What is the most valuable violin in the world today?
I often hear questions asked like "What is the highest price ever paid for a violin?" or "What is the most expensive violin in the world?". These are questions that can easily be answered as there are clear factual records of such matters. The question of "What is the most valuable violin?" however is a different matter. It is much more subjective, speculative and indeed we could ask whether or not non-monetary factors should be brought into the equation here. I will start by giving an up date on the first question and then continue with an inquiry into the matter of value, together with proposing some candidates for 'the most valuable' violin still in existence.
Currently the record highest price paid for a violin is the Guarneri de Gesu violin made in 1741 known as the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker. It was announced in January 2013 that the violin had been sold for a world record figure, that is believed to be in excess of $18 million, to an anonymous buyer who has granted lifetime use of it to the American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.
The Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker is, as Anne Akiko Meyers so very well explains in the above video, an extraordinary violin by any account due to its condition, beautiful tonal qualities and its history. Periodically a violin comes along where one of these attributes is notable but to find all three in the same violin is extremely rare. For this reason we can not expect that the price paid for the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker reflects a new going price for every del Gesu or Stradivari violin that comes onto the market, although it may put an upward pressure on the prices of violins in this sector of the market.
The sale of the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker Guarneri del Gesu violin comes barely 18 months after the previous world record figure set for the sale of a violin, when the Lady Blunt Stradivarius of 1721 was sold by Tarisio Auctions in London on 20th June 2011 for £9.808 million (equivalent at the time to $14.1 million) with the proceeds going to the Nippon Foundations North Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund. The Lady Blunt Stradivari is another violin in exceptional condition and with minimal signs of wear, it's state of preservation being second only to the pristine Messiah Stradivarius of 1716. The Lady Blunt has seen very little use, having been largely in the hands of collectors and takes its name from its first noteworthy owner, Lady Anne Blunt, the 15th Baroness of Wentworth (UK) and daughter of William King the first Earl of Lovelace. As well as being a skilled violinist and keen artist she had a great passion for horses and travelled the Middle East collecting Arabian and Egyptian horses. Nothing is known of the violin's history before it was acquired by Lady Anne Blunt in the 19th Century. In 1971 it was sold in a Sotherby's auction for what was then a record price of £80,000 ($200,000). This means that in the 40 years to the 2011 Tarisio auction the value of this violin had increased 122.6 fold (ie a 12,260% increase).
The Lady Blunt Stradivarius violin was the first violin to break to $10 million barrier and eclipsed the Molitor (1697) as the most expensive violin sold at auction, which had been sold just nine months earlier for $3.6 million, staggeringly just one quarter of the price of the Lady Blunt. Molitor is another Stradivari violin with an illustrious history. It is believed that Napoleon Bonaparte was the original owner (which leads to the violin sometimes being known as the ex-Napoleon/Molitor Stradivarius), after which it came into the possession of Juliette Récamier, a leading lady in Parisian high society at that time. In 1804 it passed into the hands of Count Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in Napoleon's army, and whom it is named after. The violin remained in his family until the First World War when it passed through a number of Parisian owners before entering into the collection of instruments belonging to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. It was acquired by the Irishman William Anderson in 1957 and allegedly was kept under his bed until he died in 1988. His sister made a gift of it to the Red Cross who raised £195,000 out of its sale price of £209,000. Again a staggering increase in value when, just 22 years later, it is sold to its current owner Anne Akikio Meyers for $3.6 million. It is rumoured that she is going to put the Molitor and Royal Spanish (1730) Stradivari violins on the market now that she has the lifetime use of the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker Guarneri del Gesu.
