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NEW YORK (Reuters) - On a late June afternoon in a Manhattan hotel, a woman handed one of the world's rarest musical instruments to Phillip Injeian, a violin maker and appraiser.
The woman was simply hoping to learn more about the violin, which she had received years before as a gift from her late former husband, Philip Johnson. But Injeian immediately recognized it for what it was: a valuable Stradivarius violin that had been stolen 35 years earlier.
"It was a 'Eureka' moment," Injeian said at a press conference on Thursday.
U.S. authorities formally returned the violin to the family of its rightful owner, the famed Polish violinist Roman Totenberg, who died in 2012 at the age of 101.
The violin, known as the Ames Stradivarius, was made by renowned Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari in 1734.
Approximately 550 Stradivarius instruments, including violins, violas and cellos, remain in existence. One violin sold for a record $15.9 million at auction in 2011.
The Ames violin was stolen in 1980 after Totenberg delivered a performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Its recovery was first reported earlier on Thursday on National Public Radio by Nina Totenberg, its legal affairs correspondent and a daughter of Roman Totenberg.
In an interview, Nina Totenberg said her father had long suspected the violin was taken by Johnson, another violinist. Johnson was never charged and died in 2011.
"The FBI didn't have enough for a search warrant," she said. "So that was that."
When Johnson's former wife showed Injeian the violin, he immediately called authorities. The woman voluntarily agreed to return it to the Totenberg family once she learned it was stolen, according to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Asked whether Johnson had stolen the violin, Bharara declined to comment, saying that the "facts speak for themselves." He added that no criminal case is expected against the woman.
Nina Totenberg said the family plans to sell the violin to a performer.
"Stradivarius owners are really just guardians of these great instruments," she said. "They are meant to be played."
A handful of stolen Stradivarius instruments remains missing, including a 1727 violin taken from the New York City apartment of violinist Erica Morini in 1995.
Last year, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was attacked with a stun gun after a performance and robbed of his Stradivarius violin. Two men were convicted and sentenced to prison for the crime, and the violin was recovered.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman