The Scene of the Crime

I was present during the theft of Roman Totenberg’s Stradivarius in 1980.


In 1980, when I was 16, I was present during the theft of Roman Totenberg’s Stradivarius, an event that has remained vividly memorable for me ever since. Today I awoke to the news that after 35 years, the instrument has been returned.

Roman Totenberg, father of NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg, was a friend of my grandfather, Alfred Leonard. Both of them were part of the community of Jewish artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and regrouped in Los Angeles.

On the evening of Tuesday May 13, 1980, following an after-school cycling excursion, I joined my parents for a special concert at the Longy School of Music. Roman Totenberg was something of a family legend to me, and I was excited to finally have a chance to hear him perform.

The concert was beautiful and exuberant. We stayed for the reception, where I was thrilled meet Mr. Totenberg for the first time. According to my mother, “the reception felt like a family gathering for performers and friends who knew the performers. Everyone’s guard was down because of the intimacy of the occasion.”

All seemed to be well until we returned home, where I realized that I was missing something: not a violin, but the beloved and irreplaceable cycling jersey I had been wearing before the concert. Had I left it under my seat? Dropped it on the way home? I was distraught.

Although it was nearly 11:00pm, my father heroically raced back to Cambridge to search for the jersey. On arriving back at the Longy school, he found a bustle of police activity, and that was when he learned that Roman’s violin had been stolen.

The Boston Globe reported the crime the next day:

Police said the theft took place Tuesday night between 9:30 and 10:30 following a concert of Mozart’s music at the Longy School. Totenberg had played the violin at the concert, and the instrument was stolen during a reception following the program. About 250 people attended the invitation-only reception, and most of them knew each other, police said.

My cycling jersey never turned up, but after so many years, what a thrill to wake up to the news this morning that the Totenberg Stradivarius had been found. May its voice thrill audiences for another three hundred years!

Here’s the violin’s story as told by Nina Totenberg:
A Rarity Reclaimed: Stolen Stradivarius Recovered After 35 Years

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