At the time that the Molitor was setting the record as the most expensive instrument of any kind sold at auction, the record for the highest price paid for a violin remained with a violin that we have already discussed, the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker Guarneri del Gesu 1741 that currently holds the world record (once again). At the time it was known as the Vieuxtemps (or ex-Vieuxtemps) after the Belgian composer and one of the finest violinists of his time, Henry Vieuxtemps' who was court violinist for Tsar Alexandra II. After Vieuxtemps it came into the hands of his great pupil and friend Eugéne Ysaÿe, who is known by many as 'King of the Violin'. In the last century it has been entrusted to great violinists like Yehudi Menuhin and Itzhak Perlman. In 2008 it was purchased by Maxim Viktorov a Russian lawyer, philanthropist, violinist and founder of the Moscow International Paganini Competition in a sale arranged by Sotherby's for a world record price of $3.9 million. At the time Maxim Viktorov had a collection of 15 violins, including one by the Cremonese maker Carlo Bergonzi (circa 1720) that he acquired in November 2005 for $1.05 million. The Vieuxtemps del Gesu then came into the possession of a retired British investment banker and music patron Ian Stoutzker, and in 2010 was placed on the market for $18 million. This eventually led to the sale to an anonymous buyer at an unknown price, but at a confirmed world record price which is widely regarded as being in excess of $18 million. As a result of the sale Ian Stoutzker had his name added to the violin and Anne Akiko Meyers has lifetime use of it.
Prior to this the highest price paid at auction for a Guarneri violin was £572,000 at a Sotherby's auction in London, November 1988, for the Baron Heath del Gesu of 1743. Whilst the highest price paid at auction for a Stradivarius violin (prior to the Lady Blunt) was the $3.54 million (in excess of £1.8 million by exchange rates of the time) recorded for the 1707 Hammer Stradivarius after a mere 5 minutes bidding at a Christie's sale in New York on 16th May 2006.
There is an argument however that none of the above three violins (the Molitor, ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri and Hammer Stradivarius) were world records at the time in view of the fact that the 1709 Viotti ex-Bruce Stradivarius had been acquired for the British nation for a value of £3.5 million in September 2005 (then equivalent to over $6 million). The reason that this largely seems to be discounted is because it was acquired by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax due by the Bruce family to Revenue and Customs, with additional funding from private organizations and individuals. These included the National Art Collections Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, members of the Bruce family and many anonymous donors. The violin was subsequently entrusted to the Royal Academy of Music, in London, where it is displayed and is occasional used in performance.
The violin's high value is based upon its provenance and lack of wear or repair found in so many instruments from that period. It's ownership dates back to the famed virtuoso violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, who it is said received the violin as a love gift from Catherine the Great of Russia. Viotti owned two 1709 Stradivarius violins (the other being named after a later owner Marie Hall) and was a great champion of his instruments; which is said to be a key factor in Stradivari becoming recognized as the most important violinmaker in history.
A series of owners followed Viotti, of which the most illustrious were Jean -Baptiste Vuillaume and Baron Knoop (who has his name attributed to a number of Stradivari and Guarneri violins, but not this one), before it came into the hands of Lewis and then John Bruce.
Undisputedly the most expensive violin prior to these was the Lady Tennant Stradivarius of 1699. Sold at a Christie's auction in New York to the Stradivari Society of Chicago on 22nd April 2005 for $2.032 million. In doing so it became the first violin to sell publicly for in excess of $2 million, although it is suggested that there may have been exchanges that were not made public that had already exceeded this figure. The violin is named after Lady Marguerite Tennant who was presented with the violin as a gift by her husband, the Scottish businessman Sir Charles Tennant. He acquired it through the famous London violin dealers W.E. Hill & Sons who had obtained it from the estate of Charles Lafont, one of the most eminent violinists of the French school, following his death in August 1839.
A notable event prior to this was the sale at auction of the 1721 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius by Christie's of London for $1.7 million in 1990, to the grandfather of Elizabeth Pitcairn who purchased it as a gift for her 16th birthday. This shows how stable the prices of top end violins had been for the decade and a half between the sale of this and that of the Lady Tennant in 2005. Indeed even for the 5 years after that price increases were gradual until the sale of the Lady Blunt in 2010. The Red Mendelssohn violin was the inspiration for The Red Violin film of 1998, on account of its unique red stripe in the grain of the spruce used to make the top of the violin. The film added poetic license to this with the invention that the maker of the violin had coloured the violin red by adding the blood of his wife, who had just died in childbirth, to the varnish he was using on the violin. The film gained an Academy Award for best original score, with Joshua Bell playing the violin solos for the soundtrack.
