Summer Musing

by John Delach

August invites us to sit back, relax and muse about some of the improbables that life offers.


Item One: After 35 Years, Stolen Stradivarius Is Home. In 1980, the Ames Stradivarius, made by the master craftsman, Antonio Stradivari in 1734, was lifted from the office of violin virtuoso, Roman Totenberg, at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Totenberg had his own deep suspicions of the thief’s identity, a certain student by the name of Philip S. Johnson. Mr. Totenberg’ daughter, Nina, explained the basis to a reporter from The New York Times, “He (Johnson) was loitering around the place where it was taken and later his ex-girlfriend would tell my father that she was quite sure that he had taken it.”


Mr. Totenberg who acquired the instrument in 1943 told CBS a year after the violin was purloined:

“…that it had taken two decades of playing the instrument before it reached its potential. ‘It took some time to wake it up,’ he said, ‘to work it out, find all of the things that it needed the right kind of strings and so on and so on.”


Mr. Totenberg passed away in 2012 at the age of 101. He did collect $250,000 in insurance proceeds following the theft. Mr. Johnson died in 2011 and his wife, Thanh Tran, discovered the violin when she forced open a locked case given to her by Johnson before he died. Recently, she brought it from her home in California to New York for appraisal supposedly “innocent” of the circumstances surrounding it. When confronted with the details, Ms. Tran wisely “voluntarily relinquished” the violin.


The family has returned the insurance money for a simple reason as The Times reported, “…these days, the finest Stradivarius violins sell for millions of dollars.” They also noted that Mr. Totenberg’s wife became so frustrated with the lack of effort by the police in gaining entry to Mr. Johnson’s abode that she frequently asked friends if they knew someone from the mob. Too bad she couldn’t find someone like Ray Donovan to do her bidding.


Item Two: Semi-Happy Ending, Seaside, For Long Island Ponzi Scheme. The usual fraud story with a twist, a pair of brothers-in-law, Brian R. Callahan and Adam Manson, bilked 45 investors out of $96 million by creating a semi-mythical hedge fund beginning in 2007. Instead, they invested the bulk of the money in the Panoramic View, a Montauk, N.Y. resort of villas and cottages first opened in 1954. Their plan was to renovate the aging property, sell some of the units as co-ops and operate the remaining cottages as a hotel. Whether or not they intended to share the profits with their investors is unknown, but timing, as usual, is everything. Their original timing was lousy and their entrepreneurial scheme collapsed in the face of the great recession that hit late in the summer of 2008.


Of course, not all of the money went into the Panoramic View although Mr. Callahan did buy his own co-op there – Unit Salt Sea No. 4 for $450,000. Investors’ money also helped pay for “…(he) and his wife’s Old Westbury, N.Y. mortgage, credit-card bills, golf-club dues and payments on a range Rover and a BMW.”


As the recession waned, the Montauk real estate market heated up and in 2012, they were offered $50 million for the Panoramic View that had cost them $38 million. Mr. Manson rejected this offer as too low but the following year the Law caught up to the two crooks. Both men plead guilty and will be sentenced this October. Now it is the government’s job to secure the best offer possible so to return as much of the lost investments as possible.  They were ready to sell the property said to be worth as much as $75 million for $54 million in 2013 but Federal District Judge Arthur D. Spatt nixed it as t.f.l. (too f***ing low.)


New bid packages were sent to interested parties in June…stay tuned.