A Stolen Stradivarius: NPR's Nina Totenberg's Dad and the Man who Stole his Violin

This was announced some months ago. Nina Totenberg’s Dad was a famous violinist who bought a Stradivarius in the 40’s. It was stolen in the 70’s and there was a clear suspect, an excellent-but-quirky student named Philip Johnson. For years, the Totenbergs wanted Johnson’s apartment searched, but there was no evidence for taking that step.

When Johnson died a few years ago, sure enough, the violin was discovered and is being restored.

This new article in the Washington Post does a great job of adding context - what happen to the violin in the decades Johnson had it and went through many ups and downs in life.


I had no idea Nina Totenberg’s father was a famous violinist.

That Post article is the first time I’ve seen Strads described as being hard to play. I wonder if those references mean that it is obectively hard to play, like the crappy, high-action guitars many of us unfondly remember, or if they mean that to get the magic Straddiness that aficionados gush about requires a level of effort greater than that required to get clear notes out of it?

You know me, I’ve read a few books and articles on violins and Strads in particular because they are interesting. The main point made about all of them is how “not original” they are and how each is even “more unique” (uniquer?? ;)) than they were when each was handcrafted by one man back in Cremona. All playable Strads have been renecked - the original neck angle was straight to the body; the replacements are angled back to have more notes on the fretboard and a longer scale length. The original headstock is typically grafted onto the new neck - huge surgery, as you know. A bass bar is added, I think a soundpost is either repositioned or introduced; the bridge is replaced to go with the new neck and angle, etc.

You are, essentially buying a Strad body with modified stuff attached to it. This would suggest to me, as a guitar player who has assembled electrics, swapped necks on bodies, etc - that pretty much every variable that contributes to the playability on an old Strad would be open to being modified. I mean, why the fuck not, right? If you want a different action and have to take the neck off for a reset, what is stopping you? It ain’t originality!!*

So unless someone is restricting what they are prepared to change on an already-heavily-modified instrument, the basic set-up of the violin should not be the factor.

That would suggest that either: a) that particular violin needed a better setup to get its sound; or b) there is something difficult about achieving a good tone on great violins. I would be curious to hear about that.
*With old electrics, originality can be slavishly pursued. A refretted Fender can go for a lot less, and of course, verifying whether that pricey, 1960’s Custom Color Strat didn’t start life as a standard sunburst is a huge factor in value - the difference between an original Seafoam Green vs. a refin. Also, if the solder joints on the pickups have never been broken - oh boy, huzzah, do folks go nuts for that.

I have to chuckle when I think about what Frankensteins Strads really are. They’ve all been completely apart a bunch of times in their lifetimes, I am sure.

And if you lose, the Devil gets your soul. Maybe that’s what happened to Johnson.

You can sure tell this post was written by a guitarist!


Totally, dude! What, violins don’t have frets?


Yeah, that just kinda fell out.