By comparison to the $18 million figure widely acclaimed for the sale of the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker Guarneri and the other multimillion dollar figures quoted above for Golden Age Cremonese violins, the world record paid for a violin by a maker who is still living is a mere $130,000. This figure was achieved at an auction in 2003 by Tarisio for a 1994 Guarneri model violin made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz for Isaac Stern. He had two violins made for him by Zygmuntowicz and after Stern died in 2001 both were sold at auction by Tarisio, with the second sold achieving the highest figure. (Note: this record has just this last week [7th November 2013] been superseded when a violin made in 1985 by Curtin & Alf for American virtuoso violinist Ruggiero Ricci sold for $132,000 at a Tarisio auction in New York. The same auction saw a new record price paid for a Guadagnini violin, nearly $1.4 million. The Curtin & Alf violin was a copy of the 'Huberman' Guarneri del Gesu violin). Although Zygmuntowicz is held by many to be the greatest contemporary violinmaker, with many top musicians turning to him to acquire new violins, there is no doubt that the price fetched for the violin was largely attributable to the fact that it had been owned by the late Isaac Stern, with a new violin tailor-made for you by Zygmuntovicz commanding less than half that at prices rumoured to be $40-50,000.
In the following video Ruggero Allifranchini, the associate concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, discusses his 1695 Fetzer Stradivarius and Zygmuntovicz violins:
Below is a video featuring Sam Zygmuntovicz, the man that some regard as the modern Stradivari, at work in his own workshop and speaking about the violinmaking process.
The Most Valuable Violin?
So now we come to the question of value. If the most valuable violin in the world today was simply the one which the highest price had been paid for then our question would already have been answered - the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker Guarneri del Gesu violin of 1741. However, there are violins that one can speculate would almost certainly fetch higher prices if they were to come onto the market today and probably also have higher insurance values. Many of these same violins are highly valued aside from their monetary value (which may also reflect these non-monetary factors). In discussing a few of the likely candidates for the title of the most valuable violin in the world we will discuss some of these non-pecuniary aspects also.
Of the violins that could be nominated for most valuable all the most likely ones come from three violinmaking families that lived and worked in Cremona - the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri families. Located on the river Po mid-way between Milan and Bologne in northern Italy, Cremona remained the foremost city for violinmaking from the development of the instrument in the mid-16th century until towards the end of the 18th century, by which time all the great master makers of the three families named above had died and their descendants were either not active in the craft or had moved away from Cremona.
One of the clear prime candidates for the most valuable violin has to be 'Le Messie', or the Messiah Stadivarius violin of 1716. This violin has the most wonderful history. It remained unsold during Stradivari's lifetime, and there is good authority that he regarded it as his finest ever creation. It has never been used in a public performance. Thus it remains in pristine condition, just like it had come off the workbench of Antonio Stradivari and had been frozen in time for what is now all but 300 years. The varnish is perfect, lustrous and unblemished. The edging and corners sharp and free from wear. It shows how violins looked when they were created by the greatest violinmaker the world has ever seen and there is no other violins from this period, let alone Stradivari instrument, in such perfect condition. For this reason alone experts are in agreement that the Messiah must never be allowed to be used. They know full well from experience that as soon as a violin comes into regular use, and especially if it enters onto the concert circuit, that no matter how lovingly it is protected and cared for the finish of the violin rapidly deteriorates (even though the tonal qualities may improve). In fact when the violin dealers W.E.Hill & Sons donated the Messiah to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (UK) in 1939 it was on the condition that it never be played. In the words of Andrew Hill, "we felt it should be preserved as a yardstick for future makers to learn from". They also stipulated that it must remain under British ownership. This followed the American motor manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford offering them a blank cheque for the violin.
