News & Politics

Sheila Johnson Transports Violins to Illinois

Local billionaire takes on the task of moving the Stradivarious stringed instruments from DC to Illinois.

“I’m too nervous to pick them up!” Sheila Johnson says, looking at three of the four Stradivarius stringed instruments she’d agreed to take from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to her alma mater, the University of Illinois.

Johnson, the billionaire BET cofounder, Washington Mystics president, and Middleburg entrepreneur, found herself in this pickle thanks to a phone call from Dan Perrino, professor emeritus of music and a former mentor. Illinois had persuaded the Smithsonian to loan the matched quartet of “Strads” for its 2006 American Music Month. The problem: how to move 300-year-old instruments from DC to eastern Illinois? Cue Johnson and her $21-million private jet, a Falcon 2000 that seats ten people.

Early one October morning—sandwiched between a New York meeting with her fellow WNBA owners and a Sundance rendezvous with Robert Redford—Johnson waited at Dulles airport to lead the instruments to their destination. Along for support was Johnson’s first violin teacher, Susan Starrett.

“I started teaching her when she was 14,” Starrett says. “She was a vociferous practicer.”

Johnson said she used to practice from midnight to 3 am in her family’s kitchen because “nobody wanted to hear me play.”

At the airport, she got a little more comfortable with her rare companions. She brought the 1709 Greffuhle violin up to her shoulder and mimicked the run of a bow over its strings. The Greffuhle, Ole Bull violin (1687), Axelrod viola (1695), and Maryleborne cello (1688) make up the only surviving set of decorated string instruments made by Antonio Stradivari that are actively used today. Although they’re priceless, one of the accompanying Smithsonian curators whispered that the instruments have been insured for “around $55 million.” That price tag helped explain the presence of two other Smithsonian “representatives”: armed US marshals.

With the cello strapped in and the violins stowed safely beneath them, Johnson and her entourage settled into their leather seats, surrounded by bouquets of yellow and white roses, and took flight.

If the Valkyries had had such a ride, perhaps Richard Wagner’s overture wouldn’t have been so haunting.