checkup. He would immediately be busted.

So Price felt great relief that morning last summer when, surrounded by FBI investigators and the sisters, he first saw the Stradivarius. The instrument hadn’t suffered any irreversible damage.

Price thought he knew why. He contended that Johnson had played it only four or five years after stealing it in 1980.

“I can’t see how somebody even using it sparingly over that amount of time would have not caused more damage,” Price says.

It is an interesting theory. It also is dead wrong. Johnson didn’t just play the Stradivarius in recent years. He used it for free performances in churches and in recording sessions. He played it as recently as 2011 during a crowded session only months before his death.

“I can guarantee you one thing. If either my husband or I knew, we would have reported it immediately. Wrong is wrong, family or no family.”

Carol Anderson, Phil Johnson's sister

The fact that Johnson could play the instrument publicly is less a show of daring than a symbol of how far he had fallen. The hotshot violinist, once a standout, was so anonymous that he could play a stolen Stradivarius — and no one noticed.

‘Wrong is wrong’

At first, Johnson kept his prize hidden.

On June 6, 1980, three weeks after the theft, Johnson performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto at Boston’s Jordan Hall. Steven Mercurio, a close friend from BU, conducted. So soon after the crime, Johnson knew better than to use the Strad.

Nina Totenberg, Roman Totenberg’s oldest daughter, remembers her parents pleading with the FBI to search Johnson’s apartment. They were told that suspicion alone was not enough for a search warrant.

“My mom kept asking people if they would break into his apartment and look for the violin,” Totenberg says. “She would ask Harvard professors this.”

The Strad would be gone soon enough. Johnson, no longer at BU, headed to New York later in 1980 and roomed with Mercurio for a few months. A childhood friend, Keith Van Brunt, visited him.

“He was penniless, so he would go to the grocery store and steal everything he could for food,” says Van Brunt.

Sometime in 1980, Johnson rambled back to his home state of Pennsylvania. He moved in with his sister.

“I wondered why I never heard him practicing,” Carol says.

The Stradivarius? Her brother did tell her, at some point, he had a good violin worth something like $30,000. But not a Strad.

“I can guarantee you one thing,” Anderson says, “if either my husband or I knew, we would have reported it immediately. Wrong is wrong, family or no family.”

After three months, Johnson told her of a new opportunity, to play for an orchestra in Venezuela. He threw his bags into the car and Steve drove him to the airport. In the front seat, Johnson held only one thing. His violin case.

“He held it like a baby,” Steve recalls.

Photo documentation of Roman Totenberg's Stradivarius. Experts estimate that of the 1,000 or so violins crafted before Antonio Stradivari’s death in 1737, about 500 survive today. (Totenberg family photo)

‘My God, that fiddle sounds incredible’

The Stradivarius began to emerge.

Van Brunt believes it was in the late 1980s. Johnson, back from Venezuela, moved in with him.

“He played that violin every day, and he did all the maintenance himself because I would watch him take it apart and do things to it,” he says. “His explanation to me is that he bought an old violin. His dad helped him buy it. What do I know?”

Elmer’s glue kept the seams from splitting and also secured a fingernail-size corner of the body, which he had chipped off. Johnson had at least two violins, so he could play concerts without the stolen Strad. But today, friends who have seen pictures of the violin remember him using it in many of the small gigs he played across the country, barely earning enough to get by.

At a recital in California, a friend, Rebecca Rutkowski, approached Johnson after noticing his sound was particularly rich.

“I said, ‘My God, that fiddle sounds incredible,’ ” she says. “He started acting weird. He said, ‘I just borrowed it.’ Then I asked if I could come back and try it. ‘No, don’t come into the dressing room. I keep it closed.’ That was unusual.”

Still, Mercurio didn’t abandon his old friend. Only weeks later, he brought Johnson and Mobius to Italy for the European version of Spoleto. He appointed Johnson the concertmaster of the festival orchestra. Then he watched as Johnson argued with other players and showed up late. Finally, Mercurio pulled him. Mobius would soon dissolve. Johnson, now 40, had squandered his last, best opportunity.

“It’s painful to think of somebody with that potential who ends up doing all the wrong things, but you can say that about anybody who had talent and becomes a stripper or junkie,” says Mercurio. “This person was brilliant, charming, smart and talented. How did this happen?”

Day trading, divorce

In the 1990s, Johnson, now settled in California with Tran, started taking trips to Las Vegas to play blackjack. That led him to day trading. Tran kept urging her husband to build a career giving music lessons. Their living room in Venice was perfect for that.

“But he always wanted to take a short cut,” she says.

Erica and Laura were born, in 1997 and 1998. Johnson, at home, didn’t sleep much, usually two or three hours at a time. He would talk about being depressed, even to his little girls.

