A priceless Stradivarius violin stolen 35 years ago was returned Thursday by federal officials to the late virtuoso Roman Totenberg's three daughters, who said at a ceremony in Manhattan that the miraculous reappearance would free its "gorgeous voice."
"Oh, joy to the world!" enthused Georgia U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, who was joined at the ceremony by her sisters Nina Totenberg, a well-known NPR radio correspondent, and foundation director Jill Totenberg.
The violin was made in 1734 by Italian master craftsman Antonio Stradivari. Fewer than 600 of his instruments survive. It became known as the Ames Stradivarius for a famous 19th century owner. Totenberg, a Polish prodigy who came to the United States during World War II, acquired it in 1943.
It disappeared from his office in 1980 after a concert at the Longy School of Music in Boston, where he was the director. He suspected a student named Phillip Johnson, who had been seen nearby, but police never got enough evidence to act, Nina Totenberg said.
She described it on NPR as a "crushing loss" for her father, who viewed the violin as his "musical partner" for nearly four decades.
The trail was cold until June, when Thanh Tran -- the ex-wife of Johnson, who died in 2011 -- brought the violin to appraiser Phillip Injeia, telling him it had been kept in a case secured by a combination lock that she had broken.
Injeia recognized it immediately from "telltale markings" on the wood and varnish and recorded measurements of the stolen Totenberg instrument. "When I saw this one, it was truly a 'Eureka!' moment," Injeia told reporters.
He contacted the NYPD and FBI's art-crimes agent Christopher McKeogh. Tran quickly agreed to give it up. Roman Totenberg died in 2012 at 101, but his daughters were contacted once the provenance had been confirmed.
"The mystery was solved. It had been in the same guilty hands for all those years," said Nina Totenberg, who noted that because none of the sisters play the violin, they plan to sell it to a worthy musician.
"Stradivarius owners," she said, "are just guardians of these great instruments."
The ceremony was emceed by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office prepared court papers restoring title to the Totenbergs. It began with a Bach violin sonata played by one of his prosecutors.
Bharara said he hoped the publicity would encourage those who discover treasures to come forward.
Earlier this year, he initiated a grand jury investigation of a Nassau County woman who sought an appraisal of inherited Ben Franklin papers after the New York Public Library claimed ownership. But he said the facts of that case were different from the violin case.