Wed 4 Apr, 2007 09:42 am
The Big Question: Why do Stradivarius violins fetch so much, and are they worth it?
By Andy McSmith
Published: 04 April 2007
Why are we asking this question now?
An anonymous bidder has created a sensation in the world of classical music by paying the equivalent of £1.38m for a Stradivarius violin, the second-highest price ever paid at an auction for a musical instrument. This was about twice its estimated worth, but the buying agent, Ric Heinl, was convinced it was "a bargain".
Classical music has extended from being a Western preoccupation to reach a worldwide audience, pushing up the prices of the finest classical instruments, especially those with the venerated Stradivarius label.
In June 1995, a British woman who wanted a Stradivarius for her 10-year-old daughter bought one for a little over £300,000. In 1998, a Stradivarius auctioned at Christie's was sold for £440,000. Seven years later, a similar instrument, the Lady Tennant, fetched more than £1m. Last May, another Stradivarius was snapped up for £1.8m. One of the finest Stradavaris, the Viotti, was bought in 2005 for the British nation by a private and public consortium for £3.5m.
Who was Stradivari?
There is no record of the birth of Antonio Stradivari. The first we know is that he was a child apprentice working in Cremona under Nicolo Amati, whose family were renowned violin-makers. By 1666, the apprentice had learnt enough to put his name, in its Latin form Stradivarius, on the labels of instruments. In 1680, he opened his own workshop in the Piazza S. Domenico, where he lived and worked until his death in December 1737, when he is thought to have been 93 years old. No one has ever significantly improved on the instruments Stradivari designed. He is, perhaps, the most revered craftsman in world history.
How many instruments did Stradivari make?
The master himself made around 1,100 violins, violas, cellos, and guitars. About 650 of these instruments, including 450 violins, survive. The so-called Soloman, Ex-Lambert that sold at Christie's, in New York, this week, is dated 1729, which means that it was made after Stradivari's Golden Period, which is reckoned to have come to an end around 1720. If it had been a decade older, it would be worth more.
There are, however, a larger number of instruments with the Stradivarius label that were not created by the man himself, and are not as valuable. Antonio Stradivari had two sons, Francesco and Omobono, who worked with him, but were allowed only to complete cheaper instruments made from inferior wood.
After his death, and particularly in the 19th century, vast numbers of "Stradivarius" violins were manufactured in England and France, there being no copyright on the name. This was not deliberate fraud, but it has meant that there are hundreds of thousands of fake Stradivarius violins around. Occasionally, one turns up in an attic, giving a family a day of false euphoria.
How do you tell a genuine Stradivarius?
If in doubt, ask an expert, but one common giveaway is the label. If it says "Made in England", for example, it was not made by any member of the Stradivari family. The real items have a Latin inscription, and a date. Some have a "sotto la disciplina" label, meaning they were made under his supervision but not by him. Anyway, the real ones are sufficiently few that their whereabouts are known, and each has its distinctive history and a special name. The one sold at Christie's was owned in the 1920s and 1930s by Murray Lambert, one of the few female professional violinists of that time. When she died, it was sold in an auction for £17,500 to Seymour Solomon, an amateur violinist and co-founder of Vanguard records. Hence its name, the Solomon ex-Lambert.
Who owns the other ones?
There have been a small number of musicians skilled enough and rich or well-connected enough to perform on their own Stradivaris. In 1950, Yehudi Menuhin bought the 1714 Soil Stradivari, which he sold in 1986 to Itzhak Perlman for around £600,000. But most of the instruments are in the hands of wealthy collectors or public institutions. The Earl Spencer is named after Princess Diana's grandfather, the 6th Earl Spencer. In 1887, he married a member of the Baring banking family, and his bride was given the violin as a wedding present from her father. The 7th Earl, Diana's father, auctioned it at Christie's in 1977. It is now used by the young Scottish violinist, Nicola Benedetti.
The Chicago-based Stradivari Society owns about 20 instruments, worth more than £15m, which it loans to performers. The Viotti - named after the 18th-century maestro Giovanni Battista Viotti, who performed with it - is now held by the Royal Academy of Music. The Betts, made in 1704, and named after John Betts, a crafty American dealer who bought it later in that century for £1, is now in the Library of Congress, Washington DC. The Messiah, made in 1716, is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
And the cellos?
