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Silencing The Great Violins
As prices for great Old Master string instruments escalate in the collectables market, only banks and investors can afford to own them. They're increasingly out of reach of even the best musicians.

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

It’s increasingly rare for Old Master paintings to be owned by individuals. As the available supply dwindles [The Telegraph], prices have zoomed – in December a Rembrandt sold at auction [CNN.com] for $27.8 million. Most Old Masters are now owned by museums and institutions which will never sell them.

The same thing is happening [NY Times] to Old Master string instruments. Cremonese instruments of the 1700s are prized as the best ever made, and 200 years of technological advances have yet to improve (or even equal) them. Top soloists consider playing one essential to their careers. Top orchestras and chamber ensembles believe that the quality of their string instruments is indispensable to defining their sound.

But there are only about 700 surviving Stradivari, and only about 100 del Gesu’ Guarneris – maybe only a couple thousand Old Master violins in all. 

Certainly there are many more good players now than there ever have been, and that fact alone would account for a steady inflation of prices. But violins have had the further regrettable disadvantage (for players) of being considered works of art. Violinists must compete with collectors who care more about the violins’ appreciating value than about their incomparable tonal qualities.

The collectability of violins as art has meant that prices for the best instruments have always been above the reach of the average player. Back in 1899 one critic lamented that top violins were going for as much as $9000, an “unthinkable” price in those days. By 1971, a top Strad sold for $200,000, and last year the late Yehudi Menuhin’s Strad went for $6 million.

In short, it’s a collector’s market rather than a musician’s. Increasingly instruments are not owned by individuals but by banks and governments and big investors.

While one can argue that in the case of paintings inflationary pressures have resulted in more people being able to see and appreciate important artwork in museums, the reverse is true for instruments. Stratospheric prices for the best instruments mean that they are increasingly rarely heard [San Francisco Chronicle].  The only way top players can rescue the best instruments from silence is by relying on the kindness of collectors/investors.

Thus virtuoso Robert McDuffie spent five years looking for patrons to help him finance the $3.5 million del Gesu’ he wanted. He leases “his” instrument [NYTimes] from the 16 partners who bought it (with hopes of selling it later at an enormous profit) and for the privilege of using it McDuffie also pays insurance and maintenance of about $15,000-$20,000 per year.

The Singapore government purchased a $600,000 Guadagnini which it awards to a young violinist [Singapore Straits-Times] for three years. Likewise Canada’s Canada Council has started an instrument bank [CBC] from which it loans high-quality instruments to promising musicians for a period of time. The National Bank of Austria owns dozens of top instruments, which it loans out to members of the Vienna Philharmonic and others.

But many fine instruments sit silent in vaults or museums. The most-celebrated Strad – dubbed the “Messiah,” and valued at $20 million, resides in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Indeed, “one of the reasons why Le Messie is considered so valuable is because it has never been used in a performance and is the nearest thing to a mint-condition Strad,” reports Forbes Magazine.

As collectables, violins have just about everything going for them – they’re in short, limited supply, they’re the work of highly-skilled craftsmen, and they have mystique and cachet both for their physical beauty and for their role in serving highly skilled (and typically famous) musicians.

As an investment, they’re world-class performers. The New York Times reports that “Kristin Suess, an M.B.A. candidate at the University of Cincinnati, has calculated that $5,000 in treasury bills in 1960 would have yielded $47,000 to $56,000 by 1996. Over the same period, $5,000 in stocks would have returned $52,000 to $64,000; $5,000 in old violins, $242,000.” 

As art investments, violins have also been subjected to the vagaries of the authentication dance, in some ways a more difficult game than assessing Old Master paintings. Instruments often are not signed, provenance can be murky, and original records are often inaccurate or missing. Instrument dealers set the market based on their feel for collector demand. Musicians who actually could use the instruments count for virtually nothing in setting these valuations.

Squabbles over authenticity take on classic artworld proportions with machismo demonstrated by the cry of “Fake!” Thus, an expert at the Metropolitan Museum questions [Forbes] whether the Ashmolean’s Strad is authentic. Private instrument collections, like great collections of paintings, become the spoils of epic courtroom wars.

When Gerald Segelman died in 1992 at the age of 93, he left one of the world's great collections of rare stringed instruments, worth between $15 million to $34 million. Eight years later, Segelman's estate claims in a lawsuit [Minneapolis Star-Tribune] that a handful of the world's top violin dealers colluded to plunder the collection, robbing the estate of millions that had been willed to charity.

Collectors may rejoice that no modern instrument has yet been judged the equal of the Old Masters, despite the mighty efforts of instrument makers and scientists   to unlock the Cremonese secrets. Reports Discover:

"Instrument makers have patiently disassembled their violins, calibrated every dimension of the pieces to the hundredth of an inch, and replicated the measurements perfectly in new instruments, yet failed to duplicate the magic. Physicists have used lab equipment to analyze the vibrational patterns of Stradivari front and back plates, the big pieces of wood that generate most of a violin's sound, and had craftsmen carve new plates that faithfully reproduce the patterns, all to no avail. Chemists have cooked up elaborate recipes for the varnish that coats and colors a violin's raw maple and spruce, assuming it's the icing on the cake that counts. Again, no luck.”

Musicians are frustrated by the collectors’ good fortune. Increasingly shut out of the opportunity to play Old Masters, they have every incentive to shed the traditional dealer system to find modern alternatives. There are modern makers producing instruments considered first rate by musicians. Some of the best makers have waiting lists of five or more years for their instruments.

But even the modern market has lately come under new pressure. Violin bows, since 1800 made almost exclusively out of a particular kind of wood found in north-east Brazil, are about to face major price escalation. Brazil proposes a ban on export of the wood. The Independent reports that: "This ban will kill the business. Not only will people be forbidden to make new pernambuco bows: it will also be illegal to tour with them. The bow-makers are up in arms."

Still, musicians are hooked on Cremona: "It's indescribable, the feeling of playing on a great violin. There's a quality that inspires you. A simple phrase I've played numerous times, suddenly you play it differently," one young star tells the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Increasingly, that “indescribable” feeling will not be experienced by young promising players, or even “average” star performers (or their audiences). Not a tragedy, perhaps, given the improving alternatives, but also not the purpose for which fine instruments were intended. As art of every kind is increasingly fetishized for its celebrity value, the violin market is a lesson in the perversity of elevating market value over intrinsic worth.

Additional Reading: Our Rare Instruments archives

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