In Plain View



Antonio Stradivari 1644 – 18 December 1737) was an Italian Luthier and a craftsman of stringed instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, guitars and Harps.  It is estimated that Stradivari produced some 1,116 instruments, of which 960 were violins. Around 650 instruments survived, including 450 to 512 violins.  He lived in Cremona and Stradivari likely began an apprenticeship with Nicola Amati between the ages of 12 and 14, and we have his label on his 1666 violin, which reads, Alumnus Nicolai Amati, faciebat anno 1666.  However, Stradivari did not repeatedly put Amati’s name on his labels, Stradivari’s early violins actually bear less resemblance to Amati’s than his later instruments do.   Amati would also have been a logical choice for Antonio’s parents, as he represented an old family of violin makers in Cremona and lived a couple of doors up the street, and was far superior to most other luthiers in Italy.  Antonio had two marriages and 9 children.


Who stole the Stradivarius violin?  It was stolen from Totenberg by his former student Philip Johnson in May 1980, from his office at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, where he was then the director. Totenberg died in 2012. The violin was later recovered in 2015, and given back to his daughters.  As Philip Johnson lay dying his little daughters are around him as well, stopping in after school, and too young to process the grim scene. And there, carefully placed in the closet, out of view in the room his ex-wife has set up for him, is the Stradivarius.

Philip Johnson’s fingers are no longer strong enough to play any violin, never mind one so unforgiving. So he keeps the Strad in a plastic crate. The instrument is the only thing he has of value. It is also his biggest secret.  When he’s gone, the news will shock them all, from the FBI to his family to the daughters of Roman Totenberg, who stand to inherit the instrument. They will ask how this once-promising, later penniless eccentric stole an 18th-century violin worth millions – and got away with it. After all, he was the only suspect when it was taken in 1980. As death approaches, Johnson, usually the loudest voice in the room, keeps his mouth shut. It is the fall of 2011. This has been his secret for 31 years.  Johnson, who was never able to hold a job, a mortgage or a relationship, somehow accomplished something most everyone thought impossible: He played Totenberg’s Stradivarius in plain view until the end.

He did this through chaos and control, by building an impenetrable wall between his past and present. Those who suspected Johnson of the crime lost track of him. Those who knew him during the last two decades of his life had never heard of the Totenberg theft. They just thought Johnson had an old violin.  The trail remained ice-cold even after Johnson died of pancreatic cancer two weeks before Thanksgiving 2011. Then, last summer, Thanh Tran, Johnson’s ex-wife, decided to look into selling the violin. She had no idea it was a Strad.  A friend suggested she contact Phillip Injeian, a dealer in Pittsburgh. It was Injeian who, working off emailed photos, saw that it matched a Stradivarius built in 1734 and stolen from the late Totenberg.  Injeian arranged to meet Tran in New York in late June. He also called the FBI. Within hours of her showing him the violin, two agents with the agency’s art theft team swooped in to claim the Strad, they contacted the Totenberg’s.  In August, during a packed news conference in Manhattan, the authorities returned the violin to the family.  An instrument that was played in plain view for some 31 years.

The Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius of 1713 is an antique violin made by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. The Gibson, while owned by Bronislaw Huberman, which was stolen twice. The first time the violin was returned shortly after the theft; the second theft, possibly by musician Julian Altman, occurred on the evening of 28 February 1936, backstage at Carnegie Hall, while Huberman performed with his Guarnerius of 1731.

Though Huberman never saw the Gibson again, the instrument was recovered 50 years later, in 1985, as a result of Altman’s deathbed confession to his wife that he had bought the stolen violin from a friend for $100.  In 1988, she turned the Strad over to Lloyd’s, which paid her a $263,000 finder’s fee and then they sold the violin for $1.2 million to Norbert Brainin, an acclaimed English violinist.

The Gibson ex-Huberman is currently owned by violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell had held and played the violin, and Brainin jokingly told Bell the violin could be his for four million dollars. Shortly thereafter, by chance, Bell came across the violin again and discovered it was about to be sold to a German Industrialist to become part of a collection. Bell then sold his current Stradivarius, the Tom Taylor, for a little more than two million dollars and made the purchase of the Gibson ex Huberman for a little under the four million dollar asking price. His first recording made with the Gibson ex Huberman was Romance of the Violin in 2003.

It was in 2001, Bell paid nearly $4 million for a Stradivarius with its own fascinating history: In 1936, a journeyman player named Julian Altman snuck into Carnegie Hall and stole the violin from Bronislaw Huberman, disguised it with thick layers of shoe polish and performed on the Strad in B-rate gigs for decades. The Altman theft was uncovered only when he died in the mid-1980s.  The story, in some ways, mirrors that of Totenberg, who knew Huberman and was also a supremely gifted Jewish violinist from Poland.  So who owns the most expensive violin?  Anne Akiko Meyers; The Soul Of The World’s Most Expensive Violin: Deceptive Cadence After being stored under a bed for a half-century, a $16 million violin is now in the hands of Anne Akiko Meyers, who’s recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.


Isaiah 53:1-3 “Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?  For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, [there is] no beauty that we should desire him.  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”  Jesus Christ walked this world, much like these stolen Stradivarius Violins, much appreciated for their amazingness, but totally unappreciated for what they really are and their true value.  Question, you and I are an amazing “Strad” covered with the dust and grime of this world, disguised with thick layers of shoe polish awaiting the master craftsman to take us home and to present us in perfect beauty, to then ring out in the Courts of Glory, so will you allow Jesus to rescue you, to be discovered and restored?