Roman Totenberg’s Stolen Stradivarius Is Found After 35 Years

It was a cold case for more than three decades — a cold violin case — but now it has been closed. A Stradivarius violin that disappeared without a trace after it was stolen in 1980 from the violin virtuoso Roman Totenberg has been found, and is being restored to his family, said one of his daughters, Nina Totenberg.

Ms. Totenberg, the legal affairs correspondent for NPR news, reported the discovery of her father’s stolen violin on Thursday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” She said in an interview that law enforcement officials were planning to hold a news conference about it in New York on Thursday afternoon.

The violin — which was made in 1734 and is known as the Ames Stradivarius — was stolen in May 1980 from Mr. Totenberg’s office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass., where he was then the director. Mr. Totenberg, a teacher and virtuoso who performed as a soloist with major orchestras and worked with Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leopold Stokowski and Arthur Rubinstein, died in 2012 at the age of 101. His violin was valued at $250,000 when it was stolen; these days, Stradivarius violins often sell for millions of dollars.

Stolen Stradivarius violins are hard to sell because they are so recognizable. This one turned up, Ms. Totenberg said, after a California woman met with an appraiser in New York in June with a violin she said she had inherited from her late ex-husband.

“The appraiser looks at her and says, ‘Well, I have some good news and some bad news,’” Ms. Totenberg said. “‘The good news is that this is a real Stradivarius. And the bad news is it was stolen, 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg, and I have to report it right away.’ And within two hours, two agents from the F.B.I. art theft team were there.”

A law enforcement official said one of the agents was able to call up digital images of the stolen Stradivarius while en route to see it. Then measurements were taken, which matched those of the missing Ames. The official said that no charges are expected to be filed in connection with the case. Details on the suspected thief were not immediately available.

Ms. Totenberg said that the woman had inherited the violin from the man Ms. Totenberg’s father had suspected all along of stealing the instrument. The man had been seen in the vicinity of his office at Longy near the time of the theft, and a woman once visited Mr. Totenberg and told him that she believed that the man had stolen his violin. But to the family’s frustration, investigators at the time apparently did not believe that the tip was sufficient for them to obtain a search warrant.

“My mother was so frustrated,” Ms. Totenberg recalled, “that she famously went around Boston asking her friends if they knew anybody in the mob who would break into this guy’s apartment.”

An F.B.I. agent put in a call to Ms. Totenberg to tell her that the violin had been recovered in late June.

The next morning, Ms. Totenberg spoke by phone with her two sisters. “We were just crying and laughing on the phone,” she said.

Ms. Totenberg said she was sad that her father was not alive to see his instrument restored. The bond between musicians and instruments is a powerful one. After the theft, Mr. Totenberg, who had owned it for 38 years, told CBS News in 1981 that it had taken two decades of playing it before the instrument reached its potential, saying that “it took some time to wake it up, to work it out, find all the things that it needed, the right kind of strings and so on and so on.”

But she said that he would have been furious “if he’d know that the person that he’d thought took it had in fact taken it, and all these years had it hidden away, not maintaining it the way one should, not caring for it as a special baby, not having it played.”

She said that the family has now paid back the insurance money that Mr. Totenberg collected after the violin was stolen, and that it planned to have the Ames Stradivarius restored and sold.

“We’re going to make sure that it’s in the hands of another great artist who will play it in concert halls all over the world,” she said. “All of us feel very strongly that the voice has been stilled for too long.”


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