Stolen Stradivarius violin returned after missing for 35 years

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WASHINGTON — A Stradivarius violin that was stolen from virtuoso Roman Totenberg after a performance 35 years ago has just been recovered.

Three years after the musician died at age 101, his daughter Nina Totenberg received a cold call from an FBI special agent saying that the instrument had been recovered. She and her sisters rejoiced at the news.

“This loss for my father was, as he said when it happened, it was like losing an arm,” daughter Jill Totenberg, a public relations executive in New York, told USA Today. “To have it come back, three years after he died, to us, it’s like having him come alive again.”

Roman Totenberg had bought the instrument in his native Poland in 1943 for $15,000, equivalent to $200,000 today. It was the only violin he performed with until it was stolen while he was greeting well-wishers after a performance in Cambridge, Mass., in 1980.

According to Nina Totenberg, a legal affairs correspondent at NPR, her father had always suspected he knew who nabbed his beloved Stradivarius — an aspiring violinist named Phillip Johnson who had been seen outside Totenberg’s office around the time of the theft.

This suspicion was confirmed when Johnson’s ex-wife was cleaning through his things after he died in 2011, and found the violin in a locked case. Once it was appraised and confirmed as the missing Stradivarius, she decided to give it back to the Totenberg family.

The violin was in good condition but sustained marks of wear and tear over all these years. Appraiser Phillip Injeian told the family that Johnson tried to preserve the instrument himself, but knowing that any reputable restorer or dealer would recognize it, he had not had the violin properly maintained by the expert craftsmen who do this kind of work.

The sisters plan to sell the instrument — dubbed the “Ames Stradivarius” after former-owner George Ames — to another virtuoso to continue the violin’s legacy. It was made in 1734 and has an estimated to be worth millions.

Because Stradivarius instruments are so treasured and rare, thefts are all too common. According to Injeian, of the 550 Stradivarius violins that are known to exist, 20 are missing.

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