Stradivarius heard for first time since 1980 theft

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NEW YORK (AP) — The three daughters of renowned violinist Roman Totenberg heard the sound of their late father's Stradivarius for the first time since it was stolen nearly four decades ago.

The prized 18th century instrument came back to life Monday night at a private Manhattan concert, tucked under the chin of longtime Totenberg student Mira Wang.

"It has such a different sound than most violins, it's so rich and so deep, and it gave the three of us the feeling that our father was present in the room with us again tonight," said Jill Totenberg, a public relations executive who sat in the audience alongside her sisters, Nina Totenberg, the National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent, and Amy Totenberg, a federal judge.

The "Ames" Stradivarius, named after a violinist who once owned it, was made in Italy in 1734 and is now worth millions of dollars.

The instrument Totenberg called his "musical partner of 38 years" disappeared in 1980 while he was greeting admirers after a concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He said then that he knew who had stolen it — an aspiring young violinist he'd seen before, lurking around. It was, in fact, the same Philip Johnson who proved to be the thief.

After Johnson died in 2011, his ex-wife had the violin examined by an expert, then alerted authorities and eventually relinquished the instrument to the FBI.

Totenberg's violin was personally returned to the family in 2015 by Preet Bharara, then the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.

It had been impeccably restored by a team working with New York string instrument specialist Bruno Price.

"All three of us are so excited that it's back, it's in one piece and it plays," said Jill Totenberg.

The family will sell the violin once the right new owner is found — to a performer or a sponsor who will make sure the instrument is played and heard.

Wang, a world-class soloist who has appeared at Carnegie Hall, is the natural choice to be playing her teacher's violin. She had immigrated to the United States from China 30 years ago to study with the Polish-born master who died in 2012 at the age of 101.

He did not live to see his violin recovered.

The artistry Wang absorbed from him was heard Monday in chamber music by Felix Mendelssohn and Antonin Dvorak that she played with several other musicians.

Losing the violin was "like if someone took your arm, just for fun, and never returned it," says Wang.

And playing the long-dormant Stradivarius now "is like discovering a sleeping beauty."

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