Family Gives 18th Century Violin to American Jewish Student After It Was Stolen and Retrieved by FBI

The violin, stolen from a Jewish violinist from Lodz, could have been sold for a lot of money to collectors, but the family wanted to give it to a promising young musician

Nathan Meltzer, an 18-year-old American Jew playing the rare Ames Stradivarius, October 9, 2018.
Chris Lee/AP

In 2015, the headlines were filled with a violin built in 1734 by history’s most famous violin maker, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. The FBI had managed to find the violin, which had been stolen 35 years before from the American Jewish violinist Roman Totenberg, a native of Lodz.

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Now, the restored violin has been loaned to another gifted musician – a young American Jew.

The violin, which had been pilfered from Totenberg’s office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was called the Ames Stradivarius, after the violinist who played it in the late 19th century. Totenberg bought it in 1943 for $15,000.

He had become well-known as a gifted musician in Poland and Russia and performed throughout Europe, then immigrated to the United States in 1938. There he enjoyed a long career as a performer, which included giving the premiere performances of various new works. He also had a great deal to teach.

It was one of his students, Phillip Johnson, who stole the Stradivarius in 1980. Johnson subsequently played the violin, including in public performances, but it wasn’t identified until his ex-wife found it among his belongings after his death in 2011.

In 2015, the widow tried to sell it, but the expert on violins whom she consulted identified it and contacted the FBI. The violin was then returned to Totenberg’s daughters. Totenberg himself had died in 2012 at the age of 101.

On Tuesday, Totenberg’s daughter Nina announced that the Ames Stradivarius was beginning a new chapter. The family had decided the wonderful instrument should be played rather than stuck like a fossil in some collection. But first, it needed to be restored, which took about two years, the work being done by Rare Violins of New York.

Next, the family had to find a buyer – not an easy job. Though it could have been sold for a lot of money to collectors in Asia, the family wanted it to go to someone who would play it.

At that point, an anonymous “friend” contacted the owners of Rare Violins, Ziv Arazi and Bruno Price, and proposed setting up an endowment that would let donors buy rare instruments and lend them to promising young musicians.

The price of a high-quality antique violin – especially those by leading violin makers like Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri – has soared in recent decades, to the point that musicians can’t possibly afford them. In most cases, therefore, top violinists borrow the rare instruments they play from institutions, foundations or private donors.

The anonymous friend became the first donor to the new fund and bought the Ames Stradivarius. The purchase price, like the purchaser’s identity, hasn’t been disclosed, but the name of the first violinist to be allowed to borrow the instrument has: Nathan Meltzer, an 18-year-old American Jew who is studying at the prestigious Julliard School of music under Itzhak Perlman and Li Lin and has become one of Perlman’s protégés.

Meltzer spent his childhood in Vienna. But then was he was bit by the music bug, as he termed it, while attending a concert. He sat in the cheap seats where he couldn’t even see the violinist, but could only hear him. And that, he said in an interview, made him understand that music was all about sound.

He began playing more seriously, and at age 13, was invited to participate in the Perlman Music Program for young musicians. At 16, he became the youngest winner ever of the Windsor Festival International String Competition in Britain. Since then, he has had an international career, with performances throughout the United States, South America, Canada and Britain, as well as in cities such as Vienna and Tel Aviv.