By now most people know the supremely frustrating story, of the Ames Stradivari (1734) violin, which was stolen from its longtime owner, Roman Totenberg, in 1980 and never returned to him in his 101-year lifetime.
Totenberg -- pedagogue, performer and father of the well-known NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg -- had played that violin for 38 years, all over the world. As Nina said, "It was a crushing loss for my father. As he put it, he had lost his 'musical partner of 38 years.' And when he would ultimately buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, he'd have to rework the fingering of his entire repertoire for the new instrument. My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere."
Turns out it was in the hands of the person they'd suspected all along, Philip Johnson, who had apparently stolen it from Totenberg's office and somehow eluded discovery for the rest of his much shorter lifetime, which ended in 2011 when he was 58. He had kept it in the basement of his home in Venice, Calif. Before he died, he gave it to his ex-wife, who by all accounts had no idea it was a Strad. While doing some spring cleaning this year, she finally decided to pry the case open with a screwdriver, she said. She still didn't think the violin was particularly valuable, until she took it to be appraised. She has said that she nearly fainted when appraiser Phillip Injeian told her it was a real Strad, likely a stolen one, and he'd need to call the FBI.
The idea that Johnson was never discovered, even though the Totenbergs knew he'd done it, is shocking. And yet, Johnson did not live in a cave, nor did he keep the violin completely out of view. Johnson was known among his violin colleagues in Los Angeles, and a number of them have spoken to me about him. The media has emphasized that he was a mediocre violinist, but then again, most of us would be considered "mediocre" if you compare everyone to Joshua Bell. "He was a very good violinist," Los Angeles violinist Michael Ferril said of Johnson. Like everyone I've encountered, Ferril said he was stunned to learn about the theft, but then he started putting together memories and making sense of things that were once puzzling. For example, "He asked me one time how I would sell my Strad out of the country for cash. I thought that was odd," Ferril said.
And about the violin? Johnson told various things to various people. He was eccentric enough that people didn't suspect anything so serious. After all, even if someone tells you straight up, "I have a Strad here," the first reaction is to dismiss the idea. Ferril said that Johnson told him that he'd once bought a Strad from a guy named Roman, but had sold it years before. Most knew that, while he often played on a cheap violin, he also had a "special violin" that he sometimes used for gigs.
Las Vegas-based violinist, conductor and teacher Gregory Maldonado first met Johnson in 1985 and worked with him often over the years. He described Johnson as a violinist with good chops, but one who wasn't necessarily always able to blend with others musically or otherwise. But Johnson was a friend to Maldonado, who knew about the violin early on. "I saw the instrument and played it. I saw the label, but I didn't think it was a Strad," Maldonado said. "I thought it was a Vuillaume copy with a Strad label, and I never thought any further than that. It was a good instrument."
Another piece of the puzzle made more sense after learning of the theft: "He told me he had learned how to do his own repairs," Maldonado said. "He always had repair tools in his case, and he would talk about things like moving the soundpost." Had Johnson taken the instrument to a reputable luthier, he'd have risked being discovered.
When using the "special violin," Johnson never lost sight of it. He would even pack up the violin and take it to the restroom during breaks. He also held it in a strange way, "he always tucked the violin way deep in his armpit, he held it close, so nobody could even bump it," Maldonado said.
The psychology of all this boggles the mind. Imagine keeping a secret of that magnitude, for so long. It must have been stressful, the constant fear of discovery. And yet it was probably strangely thrilling. Here's this precious antique, beautiful to play and probably worth millions. So many people were looking for it, and he had it. He'd gotten away with it. Still, it's a crime. And stealing goes against pretty much any moral code. Did he try to justify it? Convince himself it was rightfully his? Did he feel guilty?
This seems enough to give a person cancer of the soul. Many of his friends wonder if it actually did give him cancer.
In 2011, Johnson had divorced, was growing thin, and was struggling financially. Normally health-conscious, he was clearly ill, and then it became even more clear: he was dying of pancreatic cancer.
In his final weeks, Johnson enlisted his colleagues to record the Sibelius Violin Concerto with him. Many were friends who volunteered their time to this project for their very ill colleague. The two sessions went smoothly enough, Maldonado said, and Johnson, though weak, played well.
In retrospect, Maldonado now strongly suspects that Johnson was playing the Strad in that final recording.
Of course, there is something else that Johnson could have been doing with that Strad, as he faced death: Giving it back.
"If it had been me -- well if it had been me, I probably wouldn't have taken it in the first place," Maldonado said. "But if it had been me, knowing I was going to die, I would have made amends. I would have confessed. I think it would have brought (the Totenberg) family some closure. People would have still been angry, but it would have make it easier for his family."
The violin, of course, has outlived it all. It will be interesting to chart its future.
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