They noticed his quirky behavior. Johnson refused to wait out traffic, terrifying his passengers by turning his car onto the sidewalk on occasion. He wouldn’t drink from a coffee pot for fear chemicals night leach into his cup from the urn.

He could also never be far from the computer.

“Sometimes, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d see him up at 3 a.m., trading,” Erica recalls.

“All the money I made was going out the door,” says Tran. “I said, ‘I can’t really do this anymore.’ ”

They would separate in 2005 and officially divorce in 2008. He moved into a second home she had purchased, refinanced it and eventually had to sell. He filed for bankruptcy. The new owner would rent him back a room, a space so small he was embarrassed to invite friends over.

In early 2011, Johnson learned he had pancreatic cancer. As his condition worsened, he began to get back in touch with his siblings. Late at night, on the phone, he talked to his older brother and asked Robert to read him the Bible. He also reminded Carol about one of his old violins. The one worth, oh, $30,000. And Johnson told his friends about one last wish.

Phil Johnson with the Stradivarius toward the end of his life, when he tried to make a recording of the Sibelius violin concerto, a work he loved, at a church in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Thanh Tran)

The last roundup

The Sibelius. That’s the concerto he loved so much, the work he played back in Boston so long ago. Johnson didn’t just want to play it. He wanted to create a new recording.

One more thing. This time, Johnson would play the Stradivarius.

On a Wednesday night in July 2011, a group of local musicians packed First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica. They were joined by an outsider from Johnson’s past. Mercurio flew out from the East Coast.

Ben Maas, a local engineer, cut his usual daily session fee from $1,000 to $650.

“He was not in particularly good shape,” says Maas. “His fingers weren’t working the way they had in the past. He was getting frustrated. The goodwill from the orchestra, it didn’t disappear, but people were getting kind of annoyed they had to do take after take for somebody who was obviously not going to have the perfect product.”

Recording wrapped and the musicians went home. Johnson, exhausted, eventually returned to talk with Maas about how to mix the session. He and the engineer bickered about the recording fee. Eventually, the violinist lost his temper.

“He said, ‘Look, I’m dying, come after me,’ ” Maas says.

Four years later, Maas is asked about the last recording. He doesn’t have it. When Johnson berated him and refused to pay, Maas got frustrated. He decided the files were taking up too much space on his hard drives. He deleted them.

“Had I known the story behind the violin,” he says today, “I absolutely would have kept it. The guy was cranky and not a nice person to deal with, but never, in a million years, would I have thought he had a Stradivarius.”

Roman Totenberg’s daughters Amy, left, Nina and Jill Totenberg get their first look at their father’s Stradivarius in nearly 40 years after it was recovered last year. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

To sing again

On that August afternoon in 2015, cameras flashed as the Totenberg daughters smiled and posed with their father’s Stradivarius. They were in their 30s when they last saw it. Now Nina, the oldest, was 71.

This was no regular news conference. Jason Masimore, an assistant district attorney and amateur musician, opened by playing Bach on his own violin. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declared the moment “a joyful ending to an amazing story.” Nina, sitting on the side, offered a different take. She remained angry.

Totenberg talked of how her father eventually cashed out a $101,850 insurance policy and used it toward the $300,000 purchase of a Guarneri built in 1736. Totenberg wished Johnson would have spoken up. While the thief was dying, her father was still very much alive. He died in May of 2012 at 101.

“He would have loved to have known it was not lost to humanity and that it would sing again,” she said.

In the workshop, Bruno Price politely disagreed with Nina’s wish. Price remembered visiting Totenberg in his 90s. The sisters had called him with concern. The violinist had been tinkering with the Guarneri and that had left scratches.

“His skin was almost like tissue paper on bone,” says Price. “He was more and more sensitive to how the instrument felt, and he had been moving the bridge around so the strings would be a bit lower.”

Delicately, Price and the Totenberg sisters suggested that the Guarneri be brought back to New York to the company’s vault for safekeeping. Totenberg would use a newer instrument that was easier to play.

As the Stradivarius rested in his workshop, Price shared a thought he said he hoped would not sound impolitic. He is glad the dying man didn’t return the Stradivarius.

“Roman would have wanted to hear its old voice, one of the most haunting things for musicians,” said Price. “But that would have been so cruel. Physically, he wouldn’t have been able to play it.”

The Strad never made it to Totenberg’s bedside in Newton, Mass. It almost slipped away forever. After Johnson died, Tran considered donating it to her youngest daughter’s school. Anderson, though, remembered the old violin that her brother had reminded her of as the end neared.

“You might want to check it out,” she told Tran. “The way Philip talked about it, it might be worth quite a bit.”

Now, both men are gone. The Stradivarius is being restored with a purpose. The Totenberg sisters are not searching for the highest bidder, a collector eager to place a mystical trophy on his mantel. The violin is being restored for a very specific buyer. A player. So that one day, the Stradivarius, a secret for decades, can be free, to sing again.