Coda To A Cold Case: The Mystery Of The Stolen Stradivarius, Resolved

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A Stradivarius violin, which was stolen and hidden for 35 years, has now been found. It belonged to the late virtuoso Roman Totenberg — the father of NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina tells the story.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A Stradivarius violin, stolen and hidden for 35 years, has now been found. It belonged to the late virtuoso violinist Roman Totenberg. We're listening to him play a Bach sonata on the Strad. He was the father of our NPR colleague Nina Totenberg, and today, Nina and her sisters were reunited with that prized violin, seeing it again for the first time since 1980, as photographers clicked away.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, my God. It really is so beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's a wonderful violin.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It really is beautiful.

BLOCK: That moment came at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: God, it feels wonderful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, there's a lot of love coming from it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: A lot of love vibrating from it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is Daddy. That's Daddy.

BLOCK: Prosecutors today announced the resolution of a very cold case, and Nina joins us now to talk about it.

Nina, for people who didn't hear your story on MORNING EDITION setting this up, why don't you explain how your father's violin was stolen?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: It was stolen after a concert in Cambridge and he was greeting well-wishers while somebody was circling around his office/dressing room and went in, took the violin and a couple of valuable bows and absconded with it. And he never laid eyes on it again. It was an instrument that, as he put it, had been his musical partner for 38 years, and it was gone.

BLOCK: I can only imagine how that loss must have plagued him over the years.

TOTENBERG: Well, he was not a person to dwell on those things. He had had much greater losses - family killed during the war - and he really did move on, and he had concerts to play and a life to lead. And he went and he found another violin that he bought with the insurance. He had to sell some of his lesser violins to afford it, but that's what he did, and he had a great life and died at 101, surrounded by family and students who drove from all over the country, even wanted to come from abroad, to say goodbye to him.

BLOCK: And how, ultimately, was the Stradivarius found?

TOTENBERG: Well, it turns out it was stolen by the very person that my father always thought had stolen it, a young man named Phillip Johnson, an aspiring musician. And he took it. And there wasn't enough for a search warrant, apparently, and then Phillip Johnson kept that instrument we now know basically closeted away. When it was recaptured, so to speak, it had gut strings on it. Those were the strings my father played on - because people don't use those kinds of strings anymore. They did in 1980. This was like an O. Henry tale where somebody wanted to possess something, and in some ways it was ruinous for him. He had no career to speak of and he died at the age of 58 and left this violin to his ex-wife, who, four years later, took it to an appraiser to see what it was worth. And the appraiser took one look at it and said this is the famous Ames Stradivarius and it was stolen 35 years ago from Roman Totenberg, and reported it to the FBI right away. And three days later, I got a call from the FBI.

BLOCK: Nina, you and I were talking about this yesterday, and the interesting footnote about that call from the FBI is that it came to you on an especially busy day.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter). It came to me at the end - the last day of the Supreme Court term, and thank God, my husband knew enough not to call me when I was on deadline because I tend to bite his head off when he does that. And he called at about 6[30 and said, you know, this FBI agent called and he left all these numbers to prove that he is who he says he is, and this is the antiquities section of the FBI. And the next morning I called the Bureau, and the guy called me right back, Agent Christopher McKeogh, and he said, Ms. Totenberg, I believe we've recovered your father's violin.

BLOCK: Well, what was it like, Nina, for you to see that violin today for the first time in so long?

TOTENBERG: Oh, my God, I just can't tell you - it is such a beautiful instrument. It just is breathtaking how beautiful it is. Three-hundred years later (laughter) that it has maintained that beauty, even though the thief never took it in for what normal maintenance that you have to do on these instruments because it would've been recognized. But it is just a phenomenally beautiful instrument.

BLOCK: Does it feel like part of the family?

TOTENBERG: It does sort of. You know, it was an extension of my father, so it feels in some way like having him back - and my mother, too.

BLOCK: Well, Nina, thanks for talking to us about your father's violin.

TOTENBERG: It's my pleasure - and I mean it's my pleasure.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg with the story of her father's Stradivarius violin. Stolen 35 years ago, it's now back in the custody of her family. The plan for the Totenberg family's Stradivarius is, it will be carefully restored and eventually sold to a great performance player.

TOTENBERG: A great concert artist, like my father, and the voice of that violin will be heard in concert halls all around the world again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.