An incredible violin-related news story broke yesterday. The 1734 Ames Stradivarius, stolen in 1980 from legendary Polish-American violinist Roman Totenberg, has been recovered by the FBI. The violin, valued at $250,000 when it was stolen and now estimated to be worth upwards of $5 million, was snatched from Totenberg’s office at the Longy School of Music as the violinist greeted well-wishers following a concert.
Fine instruments commonly disappear into a private collection following this kind of heist. Easily recognized, they become virtually impossible for thieves to sell. Totenberg’s anguish at losing his “musical partner of 38 years” was made worse by the fact that he believed he knew who the culprit was. Philip S. Johnson, an unremarkable California violinist was seen near the crime scene. Police said they lacked enough evidence to justify searching Johnson’s home. After Johnson died in 2011, his ex-wife discovered the instrument. She sought an appraisal and it was quickly identified as the Ames Strad. Roman Totenberg passed away in 2012 at the age of 101.
Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, talked about the rediscovery of her father’s instrument on NPR’s Morning Edition. The family intends to sell the instrument after it is restored. Nina Totenberg said,
We’re going to make sure that it’s in the hands of another great artist who will play it in concert halls all over the world. All of us feel very strongly that the voice has been stilled for too long.
Roman Totenberg is almost certainly playing the Ames Stradivarius in this live performance of Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata from a 1976 Boston recital. The pianist is Leonard Shure.
5 thoughts on “Roman Totenberg’s Lost Strad Resurfaces”
I had just read the story in the artdaily.org. How sad that the priceless violin was not found during Totenberg’s lifetime, but how wonderful that it has been returned to Totenberg’s daughters! I am surprised that not one of his 3 daughters plays the violin. And what did the thief accomplish except a tarnished reputation! I feel sorry for his widow and their children.
I was also struck by the pointlessness of the robbery, Mary. The violin appears to have spent years in a locked case.
Many of us who were in Boston and were student colleagues of Mr. Johnson are not surprised by this information. He was a self-absorbed individual constantly forcing his way into others’ practice rooms. It’s a shame that he couldn’t have at least made a death bed confession in time to allow the violin to return to Totenberg’s hands before his death. Mr. Totenberg was a kind, generous man and beloved by his students, including myself. The very idea that someone could treat him, of all people, in such a vicious manner is sickening. There were also four very valuable bows taken with the violin. Many violinists are even more attached to their bows than their violins, as they are the means of drawing sound and expression from the instrument. I haven’t heard yet what happened to those bows, but they would have been easier to sell and included one especially wonderful bow by François Tourt. Johnson had an empty case with him to accomplish the theft, so it was not an impulsive grab. As to Miss McGagh’s comment, I have seen a picture of young Amy Totenberg playing the violin, but I don’t know if she continued. All three daughters are phenomenal people, highly successful in their fields, as was their mother who was Mr. Totenberg’s manager. Their decision to get the instrument of an aspiring performer is no surprise. The Maestro had a wonderful family.
Other news publications had more complete stories than the one I read in artdaily.org. First of all, it was not the thief’s widow, but a former wife who found in her possession the violin in a locked case.
From the NY Times, quoting Nina Totenberg:
“None of us play the violin, and we know that Stradivarius owners are really just guardians of these great, great instruments,” she said. “They are meant to be played by great artists. And so the Ames Strad — now perhaps known as the Ames-Totenberg Strad — will eventually be in the hands of another great artist, like my father, and the beautiful, brilliant and throaty voice of that violin, long stilled, will once again thrill audiences in concert halls around the world.”
NPR where Nina Totenberg is legal affairs correspondent:
Totenberg had a long career teaching at places such as Boston University and the Tanglewood Music Center, and he was director of the Longy School of Music. Fast-forward four more years.