“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?"
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