“My God, that fiddle sounds incredible.”
March 17, 2016 4:17 PM   Subscribe

The Violin Thief by Geoff Edgers Philip Johnson was a promising musical prodigy. Then he stole a teacher’s prized Stradivarius.
"He is dying, Q-tip elbows poking through a baggy shirt. Friends visit, spooning him ice cream and playing music. His daughters are around as well, stopping in after school, 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, 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."
Related: How to track a dead violin thief: They found a priceless Stradivarius. I spent six months tracking the man who took it for my story in the Washington Post. by Geoff Edgers [Medium]
"The tip came last summer. The FBI had recovered a 281-year-old Stradivarius violin stolen in 1980. Everybody knew who the instrument had belonged to. Roman Totenberg, the late father of NPR legal affairs guru Nina. But who stole it? Investigators didn’t name the thief. He was dead, they said, so why bother. Nina Totenberg told me his name was Phil Johnson. He was an amateur violinist who had never made much of his life, she said. He had died of cancer and then his ex-wife found the Strad — one of roughly 500 still in existence. That seemed good enough for everybody else. But for me, that left a hole in the story the size of a ’73 Gran Torino. Who steals a violin worth millions — that you can’t sell — and squirrels it away for 35 years?"
posted by Fizz (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's how the article is written or just the myth of the plucky underdog, but I picture him playing it, and I hope it brought him joy.
posted by eggkeeper at 9:46 PM on March 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Near, thank you! I am always looking for insteresting stories for my middle school orchestra students, and they will love this.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:58 PM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's a great story about a fascinating character. And it really is an impressive amount of work the author did to pull it together. Thanks.

A big unanswered question is why he stole it in the first place, though maybe there was no logical reason there in the first place. The violin's value is almost entirely in its identity, not its physical form or its functioning, and the identity is the one part you can't do anything with once you've stolen it. Though I suppose there's still a good amount value in its form and function, even if nowhere near its identity-value, and he did get that much out of it given that he played it.

It's sort of like stealing a famous, expensive work of art. You can't let anyone know who knows its real identity and price, and you can't sell it very easily. But you can hang it somewhere, let yourself and your guests appreciate it, and tell the few people who might be curious that it's just a reproduction. Probably easier to do if you aren't seen at the gallery the night it's stolen with a large box, though.
posted by whatnotever at 10:01 PM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

What a quirky story. People are such complicated, fascinating creatures.
posted by bardophile at 10:02 PM on March 17, 2016

I expect he stole it because in his mind, he thought he deserved it more than Totenberg. What I'm curious about, is why the police didn't follow up. It seems like the Totenberg family was pretty strongly convinced it was him, to the point that they wanted to break into his apartment.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:12 PM on March 17, 2016

I don't know if it's how the article is written or just the myth of the plucky underdog, but I picture him playing it, and I hope it brought him joy.

For me, I read this article, and I was left with the impression that Johnson seems like an entitled man child who decided to snatch the violin, maybe because he thought Totenberg didn't deserve it. (Or at least that's what some of his contemporaries seemed to be hinting at in their comments in the WaPo article.)

I do feel really terrible for Totenberg. It must have been so heartbreaking to have the violin taken like that. The fact that he died never knowing what its fate was makes this all the more tragic.

It's sort of like stealing a famous, expensive work of art.

That's a great analogy, and given the rarity and value of a Stradivarius, the instrument itself is arguably like a work of art.

Specifically, this is like stealing a great work of art, and then hiding it away from the rest of the world for 30 years. Stealing is a crime in and of itself, naturally, but there's also the cost of hiding something like this away from the public, the risk of damaging it irreparably, and then the fact that this was stolen from a particular person, not just an institution.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:20 PM on March 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

Stealing another musician's instrument is a shitty thing to do and as a musician you are more morally to blame than an ordinary thief because you know what an instrument means and how you build a personal connection with it. I have very limited sympathy with this guy, except to the extent he may have been mentally ill.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:24 PM on March 17, 2016 [10 favorites]

From the WaPo article:

The instrument cost $15,000 in 1943.

In case anyone is curious, apparently that would be a little over $200,000 today adjusted for inflation.

Also the article in this previous fpp, (via MeTa) lead me to this eulogy for Totenberg, written by his daughter Nina Totenberg, who apparently is affiliated with NPR. It's definitely worth a read.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:31 PM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

She is not just "affiliated" with NPR, she's their main legal affairs correspondent.

I remember hearing this piece when they ran it on NPR, when they interviewed her about its recovery and how her family had reacted to its loss.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:45 AM on March 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

I expect he stole it because in his mind, he thought he deserved it more than Totenberg. What I'm curious about, is why the police didn't follow up. It seems like the Totenberg family was pretty strongly convinced it was him, to the point that they wanted to break into his apartment.

The article says that they didn't have enough evidence for a search warrant.
posted by atrazine at 5:11 AM on March 18, 2016

This story made me think back to a theft that I once didn't commit.

As a teenager, I had a love for Marcel Duchamp. There was a big retrospective of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I decided to hitchhike there from Pittsburgh to see it.

I got there on what was to be the last day of the show, to find that the museum had a strike going on of the museum guards. Weirdly, they still admitted visitors.

