By Brian Wise
It was prized, stolen, and patched up with Elmer’s glue—after serving as the violin of counts, generals, and at least one virtuoso. Its most notorious chapter began in 1980 when it vanished from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of violinist Roman Totenberg.
No wonder that the 1734 “Ames, Totenberg” Stradivari generated so much fanfare when, in 2015, it resurfaced and was returned to the late violinist’s family after an alert to the FBI. It made headlines again this past October, when its next chapter began as it was loaned to a new caretaker, an 18-year-old Juilliard student named Nathan Meltzer.
Though hardly the first Stradivari to go on a tumultuous journey, the Ames, Totenberg stands out for its remarkable lack of wear and tear. Experts consider the violin a top specimen of Antonio Stradivari’s late years, a somewhat maligned period that has recently enjoyed a reassessment.
“One of the things that makes the Ames, Totenberg so great is its condition,” says Jason Price, the director of the auction house Tarisio. “It is exceptionally well-preserved. You have very little actual structural damage and restoration, and you have a good healthy layer of varnish on top of that. The history for the instrument is great in that we’ve got a pretty accurate trail going back 150 years, and surprisingly, you don’t get that for most Stradivaris.”
The famed Cremonese maker was 90 years old when his workshop produced the violin in 1734. As with many instruments from the late period (approximately 1730–37), it was a joint production, probably involving Antonio’s sons, Omobono and Francesco, and an apprentice, Carlo Bergonzi.
In their definitive history of Stradivari, the authors W. Henry, Arthur, and Alfred Hill contend that the form and edges of some late-period Strads lack “the power of execution and firmness of hand of former years.” They add that a “streaky appearance” in the varnish might be attributed to the old master’s failing vision.
Tarisio’s Price isn’t so quick to discount this period, however. “Generally speaking, the late period is not so well understood and perhaps not as appreciated as it should be,” he says. “Stradivari’s involvement with some of the later output is limited compared to earlier on. But his ideas are still there, and the concept of sound, of arching, of making fiddles that work is as it was perfected 40 years prior.”
Phillip Injeian, a Pittsburgh violin maker who appraised the Ames, Totenberg in 2015, identifies Bergonzi’s influence in the fuller arching and square upper corners.
“Everything is a little broader so it makes for a little larger-looking instrument,” he notes. And the wood of this period was less refined. “He used mostly plain maples in his later years, where there’s not a lot of flame. And very often, those plain pieces of maple also have a darker-quality sound.”
A native New Yorker, Injeian wondered if he was being sold another “Stradivari in the attic” story when he received a call in 2015. A California woman, identified in court papers as Thanh Tran, was cleaning out the Los Angeles house of her ex-husband, who died in 2011, when she encountered the locked violin case. She and a boyfriend broke the lock and spotted the telling label.
Tran brought the instrument to a Manhattan hotel in June 2015, where Injeian rendered his opinion. “I told her, ‘I have good and bad news,’” Injeian recalls. “‘The good news is it’s a Strad. The bad news is, this is the stolen Ames Stradivari from 1980.’ She was obviously in shock.”
As the now-infamous story goes, Tran’s ex-husband was Philip Johnson, a former Totenberg student who, in May 1980, snatched the fiddle from his office at the Longy School of Music. Johnson had been seen around the office at the time of the theft, but the police never had enough evidence for a search warrant. He went on to play it in an improvisational band and church performances, and kept it together partly with the aforementioned Elmer’s glue (which, fortunately, had no lasting effect on the instrument).
Totenberg, meanwhile, grew depressed, partly because it took him so long to unlock the instrument’s voice. “It was never played professionally,” Totenberg told CBS News in 1981. “That’s one reason why it took some time to wake it up, to find all of the things that it needed—the right kind of strings and so on. Only in the last 20 years did it come to its full potential.”
