Hail the New Messiah

Vieuxtemps Guarneri violin
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri violin sold for $16m

Roll over Beethoven. When it comes to old violins versus new, researchers earlier this year found that audiences in New York and Paris preferred the newer models over three revered Stradivarius violins. Maybe that’s just as well. Rare musical instruments topped private bank Coutts’ Passion Index of collectable assets, released last week, with a 16.4% gain in 2016, compared to a modest 1.2% rise for the index as a whole (the annual average rise stands at 5.3%). So, you might say antique violins are best left out of a fiddler’s reach.

Classic cars were the worst-performing assets of last year, falling in value by 10.4%. Yet over the 12 years of the index, cars are still out in front, having risen by 331.9%. Rare musical instruments, including violins, have only managed a 28.8% rise in that time, and prices tend to be volatile. The previous year saw a loss of almost 11%. Still, rare musical instruments appear to have weathered last year’s slowdown better than most.

High-end examples generally hold their value well, according to Steve Rosenbush in a 2014 article in The Wall Street Journal. Some can even increase their value. A violin made by Giuseppe filius Andrea Guarneri in Cremona during the Italian city’s golden age of violin-making between 1650 and 1750 can be worth over a million dollars today. A decade or so ago, it would have fetched up to $600,000, notes Rosenbush.

In 2011, the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius, named after a previous owner, who kept it in remarkably good nick, fetched $15.9m in an online auction, with the proceeds going to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan that year. Yet, even that record price paid for a violin wasn’t to stand long. Just a year later, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, made by Giuseppe Guarneri’s son, Bartolomeo, around  the middle of the 18th century, is believed to have changed hands for $16m, making it the world’s most expensive violin to date. In April this year, a violin made in 1684 by the most famous of all luthiers, Antonio Stradivari, fetched £1.6m in London.

But perhaps the most coveted of all violins is held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is the “Messiah” Stradivarius, made in 1716 by Antonio Stradivari, and it is in impressive condition. A Stradivarius violin is “like a sculpture, and compared with Rodin and Michelangelo, they are still undervalued”, London-based restorer Florian Leonhard tells CNN’s Nick Glass. Leonhard believes he has discovered the Messiah’s sister after an expert confirmed it was cut from the same spruce tree and made a year later in 1717. If he’s right, the “New Messiah” could be worth up to $20m.

How to buy a Strad

There are four things that, broadly speaking, give a violin its worth, says Classic FM’s Maddy Shaw Roberts. The first is its branded name or maker. “The Stradivari family’s violins are the high-water mark of stringed instruments” for their “unrivalled sound and quality”. Similarly, “the Guarneri family’s violins are rare, and known for their beautifully unique union of Venetian and Cremonese styles”.

Antique value is another factor. “If an instrument was made 300 years ago, you can generally assume that it will be more expensive than one made last year. The value of most instruments appreciate with age.” Knowing which renowned musicians have played on it over the years can also add value.

Sound quality is important but can be contentious, as the results of the research experiment mentioned in the main article above proves. “Some argue that older violins have a more resonant sound because of the way they’re made and the material used,” says Shaw Roberts. For example, “there’s a school of thought that the wood used by Stradivari was denser than today’s because of a mini ice age”.

Lastly, there’s craftsmanship. “A handmade instrument requires intensive labour, specific materials, and the time of a highly trained professional” in a way that machine-made musical instruments don’t. After all, as Shaw Roberts notes, you would pay more for a rare piece of handmade jewellery than a run-of-the-mill bracelet. Violins are no different.

Auctions

Going…

William Shakespeare’s birthplace is to be the subject of a mock auction tomorrow held by estate agents Sheldon Bosley Knight in Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the purchase of the playwright’s house for the nation. Apparently fearing that American circus magnate PT Barnum intended to buy the ramshackle home and ship it piecemeal to the US, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Britain’s oldest conservation charity, was formed in 1847 to buy the property with the support of Prince Albert. It paid £3,000.

Gone…

The deeds to the grave of Eleanor Rigby – the supposed inspiration for the famous Beatles song of the same name – failed to meet its £2,000 reserve price on Monday. The burial plot in Liverpool is close to a shortcut Paul McCartney and John Lennon used to use, despite McCartney having previously insisted he made up the name. However, Omega Auctions had better luck with an unreleased George Harrison recording, which fetched £14,000.