The value of the Messiah actually came under threat in 1997 when the expert Stewart Pollens was asked to photograph the violin for cataloging purposes and finding what he referred to as a series of inconsistencies sent photographs of the violin to eminent dendrochonologist Dr Peter Klein, in Hamburg. His findings from the photographs were that the wood from which the violin was made had been felled after the death of Antonio Stradivari. At the time the Messiah was valued at in excess of $20 million (a time when other Stradivarius violins were trading for hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions), and in order to protect their asset the museum initially reacted by refusing any further access to the violin. Eighteen months later they were convinced to have further dendrochronology studies conducted by John Topham, but this time on the actual violin rather than from photographs. During this time the whole violin world held its breath. Countless dealers collectors, museums and experts had their instrument assets, trade and reputations at stake. If ‘The Messiah’ proved to be a fake then how many other priceless violins would have their authenticity questioned along with the authority of all those who had authenticated them. The violin world became very polarized and as fervent in their arguments as any religion is when the validity of their Messiah is brought into question. Although Topham's findings showed the wood of the Messiah to have been felled in 1682, well before the death of Antonio Stradivari in 1737, the arguments still raged because Topham was a violinmaker by trade and a self-taught dendrochronologist, not an expert in the field. Thus many questioned the validity of his findings. Eventually the Violin Society of America weighed in on the issue and sent an expert team to the Ashmolean Museum with sophisticated equipment to conduct investigations. The report released in 2004 showed that the tree from which the top of the Messiah was made had been felled in 1686 and that the wood used was similar to that used in other instruments known to have been made by Antonio Stradivari. All subsequent research has confirmed the validity of the Messiah, including a 2011 report that was able to match the wood from the top of the violin with the wood used in the 1724 'Wilhelmj' Stradivarius. They were shown to be pieces of wood from adjacent sections of the same tree.
If any violin can challenge the Messiah Stradivarius for the title of the most valuable the prime candidate would have to be the most famous violin ever produced by Guarneri del Gesu, known as 'Il Cannone'. It's fame is derived from the fact that it was the beloved instrument of probably the greatest virtuoso violinist to ever walk the planet; the flamboyant, eccentric genius Nicolo Paganini. Born on 27th October 1782 in Genoa Paganini had a meteoric progression, rapidly outgrowing a series of teachers until at 18 he was given the post of first violin of the Republic of Lucca, in Tuscany. Only 5 years later, in 1805, Napoleon annexed the region and Paganini was made violinist to the court of Napolean's sister, Elisa Baciocchi. During this time Paganini made far more money from independent work and almost as much infamy for his gambling and womanizing as he had fame for his violinstic attributes. In fact it was as a consequence of this that he fortuitously came to acquire 'Il Cannone'. Paganini's performance violin at the time was a valuable Amati violin. In 1802, still only aged 20, Paganini lost this violin gambling. Having no violin to play at an upcoming performance a wealthy businessman by the name of Livron lent Paganini a neglected violin made by Guarneri del Gesu in 1742. After the concert Livron was so amazed by Paganini's playing that he refused to take the instrument back. Due to its explosive power and great resonance Paganini referred to it as 'Il Cannone' ('my canon') and used it almost exclusively in his concerts, despite other illustrious violins coming into his possession. Numerous of these were won and lost through gambling but he never risked losing his prized 'Il Cannone'.
When Nicolo Paganini died in 1840 he left his beloved 'Il Cannone' to the people of Genoa so that (in the words of his will) "it may be preserved forever". Since 1841 it has been kept in the Genoa City Hall, Palazzo Tursi, where it is maintained in working order by a panel of experts including a violinmaker. It is played periodically by a violinist on the panel, Mario Trabucco, and the winner of the now bi-annual International 'Premio Paganini' Violin Competition gets to perform with it at the October 12th Columbus Day celebrations concert. It has also been loaned out to virtuoso musicians for performance and recording purposes. Conditions of its travel include a multi-million dollar insurance cover and it has been said that on at least one occasion an armed police escort.
