Philip Johnson was dying of pancreatic cancer when he brought his former wife, Thanh Tran, to the basement of his home in Venice, Calif. Under a tarp weighted down with bricks was a violin case with a combination lock. He gave the case to Tran and didn't say a word about it. She assumed it contained an antique violin that she had once bought for him. It wasn't until nearly four years later that Tran learned the truth: The case contained a famous Stradivarius that had been stolen from renowned violinist Roman Totenberg in 1980, likely by Johnson, who died in November 2011 at age 58; Totenberg died the following May, at age 102. Tran initially hoped there was some explanation for why Johnson, who scraped together a meager living as a concert violinist for most of his life, had the Stradivarius. "I'm still digesting it," she says. "It blows my mind. ... Maybe it was just sitting there and it was too tempting."
Only when curiosity got the best of her this spring and she got the violin appraised after prying the case open did she see the Stradivarius label. When the appraiser said they'd need to call the FBI, Tran says she nearly fainted and wondered if she would be arrested. "They asked me if I would be willing to let them take it, and I said, 'Yeah, of course. It's not mine,'" she says. As for her ex-husband, who she says was a "complicated person," she remembers one suspicious thing: He'd never leave the violin alone for long. "I was looking back at some ... pictures of us going for a hike, and he was carrying the violin case with him," Tran says. "Wherever he went, he would always take it with him." She says her biggest regret is that she didn't discover the instrument sooner and return it while Totenberg was still alive. "I wish [Johnson] would have told me before he died," she says. "Then I could have given it back to the Totenbergs. I'm upset about that." (Read more violin stories.)