The violinist, the thief and the missing Stradivarius

Violinists Roman Totenberg and Philip Johnson were at opposite ends on many facets of life. The former was a virtuoso recognized in the music scene; the latter sputtered off to an inglorious end in anonymity. Yet they had one thing in common: in 1980, Johnson stole Totentberg’s Stradivarius in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was the main suspect of the theft after a concert, when Totenberg was out socializing, but he was never caught. Only when Johnson’s ex wife decided to have the instrument appraised last year by expert Phillip Injeian was the crime exposed. Yet at the time of the theft, there was no such thing as security camera, so Johnson managed to steal it and, amazingly, hold on to it until his death of cancer in 2011, at the age of 51. The stolen instrument was the only thing he could hold on to as the rest of his life fell apart: his studies were interrupted by expulsion and inconsistency. He was unable to pay rent, let alone mortgage and at some point he even stole food to survive. Yet he held on to the Stradivarius, which towards the end of his life was lying in a plastic crate as he was unable to play to very demanding instrument, one of approximately 1,000 built by Italian violin-maker Antonio Stradivari before his death in 1737. The violins he built, which centuries later produce unmatched music in the right hands, take years to break in. One friend conjectures it was the secret of his crime that ate away at Philips and unraveled his life, even though he had got off to a promising start, thanks to natural talent. Obviously it was not enough: discipline and integrity probably counted more than he thought. Totenberg died at the age of 101 in 2012, one year after his instrument’s thief, anguished that the unique sound of the Stradivarius might have been lost to the world. To the very end, both men remained at opposite ends of life.

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