In 1833 Paganini had to have delicate repairs done on 'Il Cannone' due to a crack in the soundboard. Fortunately he was in Paris where the only person that he would entrust it to lived, his great friend and violinmaker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. During the time that Vuillaume was repairing Paganini's violin he made a copy of it that was so exact that it is said that Paganini could not distinguish it from the original until he played it, when small tonal differences betrayed the copy. Paganini loved it so much that he asked Vuillaume to sell him the copy, upon which he made a gift of it to Paganini as a mark of their friendship. Seven years later Paganini gave the copy to his favourite student, Camillo Savori, who kept it until his death in 1894; whereupon his family donated it to the people of Genoa to be reunited with 'Il Cannone' in Palazzo Tursi. It is now known as 'The Sivori'.
The earliest violin made by Antonio Stradivari that has survived to this day is known as 'The Serdet' from 1666, when he would have been just 22 years old. Not only is it the oldest known existing Stradivarius violin but it is inscribed with a label that reads “Alumnus Nicolo Amati, Faciebat anno 1666” (Student of Nicolo Amati, made in the year 1666). This is one of the few direct pieces of evidence confirming that Stradivari learnt his trade from Nicolo Amati. However, some people still debate this fact stating that it does not mean that he was an apprentice of Amati but greatly admired and followed the way that he made violins (at least in his early years). It is most likely however that Stradivari was an apprentice of Nicolo Amati and stayed in his workshop until close to the death of his master in 1684. It is suggested that Stradivari assisted in the making of violins for Amati, which were sold with Amati's own labels in them, but that as he became sufficiently proficient Stradivari was aloud to take commissions but not use the Amati pattern in making them. In the years immediately after the death of Amati the violins that Stradivari made were much more in the style of his masters 1640-1650 productions. It was not really until 1690 that Stradivari really defines his own style with the creation of the long pattern, a deeper coloured varnish and trademark black edges to the head and scroll. One theory is that Stradivari was aloud to put his own labels in commissions that he took whilst working for Amati but the latter disapproved when he found that Stradivari was stating himself to be a student of Amati on the labels. Consequently violins stating this were few and the Serdet may now be the only one left in existence. The two factors of the Serdet being the earliest Stradivari violin and the label it bears make it extremely valuable.
Nicolo Amati is regarded as the greatest violinmaker of that illustrious Cremonese violinmaking family. His grandfather, Andrea Amati, is often credited as being the founder of the violin as we know it today, although the word violin had certainly been in use for instruments made mostly in Brescia for around half a century before. Andrea Amati was first a lute-builder (origin of the term luthier) and was requested by the Medici family, in the second quarter of the 16th century, to create an instrument with qualities of the lute that could be used by street musicians. Whether or not Amati's instruments were the first true violins he certainly introduced particular features that we now associate with the violin, including a fourth string and the arching (curvature) of the top and back; as well as construction techniques such as the use of a mold. Not only did the violin quickly become fashionable with street musicians but also popular with nobility and royalty, with Charles IX of France ordering a set of string instruments in the middle of the 16th century. The oldest confirmed surviving violin was probably one of these. It is a violin made by Andrea Amati in 1564 and is known as Charles IX. There is a violin that is possibly even older, claimed to be made by Andrea Amati in 1558. It is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, but its date of creation is doubted and the museum itself conservatively states circa 1560. It is therefore the Charles IX Andrea Amati that is celebrated as the oldest known violin. For this reason it is held as a nominee for the most valuable violin.