A Trip Around the World
But this incident was only a small part of the instrument’s history. Records assembled by the firm Rare Violins of New York show that its earliest owner was a commander in the French army named General Lamorlière. He reportedly sold it to Louis-Philippe-Joseph Girod de Vienney (1779–1852), a nobleman, amateur violinist, and patron who rubbed shoulders with Beethoven and Berlioz.
In 1870, the violin was acquired by Charles Hermann, a Parisian violinist and a rare professional to play it before Totenberg. Hermann sold it in 1879 to the Parisian firm of Gand & Bernardel, which in turn sold it for £480 to Caspar Gottlieb Meier, an amateur violinist and instrument collector from England: He flipped it in 1885 to George Hart who passed it on to George Ames the next year.
Ames came from a prominent family of bankers and ship owners from Bristol, England, who made a fortune in deals involving munitions, cotton, tobacco, and enslaved Africans. He studied violin at the Eton School and, at age 19, using an assumed name, played in the orchestra of the Birmingham Festival of 1846 for the premiere
of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Ames’ studies took him to Dresden where he married Clara Henriette Marie, the daughter of a German count and step-sister to Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
After Ames died in 1893, the auction house of Puttick & Simpson sold the violin to Hill & Sons of London. According to an unattributed news report, “the excitement was great during the bidding, and the violin was regarded by many present as only something little short of sacred.” An accompanying photograph shows a room of men in their Victorian finery, bidding on the “very fair specimen, in excellent condition.”
Over the next 17 years Hill sold and repurchased this violin three times, the last time to Berlin dealer Emil Herrmann, in July 1916. When Herrmann relocated his shop to West 57th Street in New York, the (now named) Ames traveled with him.
With the economy booming, Herrmann sold the Strad in 1925 to Mr. Leslie W. Brown, an amateur violinist from Utica, New York. Brown was a businessman who entered his father’s cigar-making firm and went on to become director of the First National Bank of Utica. After Brown’s death in 1941, the instrument was acquired by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, and in 1943, sold to Totenberg.
World War II had depressed the violin market. The Polish émigré paid $15,000 for the instrument, half the amount Brown paid for it in 1925. But by 1960, Wurlitzer reassessed the value at $25,000. The Stradivari was Totenberg’s constant companion as he performed concertos with leading American and European orchestras, and gave recitals with Arthur Rubinstein and Karol Szymanowski.
In the 1960s, teaching became a growing focus of Totenberg’s career, as he held successive posts at the Mannes College of Music, Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the Longy School, where he directed the string department. “He loved, loved, loved teaching young people,” says his daughter, Nina Totenberg, who is NPR’s legal-affairs correspondent. That continued after his prized instrument was stolen. “When my mother died, it was his salvation that all these young people were there to ask for lessons.”
A New Adventure
Nina Totenberg and her two sisters were naturally relieved when then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan returned the instrument to the family and they realized it wasn’t in bad condition. They turned to Rare Violins of New York, which spent a year restoring the instrument and securing a buyer. After at least one false start, the firm sold it to an anonymous benefactor who agreed to loan it to a promising young violinist. (The New York Times reports that it sold for between $5 million and $10 million.)
The Totenberg sisters presented the instrument to Meltzer in October at a small ceremony at Rare Violins’ West 57th Street office. Meltzer, who studies with Itzhak Perlman and Li Lin, says his loan will be up for renewal on a yearly basis.
Bruno Price, a partner at the firm, says Lin recommended the student. “He’s got the right hands, the right temperament, he’s such a careful person, and he’s brilliant,” Price says. “It really was a matchmaking thing.”
After performing Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo, Meltzer looks the instrument up and down. It seems to glow in the autumn light. “It has this beautiful warm tone on every register,” he says. “And it has a very good response time so it doesn’t take a lot of gusto to play attacco. So I have a lot of space to work with in pieces like this. It’s very nice to know that the instrument will respond with colors and all that good stuff.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Strings magazine.