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Priceless 18th Century Violin Recovered, 35 Years After It Was Stolen

The Stradivarius Ames, made in 1734, was taken from renowned violinist Roman Totenberg's office after a concert in 1980.

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A priceless Stradivarius violin that was stolen from an office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980 has been recovered by federal agents, 35 years ago after it was lost.

The instrument, known as the Ames Stradivarius, belonged to reknowned musician Roman Totenberg, and was made in Italy in 1734 by Antonio Stradivari.

My father playing his beloved Stradivarius, stolen in 1980 and now recovered. @MorningEdition: http://t.co/hMQ3m6rdSd

Totenberg — who died three years ago at age 101 — left the violin in his office at Longly following a concert when he went outside to meet well-wishers. When he returned, he discovered the instrument had been stolen, AP reported.

Totenberg is said to have known who stole the violin, but didn't have sufficient evidence to pursue the suspect at the time.

His daughter Nina, writing for NPR — where she works as a legal affairs correspondent, said that the theft proved "crushing" for her father, who said he had "lost his musical partner of 38 years." He was forced to reconfigure the fingering of his entire repertoire for a new violin following the theft, Nina wrote.

There had been no developments in the search for the Stradivarius until June this year, when Nina received a phone call from FBI agents, telling her it was in federal custody.

Speaking to the AP Wednesday, Nina Totenberg said: "I could hardly believe it at the time. I said 'I have to call my sisters. I'll tell them not to get their hopes up,' but he said, 'You don't have to do that. This is the violin'".

According to the FBI, the violin resurfaced on June 26 at a hotel in Manhattan, where a woman, claiming to have received the instrument from a former spouse, had brought it to be appraised.

For my Dad, the theft of his beloved Stradivarius violin was crushing. Now it’s recovered. http://t.co/hMQ3m6rdSd

Because of their rareness and value, Stradivarius violins are notoriously hard to sell on the black market.

David Schoenbaum, a retired history professor, author and violin expert, told AP: "It's terribly hard to get rid of one, The whole world is on your tail, and if you go to a pawn shop, you'll get $35. You'd have to take it to a dealer, and the dealer would immediately call the cops."

On the open market, they are likely to fetch millions. A Stradivarius went for a record $15.9 million at a Manhattan auction in 2011.

The woman who took Totenberg's Strativarius for appraisal is the former wife of musician Philip S. Johnson, who died of cancer aged 58 in California in 2011. The woman — who has not been accused of any wrongdoing — refused to comment when asked by the AP, and asked for her name not to be published.

In her NPR piece on the recovery, Nina Totenberg wrote:

"My father had always suspected who had stolen the violin — a young aspiring violinist named Phillip Johnson, who was largely unknown to my father but had been seen outside my dad's office around the time the violin was stolen. Soon thereafter, Johnson's ex-girlfriend went to my parents and told them she was quite sure Johnson had taken it. Law enforcement officials believed, however, that was not enough for a search warrant."

Nina Totenberg added that the violin had been found when "Johnson's ex-wife and her boyfriend were cleaning house, and they came across a violin case that her former husband had left to her, with a combination lock on it. They broke the lock and opened the case to find a violin with a label inside that said it was made in 1734 by the most famous violin maker of all time — Antonio Stradivari."

Pittsburgh-based violin maker Phillip Injeian, who appraised the instrument in New York told NPR: "I opened the case and looked at the instrument [and] checked it out for over a half-hour before I said anything."

"And I said these words: 'Well, I've got good news for you, and I've got bad news for you. The good news is that this is a Stradivarius. The bad news is it was stolen 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg.' "

The violin was returned to Totenberg's heirs in a ceremony Thursday at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan.

"Today, we return to its rightful owners the centuries-old Ames Stradivarius, stolen 35 years ago from renowned violinist Roman Totenberg," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

“This is a remarkable story of a quick-witted violin appraiser who recognized the long-lost Ames Stradivarius and immediately called law enforcement. Thanks to the violin appraiser’s good citizenship and law enforcement’s prompt response, today we celebrate the Totenberg family’s reunion with a priceless family heirloom, thought for decades to have been lost forever – a joyful ending to an amazing story.”

You can listen to Nina Totenberg's story for NPR here:

Here are the court documents:

Francis Whittaker is a homepage editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Francis Whittaker at francis.whittaker@buzzfeed.com.

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