The Power of a Secret: the theft of the Ames Stradivari

August 14, 2015, 7:58 PM · 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."

Ames Strad

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."

Phil Johnson
The Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra at the Redlands Bowl; August 1991. Violinist Phil Johnson is on the left; Gregory Maldonado is conducting.

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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August 15, 2015 at 02:35 AM · So, did it go back to the Totenberg family; or does it now belong to the insurance company?

August 15, 2015 at 02:51 AM · It went to the Totenberg family. I believe they are paying back the insurance company.

August 15, 2015 at 03:02 AM · To answer the question in the prior comment: Totenberg's 3 daughters bought it from the insurance company for the price of the claim paid. They have since had it restored and will sell it to a buyer of their choosing. Someone who will play it and do it justice.

August 15, 2015 at 10:42 AM · I like the fact that Johnson took it with him when going to the restroom. He apparently learned from Totenberg's mistake. My mother told me that it was stolen when Totenberg left it on his desk in his office while going to the restroom to urinate. When he returned, it was gone.

August 15, 2015 at 10:50 AM · In the earlier thread I noted how I had the dubious distinction of having briefly known Phil Johnson over the course of a month-long Opera tour in October of 1980. I'm not sure whether this was before or after the theft, but I'm pretty sure that if it was after, that he did NOT have the Strad with him. And again, most, if not all, found him un-likeable. There was just this nasty vibe. That photo brings it all back to me.

To separate the person from the player, to be fair, I recall him as a really strong player - but everything was hard-edged, no finesse. To play the Sibelius at all, at a level where you're set to record it, whether comparable to a famous violinist or not, bespeaks a really high level of accomplishment. What's more surprising to me is that he found so many friends to volunteer for the recording project.

I have a feeling that he did not feel very guilty about what he did - but he may well have felt very stressed. The above quote made a lot of sense to me: "He described Johnson as a violinist with good chops, but one who wasn't necessarily always able to blend with others musically or otherwise. "

August 15, 2015 at 01:42 PM · In 1993, Phillip produced a cd with his wife of violin,piano , cello trios. Very fine playing. He gave me the cd and kiddingly remarked how the recording technology could make his cheap violin sound like a Stradivarius. I guess the joke was on me, as I was amazed how the violin came out in quality, not knowing it really was a Stradivarius violin. Michael Ferril

August 15, 2015 at 08:15 PM · My wife and I were both amazed to read that he often played the violin in public, in front of colleagues! We can't even take a different violin out of the case without one of our "instrument-nerd" colleagues instantly buzzing over and naming it!

August 16, 2015 at 02:06 PM · Wow...I also knew Phil.

August 16, 2015 at 04:08 PM · I am amazed how a dead violinist is declared guilty upon trial by media. No evidence, no jury, no judge. A hear-say and a sensation.

Yes, the trail leads toward him and police report, based on the widow's statement seems to be rock solid. The likelihood of someone else being the actual thief is slim, but please let it go and do not blow this out of proportion by adding anecdotal quasi - evidence.

By the way, the violin in question is made at the end of Maker's life and might nod be as good as other famous Strads. Materials used are showing sings of shortage of supply and it is not the most visually appealing Strad there is.

I look forward to hearing its sound.

August 16, 2015 at 05:11 PM · Is there a pattern here of obscure, sociopathic violinists lifting conveniently vulnerable Strads (and perhaps other valuable instruments)? The circumstances of the theft of the Ames by Phil Johnson mirror those of the theft of the Gibson/Huberman (now Joshua Bell's concert instrument) by Julian Altman, many decades prior. The Karpilowski/Benjamin, the Lamoureux/Zimbalist, the Colossus, the Davidoff/Morini, the King Maximilian/Unico, Le Maurien -- these include some of the best working Strads, all taken from performers or, in one case, a dealer. All are still missing. Strad thieves, come clean!

August 16, 2015 at 08:19 PM · At least Johnson didn't paint the instrument with shoe polish like the guy who stole Huberman's violin.

Lots of people are declared guilty of this that or the other without a trial because they have died. If you don't think Johnson's guilty, you prove otherwise. Justice might not work that way, but history does.

August 17, 2015 at 03:06 AM · The title reminds me of these double-blind tests, which I now relate to Maldonado's comment of the instrument being "a good violin", which sounds a bit dull when compared to the somewhat otherworldly descriptions of Strads by some experts. Would he still have the same opinion if he knew he was playing an actual Stradivarius instead of, say, a good Vuillaume?

August 17, 2015 at 04:12 AM · I'd say the FBI investigation is pretty conclusive, but you can read more about it on NPR or the New York Times. Johnson was the only one ever suspected of stealing it, then he gave the Strad, which indeed turned out to be the one stolen from Totenberg, to his ex-wife before he died.

August 17, 2015 at 06:27 AM · I knew Phil plenty well as a student colleague at Boston University. He was very unpleasant to a lot of people, talked about himself constantly, persistently forced his way into other's practice rooms. I'm not surprised about this. Totenberg was indeed somewhat lax about the Strad. He would usually just leave it behind the couch in his studio. That is not where it was stolen from, however. Mr. Totenberg was a very sweet and no doubt very trusting person who probably couldn't imagine a fellow musician taking an instrument.

August 17, 2015 at 10:56 AM · Well, it might be a good instrument or a great instrument. You have to remember it was maintained for decades by someone not skilled in that art. Hopefully the Totenbergs will showcase the instrument at some point, or it will be used in performance by the violinist who buys it.

August 17, 2015 at 01:35 PM · "cancer of the soul." I wonder. Imagine giving in to what may have been simply the opportunity and a moment's temptation. What do you do? you can't give the thing back (unless you have a stronger character than a person who would succumb to that temptation in the first place is likely to have), can't sell's a lose-lose situation. Even if you are the sort of person who loves having a secret, this one would be corrosive. Interesting how a choice can change a whole life. Obviously, losing his violin change Mr. Totenberg's life (I've had a beloved instrument stolen: I know) but I'd bet it poisoned the thief's, at least as much.

August 17, 2015 at 07:15 PM · "This seems enough to give a person cancer of the soul. Many of his friends wonder if it actually did give him cancer."

I wish this man's friends would refrain from implying that committing a crime caused Johnson's cancer. Most people who have died of pancreatic cancer have never harmed a soul, and the implication that this wretched disease is cosmic punishment for doing evil is beyond unfair.

August 18, 2015 at 11:20 AM · I agree that cancer (or substitute any other disease) is not 'cosmic punishment' for anything; however, the mind (soul)/body connection is far more complex than conventional medicine recognizes, and I am very sure the choices we make over the course of our lives affect our bodies strongly.

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