Perhaps the most famous of Stradivari's cellos is the 1712 Davidoff, which was bought by an anonymous benefactor in 1964 as a gift for the teenage cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987. A group of friends then clubbed together to buy it for Yo Yo Ma, who once absent-mindedly left it in a New York cab. He got it back, fortunately. It is valued at more than £1m. Du Pré's first cello was a 1673 Stradivarius, which did not have a name, also given to her anonymously when she was 16. After her death, it went to the New York-born cellist Lynn Harrell, who named it the Jacqueline du Pré.
What is the secret of Stradivari's violins?
It is still a mystery why a Stradivari violin should sound so perfect, and why no one has been able to duplicate it. We know that the master made very careful calculations as he worked out the perfect shape for the instrument, the size of the soundholes, the height of the bridge etc, each instrument uniquely sculpted by hand and ear. It has also been suggested that his secret was in the varnish he used.
One of his violins, the 1716 Messiah, was examined by two US scientists, a paleo-climatologist named Lloyd Burkle and a dendrochronologist named Henri Grissino-Mayer, who noted the unusual narrowness of the rings in the spruce wood. This was attributable to the unusually cold weather during the 70 years up to 1715, resulting from a period of low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum. The scientists put forward the idea that these narrow rings could be the cause of the unique Stradivarius sound. This hypothesis so outraged certain violin-makers that the authors were subjected to threatening phone calls.
Last year, a team at a Swedish University set itself the task of creating a violin as perfect as a Stradivarius. Instead of trying to assemble it part by part, they created a computer model of the whole instrument and tinkered with it to test the sound. Even if that does not work, it is probable that eventually someone will accurately replicate a Stradivarius. Even so, it is unlikely that the anonymous buyer at Christie's will ever need to feel that he made a bad investment.
Are Strads really as valuable as the market says?
* Genuine Stradivarius instruments are rare. There is huge and ever-growing demand, but the supply will never increase
* All the performers and other musical experts say there is no sound so perfect as the sound of a Stradivarius
* Compared with great art works - say, a painting by Titian or a sculpture by Michelangelo, a Stradivarius is quite cheap
* The quality of a performance depends more on the ability of the performer than on the instrument
* Music-lovers, even experts, can be fooled by expectations. Strads are said to sound different, so they do
* Even if the Stradivarius sound is unique now, someone will eventually work out how to replicate it
When I was at the Stradivarius museum in Cremona, I was the only visitor at the time, fairly early in the day. A fellow took each instrument out of the displays and went to another room and played it for a bit. JLNobody said on another thread that that is called "toning" the instrument. Anyway, it was a nice experience for me.
Stringed instruments are said to improve with age. The sound they generate actually changes.
An instrument matured with age only if it is played frequently. A stradivarius left unplayed for several years will not improve with age, but, obviously, a stradivarius lpayed frequently for centuries will sound beautiful!!!
Just though you'd liek to know
Welcome to a2k, VIOLAsars.
Edit (Moderator): Article removed by copyright holder's request.
I'm not sure why they quoted my whole article (without permission), which has been published and is under copyright protection. See: Connie's Violin Page: Internet resources for string players, teachers, parents and students (Paperback) http://www.amazon.com/dp/144867333X?tag=conniesviolin-20
Connie's Violin Page: Internet resources for string players, teachers, parents and students
I'm not sure why they quoted my whole article (without permission), which has been published and is under copyright protection.
This may not exactly be an ironic situation but it's damn close and quite funny.
while it's obvious you will never answer,(you never do) peope pay what they think something is "worth:
You can notify the site moderators (look at "contact us" at the bottom of each page) of your concern.
Any wooden instrument will improve with age if it is played regularly...The cells of the wood become drier and thinner and change shape slightly from the physical vibrations as time goes on. The sound produced becomes clearer because of the way the cells become 'tuned'. This is the real reason why an old and well made instrument cannot be replicated.
I was just reading about Stradivarius the other day - there are several theories:
1. It was his artistic technique.
2. It's the varnish - he used three layers of different materials which were his particular recipes.
3. It's in our heads - we believe what we're told.
4. It's in the bugs - tiny microbes in the wood he used give his violins their wonderful sound.
5. It's the worms - or rather, lack of them. He used borax to keep woodworms out of his wood (there was a woodworm epidemic at the time) and the borax bound the molecules of the wood more tightly together, resulting in the wood's improved acoustic properties.