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.
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
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.
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.
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.
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.
virtuoso Robert McDuffie spent five years looking for patrons
to help him finance the $1.6 million del Gesu’ he wanted.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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,
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
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.”
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."
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.
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.
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