Pittsburgh Violin Maker Aids In The Recovery Of Long-Lost Stradivarius

Aug 6, 2015

Behind the locked door of master violin maker Phillip Injeian’s shop, his dog Cocoa sleepily monitors the passersby on Penn Avenue, and copies of The Strad magazine, “essential reading for the string music world since 1890,” hang on the wall.

Injeian said people often contact him, thinking they’ve found an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari.

“Every day I get phone calls, emails about ‘Oh, I found the Stradivarius in the attic,’ and of course it normally turns out to be a fake,” he said.

Normally. But when a woman contacted Injeian to appraise a violin she inherited from her ex-husband, Injeian confirmed it was a Stradivarius when they met in New York. Unfortunately, the instrument had been stolen from renowned violinist Roman Totenberg 35 years ago.

“I’ve had probably over 100, 150 [Stradivariuses] in my hands,” said Injeian. “So when I see a Stradivarius, I know it.”

Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent, is one of Roman’s daughters. After a concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Ames Stradivarius violin as it was known, was stolen from his office. The violin had been her father’s musical partner for 38 years.

“When the violin was stolen, one of my sisters called and said, ‘Are you all right, Daddy?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I just lost my arm,’” she recalled.  “It took my father a long time to make that violin sing up to full potential, he said. It took him about 20 years he said before he got it full voice and knew how to use it in the best possible way.”

Injeian said he’s glad he recognized the violin instead of having it wind up in someone’s private collection and hidden for another generation.

“Stradivari developed the violin model to be one of the most ultimate sound-producing boxes ever made. These instruments deserve to be heard. It’s the litmus test of what great sound is,” he said.  

Injeian would know. He made his first violin at 13 and worked as a violin maker and restorer in Italy, France, Germany and Austria before returning to the United States. Over the last 15 years, he’s discovered Pittsburgh’s violin makers. Injeian refers to Frenchman Gabriel Marc Francois as the “father” of the school, and has the first violin he made here.

“They’re as good if not better than any of the instruments being made in Europe at the time,” he said.

But no matter how well an instrument is made, Injeian said, it suffers from disuse. 

“The more it’s being played the better the instrument will sound," he said. "It’s going to respond quicker and better just like muscles that are being used." 

Roman Totenberg’s Stradivarius lay idle for years. When Injeian recognized the Stradivarius for what it was, he alerted the FBI’s Art Theft team, who returned the instrument to the Totenberg family in a ceremony at the U.S. Attorney’s office. They intend to restore and sell it.

Totenberg said she’s sad the violin was closeted for so long. Asked what it would be like to hear someone else play the violin, Totenberg paused.

“God. I don’t know. I just know that it has to be played again by another performer. I look forward to hearing it sing again,” she said.