The musician died three years ago, but his three daughters sat inside the law library of the U.S. Attorney’s office here to see the return of the instrument that had remained elusive for decades.
Standing feet away from its rightful heirs on a table by the podium Thursday, the violin boasts a curling F Hole of the violin from which one can still make out the Latinized name and location of its creator, Antonius Stadivarius Cremona.
Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari died three years after forging the violin but his name remains synonymous with the highest quality of string instruments. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivari created more than 1,000 violins, violas and cellos, largely in the Northern Italian city of Cremona.
Warsaw-born Totenberg and his wife bought the Stradivarius in the United “during the darkest days of the war years” in 1943, Amy Totenberg, one of the couple’s three daughters, said at the press conference Thursday.
A federal judge in Georgia, Amy was joined at the ceremony by her sisters, National Public Radio legal correspondent Nina Totenberg and Jill Totenberg of the communications firm the Totenberg Group.
The instrument was known as the Ames Stradivarious, named after previous owner, renowned 19th century violinist George Ames.
To Amy, the Ames Stradivarius “gave gorgeous voice to my father’s artistry” and symbolized his “enduring love” for her mother, who also did not survive to see its return.
Nina, the NPR-employed Totenberg, reported that her father suspected an aspiring musician by the name of Phillip Johnson of having stolen the violin.
Johnson was allegedly seen outside her father’s office around the time of the theft, and one of Johnson’s ex-girlfriends informed the family that she was “quite sure” that he had taken it, according to an article by Nina for NPR.
That tip was not enough for a search warrant, however, NPR reported.
The instrument finally resurfaced this year when another former flame of Johnson’s tried to have it appraised. Johnson himself reportedly died in 2011.
NPR reported that Johnson’s ex-wife and her boyfriend were cleaning house when “they came across a violin case that her former husband had left to her, with a combination lock on it.”
“They broke the lock and opened the case to find a violin with a label inside that said it was made in 1734 by the most famous violin maker of all time – Antonio Stradivari,” the article states.
Johnson’s ex had the instrument appraised by Phillip Injeian in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel on June 26.
“It’s like a fingerprint,” Injeian said. “You can’t forge that.”
Though there only about 550 Stradivari in the world, each of them cataloged in the “Iconography of Antonio Stradivari,” Injeian said customers often claim to find the iconic violins in their attics.
Injeian said he has seen more than 100 of them, commenting that each is as distinctive as “family members.”
In the words of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the “quick-witted violin appraiser” then “immediately called law enforcement.”
While authorities and Injeian declined to estimate the instrument’s value, Reuters reported that a similar specimen fetched $15.9 million at auction.
With no criminal action planned, the mood at the ceremony was uncommonly jubilant for a prosecutor’s law office.
Using a different violin, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Masimore of the public corruption unit played an adagio by Johann Sebastian Bach before the remarks.
Nina, affecting the accent of her Eastern European father, imagined him saying: “This is a vonderful day!”
On a more somber note, two of the Totenberg’s bows remain missing, and Injeian estimated that roughly 20 Stradivari violins, violas and cellos have not been returned to their rightful owners. New York prosecutors used the ceremony to put out a call for tips on the Davidoff-Morini Strad, stolen from apartment of violinist Erica Morini in 1995.
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