Tom Roberts, violin collector and anonymous Smithsonian donor


Smithsonian's 'Mr. Anonymous'

The name "Tom Roberts" appears on no plaque in the Smithsonian Institution's musical instruments collection. At no concert, even when Mr. Roberts was in attendance, did Smithsonian chamber musicians reveal that he was one of their greatest benefactors. Among museum curators, he was known as "Mr. Anonymous."

Only a few of his closest acquaintances knew that for nearly two decades, Mr. Roberts owned one of the most prized instruments in the world — the "Hellier" violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari at the end of the 17th century.

And even fewer people knew that in 1979, Mr. Roberts lent his Hellier; a second Stradivarius; a dozen other rare Italian violins, including one previously owned by Benito Mussolini; and 33 valuable bows to the musical instruments exhibit housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Along with the renowned instrument collection at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian holdings have helped turn Washington into one of the so-called Stradivarius capitals of the world.

Mr. Roberts died June 11 at Georgetown University Hospital of vascular disease, said his wife, Eleanor Little Roberts. Smithsonian curators credited his unprecedented loan — and the inspiration it provided to other donors — with transforming the string instruments exhibit from a modest attic hodgepodge into an internationally celebrated collection.

"It all began with Tom," curator emeritus Gary Sturm said.

Mr. Roberts moved to Washington in 1980 from Memphis, where he had become a millionaire as chief executive of his father's company, Southern Boiler and Tank Works. He sold the company, a manufacturer of components for nuclear reactors, in 1978. Just months later came the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, the most serious such accident in U.S. history.

Spared the financial fallout suffered by others in the industry, Mr. Roberts worked as the treasurer of George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. He then served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a government agency whose responsibilities include oversight of the nuclear power industry, until his retirement in 1990.

Mr. Roberts was a collector of various things — paintings, prints, porcelain — but none matched his love for the violin. The Hellier, which Mr. Roberts bought in 1979 from a member of the Wurlitzer family in New York and sold in 1998 to collector Herbert Axelrod, was the jewel of his collection.

Stradivari is believed to have built about 1,100 instruments during his career, with only about a dozen of them embellished with intricate patterns of inlaid wood and other delicate accoutrements. Of the decorated instruments that exist today, the Hellier is the best preserved, Smithsonian curators said.

Thomas Morgan Roberts was born in Memphis, Tenn.. A 1959 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he served in the Navy for three years before joining his father's business. He became chief executive at 32.

In his second term on the NRC, several members of Congress called on Mr. Roberts to resign because of his alleged favoritism toward the nuclear power industry and "malfeasance" involving the leak of a government document to a Louisiana power plant.

Mr. Roberts denied any wrongdoing and insisted that as a commissioner, he had voted with his "mind and ... principles," and remained on the commission until the end of his term.

The Washington Post

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