The Duchamp show was in the process of being taken down, and some of the works were sitting in the hall on carts unattended. I picked up a small painting, looked at the back to see how it was affixed in the frame. There was a men's room there. Duck in with the painting, remove it from the frame, slide it out the window, and pick it up from outside?

Nah. Of course not. But throughout my life I've thought, what would it have been like if I had?

Would I keep a secret closet gallery where only I could enter and view it? Would I risk showing a friend or lover, who would later betray me? Maybe blackmail me into doing something worse? Would I only show it to someone who would never recognize it? Would I use it to gain cred with the Yakuza?

What strange solemn isolating tendencies would have grown in me? How would it have affected my relationship with myself?

Someday I will see it again, knowing the private moment we shared at the crossroad.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:54 AM on March 18, 2016 [12 favorites]

Nah. Of course not. But throughout my life I've thought, what would it have been like if I had?

Have you read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt? You can live vicariously through the protagonist, who accidentally stole a priceless painting as a 13-year old boy.
posted by slmorri at 9:39 AM on March 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

It's sort of like stealing a famous, expensive work of art.

This is the particularly dumbfounding thing about, to take the most famous unresolved example, the Gardner Museum theft of 1990. What the hell do you do with a stolen Vermeer or any of the other well-known works which disappeared? You can't hang it on your wall, because eventually some guest is going to look at it and say, "Isn't that an extremely well-known stolen picture?" You can't sell it to any remotely ethical or even self-interested broker, because the overwhelming majority of people who move art will (a) deem it far too hot to touch, and probably (b) cheerfully flip on you to the authorities in return for either the quite significant reward or clemency for their own misdeeds. In the unlikely event you do find an extremely discreet and extremely trustworthy fence, where are they going to find a buyer, and what on earth would the buyer do with it? Pretty much all you can do with it is hide it in a closet, look at it occasionally, and revel in the fact that you're the only person who can ever see it. Which, y'know, I can see appealing to a certain kind of person, but it's really not worth the tsuris.
posted by jackbishop at 11:53 AM on March 18, 2016

It's an amazing story, while he clearly did the wrong thing, he's dead now, and people do much more terrible things and are revered and respected.

I particularly, particularly like the idea he was constantly playing it, and yet when it was all over, the violin expert claimed that it was in such good condition that it had to be that it had never been played!

That shows real devotion. That doesn't happen by accident. That requires research, and systematic climate control, and it also means he had to learn how to become a luthier to at least some degree. That wasn't the work of a spoiled man-child.

> It's sort of like stealing a famous, expensive work of art.

I can tell you aren't an instrumentalist. ;-)

No, it's like stealing Helen of Troy and getting it off with her in your cheap studio apartment for the rest of your life.

Here's how I read this story - or at least, want to read the story.

This young man seems pretty smart and pretty realistic - he probably already realized that he was never going to be a top violinist, and quite likely for reasons that had nothing to do with his actual technique - and that nothing in his life was ever going to be truly amazing - and he rebelled. And so he hatched a plot to steal - no, to possess! - the one truly amazing thing that would ever be anywhere near his grasp.

And he succeeded, and then he was true to that amazing thing for the rest of his life, and the instrument will go on to have many other brilliant owners.

For money, people foul entire ecosystems, or cause wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people. For love of music, he stole a beautiful instrument, and left it as good as he found it.

posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:28 PM on March 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with you, lupus_wonderboy, about the Helen of Troy example, but my sympathy has to be with Menelaus in this case. I'm not a violinist, I'm a pianist, but I get it and I ached for Totenberg. It's completely unfair to think that he didn't love her too.
posted by seyirci at 7:50 PM on March 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

The main thing I took away from the article is that the FBI are a bunch of colossal fuckups. I was picturing that this guy underwent plastic surgery and assumed a fake identity to evade the feds, but nope. He just chilled out for a few years in Venezuela and then returned and started openly playing it under his real name. They could have showed up at any of his performances and inspected the instrument, but nope. They couldn't get a warrant in 1980, so they filed a report, shrugged, and figured that was that.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:51 PM on March 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I disagree with the Helen of Troy analogy and find it reprehensible. A violin, however rare and beautiful, is an object. Women are not objects, much less sex objects.

One question the article left me wondering was whether Totenberg was truly careless with the instrument. There was one allegation that he tossed it behind a sofa and left the room unlocked, but I'm imagining it was in its case and not just sitting there unprotected. Still, my take was that Johnson felt the violin may be damaged or stolen, and figured he may as well be the one to do the stealing.

It's a real shame that Totenberg didn't get to see his violin again. Also notable, according to the previously, Johnson also stole the bow, which was not recovered.
posted by mama casserole at 8:14 AM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Helen was a bad analogy, yes, but the point stands: an instrument is part of, knitted into, a musician's soul.

I've seen that loss, and, well, .
posted by Dashy at 11:32 AM on March 19, 2016

It's different from a unique piece of recognizable art hanging on your wall in that if a musician hears a good instrument, they'll say - wow, that's a nice fiddle. But there are a lot of nice-sounding fiddles out there that mostly look a lot like, well, older instruments, and no reason to suspect your pal is holding a hot one, without other hints like having been at BU at the time Totenberg's was stolen. Strads are more (but not totally) recognizable as a powerhouse from 50 feet away than right next to you, too.

It's a small enough world that I'm still amazed he got away with it, though.
posted by Dashy at 11:41 AM on March 19, 2016

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