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A Strad Comes Home!

A Strad Comes Home!

Last October, I wrote about a sad story involving a 5 million dollar Stradivarius violin that was stolen from a concertmaster in Milwaukee.  It was yet more proof that musical instrument theft is no joking matter and no knows no boundaries.  It doesn't matter if you're a doom metal player in Flint, MI, or a top-tier concert violinist in Vienna; any musician can be at risk of having their prized gear stolen.  While guitars can fetch thousands of dollars at auction, Stradivarius violins can fetch MILLIONS.  Something so small, yet so legendary can pay big dividends to thieves.

Sometimes these thefts resolve in the best possible way- with the instrument being recovered (and still in good shape) and the thief brought to justice.  For instance, in the Milwaukee violin theft, the thief was arrested shortly after locating the violin in an attic of an acquaintance of the thief. 

"Court documents allege that Salahadyn (the thief) told an acquaintance that such a robbery would be his dream crime because of the instrument's value and the ease of grabbing it from a musician walking down the street. It wasn't his first being involved in such a crime: He pleaded guilty in 2000 to trying to resell a $25,000 statue to the art gallery owner from whom it had been stolen in 1995."

So this scumbag had a history of this similar crime of high value easy target crime, and this may have aided in his eventual capture.  He tased the violinist outside in Milwaukee to grab this easy prize like the true go-getter he is.  While it took only nine days for this violin to be found, for other cases of instrument theft, the outcomes are not always so quick.

This was sadly the case in the theft of Roman Totenberg's Stradivarius. 

This prized piece of musical history has been missing for 35 YEARS after being stolen from his office in Cambridge, MA, from a SCHOOL of all places!  Remember, this violin was not only Totenberg's, but belonged to other famous violinists as well throughout its long life after being BUILT in the 1700s! This violin had a bloodline that was perhaps more famous than the violin itself. 

A man and his Strad. 

The story goes like this: Roman was outside greeting concertgoers after a show in 1980, when the violin was lifted out of his music office at the Longy School of Music.

Talk about hitting below the belt.  As many of you likely know, musical instruments can be a sort of soulmate for us.  There are some instruments that are just "part of the collection", and then there is "the one".  The one that you'd run into your house to save from a fire.  The one you'd want with you no matter where you travel.  The one you'd want buried with you.  (Just kidding don't do that, give it to someone after you die so it gets played!)  This Strad was "the one" for Totenberg. 

But really, there are some instruments that are so special, some musicians refuse to take them on the road or play them live.  The risk of getting damaged or stolen is too high.  Such was the case with the Totenberg Strad.  For 38 years, Roman played this violin, and had formed a bond with this instrument.  Being that Stradivarius are considered the pinnacle of musical instruments, there was no possible way that he could just go pick up a new one, or even have a new one built.  This was an incredibly old piece of musical history that was literally irreplaceable. Once it was stolen, it was gone forever. 

Or so they thought.  As it turns out, an early theory about who the culprit may have been was pretty spot on.  Roman Totenberg speculated that a younger violinist named Phillip Johnson may be the guy to blame.  He was spotted outside Roman's office when it happened, which did not serve as reason enough to obtain a warrant.

As time passed however, Johnson moved to California, eventually dying of cancer at age 58.  (Mind you, Totenberg died a year after Johnson died, at the age of 101.)  Several years after this, however, Johson's ex-wife found a violin case during some house cleaning. This case had a combination lock keeping it closed off from curious onlookers.  It should be fairly obvious where this is going.  After his ex-wife and boyfriend cut the lock off, they found a violin inside with a label bearing the date of 1734 and the name Antonio Stradivari. 

This was Totenberg's missing violin.  On the right is the actual Strad that the FBI collected in the condition it was found in, missing strings and all.  And it was discovered so very close to a time when he would have been alive to see it again with his own eyes.  

That is perhaps the biggest tragedy of this entire case- the fact that it was found, but slightly after Totenberg had died.  He never got to be reacquainted with his baby.  One can only imagine how that would have been, to have a missing piece of your musical history come back to you after three decades.

As it turns out, the FBI aided in the return of this violin to Totenberg's family, much to the delight of his three daughters. 

"Of course, Stradivarius owners are really just guardians of these great artistic instruments. We will sell the Ames Strad — now perhaps the Ames-Totenberg Stradivarius. We will make sure it is in the hands of another virtuoso violinist. And once again, the beautiful, brilliant and throaty voice of that long-stilled violin will thrill audiences in concert halls around the world."  -via NPR

Kinda reminds me of Kirk Hammett buying the Greeny Les Paul 59.  Keep playing 'em!  For the love of music, keep these things alive!

The violin is still missing the bow however, so hey, if you're reading this out East, and might know something more, please get in touch with Agent McKeogh, who helped bring this violin back to the family.

Anyone with information about either the bow or the violin is asked to contact the New York office of the FBI at 212-384-5000 and ask for agent McKeogh.