It was the moment the Totenberg sisters thought would never happen.
They watched with anticipation as Christopher McKeogh, an agent with the FBI's art crime unit, gently placed a case on a table, opened it and gingerly pulled back a blue velvet coverlet to reveal a violin colored in rich caramel tones.
"It's beautiful," said Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent, before turning to hug her sisters, Jill Totenberg, president of the Totenberg Group, and Amy Totenberg, a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Georgia.
It was the first time they had laid eyes on the Stradivarius since it was stolen from their father, Roman Totenberg, a renowned concert violinist, after a performance in Cambridge, Mass., in 1980.
"It was his musical partner for 38 years," Nina Totenberg said, adding that the sisters joked among themselves that it was the return of the family's "fourth daughter."
"It really is like an O. Henry tale," she said, referring to the famous pen name of American writer William Sydney Porter, whose short stories are known for their surprise endings.
The emotional moment happened Thursday about half an hour before a "return ceremony" was held at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan to officially give the violin back to the Totenbergs.
Over the course of the presentation, the unlikely tale of the instrument's return, complete with a surprise ending, was told by the sisters, the investigators and the sharp-eyed appraiser who recognized the instrument as stolen.
Nina Totenberg said her father, who died in 2012 at 101, long suspected his beloved instrument was stolen by a young violinist, Philip Johnson, who had been seen loitering in the vicinity of the office where the violin was last seen.
Later, Johnson's ex-girlfriend told the family that she highly suspected Johnson had the instrument, Totenberg said, but there was never enough evidence for a warrant to search his home.
From there, the case went cold. The sisters said their father's anger over the loss of his violin festered. Their mother, Melanie Totenberg, was known to "ask if anyone knew someone in the mob who could break into his house," Nina Totenberg said with a laugh. They heard nothing for decades.
"I thought it unlikely we would ever see it again," she said. Then, earlier this summer, she got a call from McKeogh, who told her he believed they had found her father's missing violin.
The break in the case was attributed to Phillip Injeian, a master violin maker and appraiser, who heard from a woman who wanted an instrument appraised. He asked for photos, which immediately made him suspect the instrument was the real deal.
Injeian arranged to meet the woman, who turned out to be the ex-wife of Philip Johnson, at a Manhattan hotel, where he could physically inspect the violin, which was stamped inside with "Antonius Stradivarius Cremona 1734."
After seeing the dark grain on the back of the instrument, the special wood inlay, the sheen of the varnish and the small pearls that adorned the tuning pegs, he felt certain that the instrument was Roman Totenberg's "Ames Stradivarius," so named because it was owned in the 19th century by violinist George Ames.
Injeian told the woman, who was not identified by name on Thursday, of his suspicions and immediately contacted the authorities. Within hours, McKeogh was at the hotel. Further investigation, including comparing precise measurements with records kept about the instrument, confirmed that the long-lost violin had been found, Injeian said Thursday.
Not much is known about the violin's life during the last 35 years. Injeian said Johnson died in 2011 and left his wife two violins, which she put on a shelf and forgot about. The Stradivarius was in a case with a lock for which she did not have the combination.
It was only recently that she and her boyfriend decided to get the case opened, and upon seeing the instrument, she contacted Injeian, the violin maker said.
With the return of the violin to the Totenbergs on Thursday, U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara said his office considered the case closed. No criminal investigation is open.
Nina Totenberg said that the sisters' day of happiness at having the violin back in their possession was tempered somewhat by the fact that their parents were not there with them, their mother having passed away in 1996.
"I think he's somewhere out there with my mother celebrating with a shot of vodka, his preferred drink," she said.
It is the Totenbergs' wish that what they now call the "Ames-Totenberg Stradivarius" will find a new owner with the musical skill of their father who can coax out all the beautiful tones the instrument is capable of producing.
The sisters said the instrument would be going to Rare Violins of New York, where artisans would restore the instrument and identify the right person to play it.
"It is meant to be played by a great artist," Totenberg said.