At this juncture our discussion of which is the most valuable violin departs from the line that we have been exploring. So far all of the violins that have been considered have their value based on factors such as their history, rarity or uniqueness. Consider now the argument that violins were made to be heard, as tools for the finest musicians to fill our world with wonderful music and bring joy to us all. Of the candidates listed so far only 'Il Cannone' is ever played, and that only occasionally in performance. So although they may have great monetary value what is their real value to the world. Is the emotional uplift that a great violin can bring to in the hands of a true virtuoso to many millions through performances and recordings of greater value than the historical or monetary value of any rare Stradivarius or Guarerius del Gesu that remains silently in a glass case in some museum or private collection? This might lead to the conclusion that another Guarneri del Gesu creation has the greatest value, the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker as the most expensive violin in regular performance use with an outstanding musician. That though is based on the assumption that monetary value is a relevant factor in 'real' value. Then what is to say that if one of any number of Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu violins that are currently on the concert circuit were to come on sale today that they might not sell for more than the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker. Take for example the 'Soil' Stradivarius 1714, considered to be amongst Stradivari's finest violins and from the height of his career, renowned for its wonderful red varnish and strikingly flamed two-piece back. Its provenance includes the Belgian industrialist after whom it is named, Amédée Soil, the inevitable Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume who seemed to have almost all the best Stradivari violins pass through his hands at some stage and a famous Viennese collector Oscar Bondy. In 1950 it came into the possession of one of the great violinists of the last century Yehudi Menhuin. It was last sold in 1986 to one of the most revered violinists alive today, Itzhak Perlman, for just £600,000. This is one of a number of violins with great provenance, if not the same extraordinary condition of the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker, that could potentially threaten the world record price. Then there is the Guarneri del Gesu 1743 violin named after one of the finest British violinists of the Victorian era, John Tiplady Carrodus. It was made from the same tree as 'Il Cannone' and its current owner Richard Tognetti, the lead violinist and artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra talks in the following video very vividly of the violin and its history, including its amazing escape when it survived unscathed from a car crash that killed its then owner, Ossy Renardy:
In 2007 the Carrodus Guarneri del Gesu was said to be worth $10 million, which is the value estimated in 2009 for another del Gesu, the Mary Portman Guarneri of 1735. The lady after whom it is named was an amateur musician and daughter of a wealthy British peer. She owned the violin at the beginning of the 20th century and one of the greatest musicians to play this violin was Fritz Kreisler. The Mary Portman is now owned, along with Stradivarius violins, by Clement and Karen Arrison who are members of the Stradivarius Society of Chigaco who place outstanding violins with upcoming young musicians.
In all of these we have again, inevitably perhaps, returned to monetary value being a major component in our consideration. If this were to be put aside briefly, one violin that could perhaps compare with any of these at least in terms of historical value, would be a very special violin that was not made in Cremona. It did not even originate from Italy. It was made in Mittenwald, Germany by one of the Klotz family at the beginning of the 18 century. It was the violin that belonged to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On this violin he composed and performed five violin concertos and wrote the string component of many other works. It remains in excellent condition, is owned by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation and only occasionally leaves their museum for special exhibitions or performances; which included a first ever appearance in the United States for this violin in June 2013.
However for myself, on a purely personal basis, the most valuable violin has to be my own violin, the one I currently play. Not only does it bring me a great deal of pleasure and joy, but challenge, a sense of achievement and through developing as a musician huge personal growth. Any serious musician will tell you that the bond that you have with your instrument is very intimate, so it is natural that it is the single most valuable instrument in existence 'to them'.
A Closing Thought
In the world of sport it is often said that no player is bigger than the team or club. In the world of violins it would be more a case of no owner or musician is bigger than the violin. This I mean in the sense that we pass through their world, their lives. These great masterpieces were here long before any of us and hopefully will still be here for many years after. So just perhaps we have the whole question wrong. May be the question should not be "What is the most valuable violin in the world?" but "Which person would be most valuable to this violin?"
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing about some of the most illustrious musical instruments, and amazing pieces of craftsmanship, present in the world today.
I invite you to have your say. I would love to hear your views. Please vote in the poll and leave your comments below: