The long read: How to steal a Strad and play it for 30 years

Geoff Edgers has written a fine feature in the Washington Post on how a misfit student stole a teacher’s violin and carried on playing it for the rest of his miserable life.

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.

Read on here.


pictured: Roman Totenberg

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    • “Distinctive” wood-grain finish. It was probably based on an innocent comment made by the man who recognized it that he did so because of some distinctive markings in the way the wood was figured.

  • Thanks for posting this. Quite a read. I am still amazed however at how he got away with it. I cant imagine today police wouldnt be able to concoct a good enough reason to search his home on the grounds of reasonable suspicion.

  • I had the dubious pleasure of having the violin thief play under me in a concert; Silverstein’s characterization of him as arrogant was kind. My own personal experience was perceiving him as pathological and disturbed. It’s rare that a section giolinist will stick in one’s memory to this degree. Very disturbing story.

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