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The Tale Of The Stolen Totenberg Stradivarius Ends With A New Legacy

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From left to right, the Totenberg-Ames Stradivarius at the start of its restoration; in a mold being prepared to have the edge reinforced; and after the restoration.

From left to right, the Totenberg-Ames Stradivarius at the start of its restoration; in a mold being prepared to have the edge reinforced; and after the restoration.

Three years after his death, my father, virtuoso violinist Roman Totenberg, made headlines all over the world when his beloved Stradivarius violin, stolen 35 years earlier, was recovered by the FBI. The story struck the hearts of so many, I think, because in such turbulent times, it was rare good, even joyful, news. And the mystery of where it had been, was finally solved.

When we three Totenberg sisters got the violin back, we were intent on just one thing. That the instrument, now known as the Totenberg-Ames Stradivarius, would be played in concert halls everywhere and not be closeted away in some collector's vault.

Ensuring that was not as simple as you might imagine. The violin was in excellent shape, but because it had not been professionally maintained for 35 years, it had to be restored — a task painstakingly performed over two years by craftsmen at Rare Violins of New York.

A friend and a challenge

Still, finding a buyer who met our specifications was not easy. We could sell it for oodles in Asia but would likely never hear it again. And then the co-owners of Rare Violins, Ziv Arazi and Bruno Price, were approached by an "angel." A person whose identity we still don't know, and likely never will.

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They refer to him only as "our friend." He was willing to buy the violin but not for himself.

He "challenged us to help young musicians have access to great instruments," Arazi says, noting that the values of rare musical instruments "have gone up so high over the last 30 years, musicians have no longer the ability to access great instruments, let alone own them."

And so Arazi and Price have founded something called Rare Violins In Consortium, a way for wealthy patrons of the arts to acquire string instruments and then lend them out to promising young musicians for years at a time.

Passing the fiddle

My father's violin will go first to 18-year-old Nathan Meltzer, who already has enough of a career to pay the considerable insurance and maintenance costs.

Meltzer, a strapping 6-footer who can manage this relatively large Strad, has been practicing on the violin for about six weeks now.

"I don't know how to explain how great it sounds," he says. "It has an amazing amount of power to it. In all registers, at the same time the sweetness, and it never gets brittle and never gets shrill."

Ziv Arazi says matching a musician to an instrument is "more of an art than a science." In the case of my father's Strad, made in 1734, he says, "the violin has such a unique voice and yet it's very typical of the late period of Stradivari, with a very masculine, dark, rich, thick sound. And that is not a good match to people who are looking for a more shimmery sound."

Tuesday is the last day that the violin will be, in any sense, the property of the Totenberg family, though it will always bear my father's name as an identifier. We Totenberg sisters hope we have been good custodians, in my father's name, and Antonio Stradivari's as well. But most of all, custodians for audiences who will hear Nathan Meltzer, and others, make that violin sing in concert halls, long after we are gone.

As long as we are around, we will be in the audience too. Along with the spirit of Roman Totenberg.

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