Stolen Stradivarius Violin Returned After 35 Years

Authorities have returned a Stradivarius violin that a man stole from Roman Totenberg in 1980 to his family. FBI/Handout/REUTERS

For three and a half decades, Roman Totenberg's family wondered what had happened to the Stradivarius violin that disappeared from his office. Then one day in June, his daughter received a phone call from the FBI. An instrument appraiser had come across a likely match, they said.

In New York City on Thursday, the United States Attorney's Office and the FBI reunited Totenberg's family with the instrument, which the thief's ex-wife had recently discovered locked away while cleaning her house. She brought it to an appraiser, who made the connection.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the return of the instrument "a joyful ending." "This is a remarkable story of a quick-witted violin appraiser who recognized the long-lost Ames Stradivarius and immediately called law enforcement," he said. "Thanks to the violin appraiser's good citizenship and law enforcement's prompt response, today we celebrate the Totenberg family's reunion with a priceless family heirloom, thought for decades to have been lost forever."

Musical experts widely consider Stradivarius the finest make of string instruments. Made in Italy by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona in the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivarius violins, violas and cellos are also among the most expensive. There are only about 400 Stradivarius violins now in existence, and violins similar to Totenberg's have sold for as much as $16 million.

Their rarity has also made the instruments a target for theft. Culprits stole one violin in an armed robbery in Milwaukee last year as a concertmaster was carrying it to his car after a performance. Authorities later recovered the instrument, made in 1715 and worth $5 million, in an attic in a suitcase.

The valuable violin went missing from Totenberg's office at the Longy School of Music in 1980. Longy School of Music of Bard College

Stradivari made Totenberg's violin—eventually named the Ames Stradivarius, after one of its owners—in 1734. Totenberg, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in 1938, performed as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic. He taught at several schools, including Boston University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

In 1980, the violin went missing from Totenberg's office at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was director. "For a violinist, losing a violin is like being separated from the woman he still loves," The New York Times wrote about the theft at the time. The thief took two bows also and left the case behind.

Nina Totenberg, the violinist's daughter and a National Public Radio journalist, said in a report Thursday that her family long suspected that a violinist named Phillip Johnson stole the instrument. "My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again," she said. Her father died in 2012 at age 101.

Totenberg died in 2012 at age 101. Longy School of Music of Bard College

Her instinct was right. Johnson's ex-wife discovered the Stradivarius after Johnson's death in 2011. (An obituary that appears to be for Johnson describes him as "a noted violinist of 40 years.") In June, she brought it to New York and met with an appraiser, who recognized it as Totenberg's. "I've got good news for you, and I've got bad news for you," the appraiser recalled saying, according to NPR. "The good news is that this is a Stradivarius. The bad news is it was stolen 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg."

Law enforcement later matched photos and measurements of Totenberg's instrument to the one the appraiser had, and a second appraiser confirmed the match. "The mystery was solved. All these years, the violin had been in the same guilty hands," Nina Totenberg said.

Eliahu Sussman, associate director of marketing and communications at the Longy School, says that as the school's centennial approaches this upcoming school year, "We have been doing a lot of inquiry into the history of the school. But this was the number one big mysterious element. So for it to be solved right now is just something else for us to celebrate and we are ecstatic that the violin has been returned and is back with the family."

Sussman adds, "It's a beautiful thing that the violin itself is in great condition."

The official turning over of the instrument is happening in federal court. According to court documents, Johnson's ex-wife signed over the instrument July 20 and said she had no prior knowledge of its origin. The Totenberg family plans to restore and sell the instrument, according to The New York Times.