US family recovers violin stolen 35 years ago

Violin-maker asked to appraise a Stradivarius identifies it as one owned by NY virtuoso

Sisters (from left) Jill, Nina and Amy Totenberg with the Ames Stradivarius violin at a press conference at a New York Justice Department office on Thursday. The violin was stolen in 1980 from their father.
Sisters (from left) Jill, Nina and Amy Totenberg with the Ames Stradivarius violin at a press conference at a New York Justice Department office on Thursday. The violin was stolen in 1980 from their father.ST PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • The label inside the violin said "Stradivarius", but plenty of fakes claim that too. So after a California woman asked Mr Phillip Injeian, a violin-maker and dealer, to appraise the instrument, he met her at a New York hotel in late June and examined every inch of it, from its nicks to the somewhat pointy curve of its F-holes to its distinctive wood grain, before delivering his verdict.

"I told her, 'I have good news and bad news,'" Mr Injeian said in an interview on Thursday. "I said: 'The good news is that it's a Stradivarius. The bad news is that it's a stolen Stradivarius. And this is one that has been gone for 35 years.'"

The Stradivarius - which was made in 1734 by Antonio Stradivari and is known as the Ames Stradivarius - disappeared after it was stolen in 1980 from violin virtuoso Roman Totenberg. So as soon as Mr Injeian recognised it, he called in law enforcement officials, setting off a train of events that ended on Thursday with the return of the long-lost violin to Mr Totenberg's daughters: Amy, Jill and Nina Totenberg.

"The mystery was solved," Ms Nina Totenberg, the legal affairs correspondent for NPR News, said at a news conference at the US attorney's office in Manhattan, where the violin was returned to her family. She said it appeared that her father, who had long harboured suspicions about who had stolen his violin, had been right all along.

The violin was stolen in May 1980 from Mr Totenberg's office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was then the director. Mr Totenberg, a teacher and virtuoso who performed as a soloist with major orchestras. died in 2012 at age 101. His violin was valued at US$250,000 when it was stolen; these days, the finest Stradivarius violins often sell for millions of dollars.

The violin did not surface again until June 26, when a California woman, identified in court papers as Ms Thanh Tran, brought it to New York to have it appraised by Mr Injeian at a meeting at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan. According to Mr Injeian, Ms Tran said her former husband gave it to her before dying in 2011. But it was in a locked case, so she put it aside for several years before she and a boyfriend broke the case open.

Ms Totenberg said the man who had left Ms Tran the violin, Mr Philip S. Johnson, whom she described as "an aspiring violinist", had long been suspected of stealing it.

"He was seen loitering around the place where it was taken, and later his ex-girlfriend would tell my father that she was quite sure that he had taken it," she said at the news conference. "That, however, was not enough for a search warrant."

A stipulation and court order signed this week, paving the way for the return of the violin to the Totenberg family, said Ms Tran had "voluntarily relinquished" it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation after learning that it might be stolen.

Little was immediately known about Mr Johnson. But an official at Boston University said a Philip Johnson with the same birth date had attended Boston University's School for the Arts from 1976 to 1979; Mr Totenberg was on the faculty during part of that period.

Ms Totenberg said the family had now returned the insurance money that her father collected after the violin was stolen, and that they planned to have the Ames Stradivarius restored and sold - but to a musician who will play it, not a collector who will lock it away.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'US family recovers violin stolen 35 years ago'. Print Edition | Subscribe