The Macdonald Stradivarius violin, named after one of its previous owners Godfrey Bosville, the third Baron Macdonald, failed to sell at its Sotheby’s auction for £27 million ($45 million) in June 2014.
Upon its sale, the Macdonald violin would have claimed the world record for the most expensive musical instrument. A record which currently belongs to another Stradivarius violin – the ‘Lady Blunt’, which was sold in June 2011 by the Nippon Music Foundation for £9.8m ($15.9m). In fact, Stradivarius instruments currently hold the top 5 ranks for the most valuable instruments in the world. The price for the Macdonald may seem steep in comparison to the Lady Blunt, but is in keeping with market indicators drawn from the previous sales of Stradivarius violins (1).
The Macdonald, however, is not the first Stradivarius violin that has failed to sell at auction. The Kreutzer Stradivarius violin recently failed to find a buyer in June 2014, during its sealed bidding process. This particular violin was discovered in the cupboard of the deceased heiress Huguette Clark, in 2011 and valued at £4.5m.
The recent failure of these old Italian violins to secure buyers does call into question the security of investing into a Stradivarius violin and why these old Italian violins are valued so highly.
Stradivarius Violin Price List
This list excludes the figures for violins sold in private sales.
The Christian Hammer – 1707. This Stradivarius violin attained its name from its first recorded owner; a Swedish collector known as Christian Hammer. It sold at Christies to an anonymous bidder for nearly £2.2million ($3.54m).
The Lady Blunt – 1721. As with most Stradivarius violins, this too was named after its first owner Lady Anne Blunt; granddaughter of Lord Byron. It was sold through Tarisio Auctions in 2011 for £9.8 million ($15.9 million), a price quadruple to the amount of the auction record for musical instrument held by the Molitor. The money went to Nippon Foundation’s Northeastern Japan and Earthquake Relief Fund.
Molitor – 1697. Rumoured to once have been owned by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Molitor set the previous record for the most expensive musical instrument sold at auction in 2010, selling for £2.2 million ($3.6 million) via Tariso Auctions.
Lady Tennant – 1699. This one predates Antonio Stradivari’s golden period by a year, but is still worth just over £1.2 million ($2 million) in 2005. It was previously in the ownership of the violinist Charles Philippe Lafont.
Baron Von Der Leyen – 1705. Selling for nearly $2.6 million, this Stradivarius violin follows suit with the relatives, gaining its name from its first owner; a German silk merchant.
Why is a Stradivarius violin worth so much?
The previous owners of the Stradivarius violins, many of whom were Royal Patrons, have undoubtedly attributed to their desirability. However, the original worth of Stradivarius violins could be said to dwell within the master craftsmanship which is locked in each of Antonio Stradivari’s instruments.
Antonio Stradivari was one of the few celebrated musical instrument makers of his time and has remained so to this day. He began crafting violins around 1666, styling his models through Cremonese violin-making techniques, said to be developed from his supposed mentor Amati. These classic techniques were then evolved through his own revolutionary methods. The golden age of his career, during which the majority of his most precious instruments were crafted, is said to span from 1700 – 1720. Collectively, approximately only 650 original Stradivari instruments have survived from the master’s career, excluding the attributions made that have attempted to replicate his craftsmanship and bear his name. This gives Stradivari instruments an air of exclusivity and rarity which cannot be matched by other violins.
The intrinsic value placed within the Stradivarius violin has rapid growth in recent years. In 1964, the Stradivarius Macdonald violin was purchased for £50,000 by the Philips electronics company, owners of the Duetsche Grammophon, for a violist of the Amadeus Quartet, known as Peter Schidlof. Shidlof dubbed the Stradivarius violin the “Rolls Royce of instruments” (2) and kept possession of the Macdonald until his death in 1987, when it was inherited by his family who preserved the violin in its superbly well-maintained condition. However, the great leap in expectations of the price the Macdonald would fetch in its latest auction, seems to have been too much for even a Stradivarius violin to live up to.
The Macdonald Stradivarius violin of course comes with the highest recommendation. A leading viola expert in the 20th century, Alfred Hill gave the Macdonald his blessing decreeing, in his examination of the Stradivarius violin, that he had “seen every existing specimen, and, judged as a whole, I place this viola at the top”.
These violins are valued so highly that ambitious attempts to abduct them have been made. In January 2014, three people stole the £3m ($5m) Lipinski Stradivarius violin, made in 1715. They were caught a month later, however, much to the relief of the concertmaster who was assaulted with a stun gun and relinquished of the rare violin. The instrument was found in an attic of a house located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and returned to the concertmaster whom it was on loan to.
Stradivarius violin techniques
Stradivari’s expert technique in his crafting of violins is no doubt a part of what makes the Macdonald and all other Stradivarius violins so valuable. He brought together Cremonese styled techniques with that of his own, which included introducing a distinctive red coloured varnish. This is considered an important part of the violin crafting process, as choosing the wrong varnish could result in the ruination of the resonance of the wood (5). No other violin maker in history has been able to duplicate the unique techniques deployed by Antonio Stradivari since his death in 1737, making this master’s work a mystery and only adding further value to the violins that have endured for centuries.
How does a Stradivarius violin compare against modern violins?
A lot of the value of the Macdonald Stradivarius violin arguably stems from the fact that the instrument was fashioned by Antonio Stradivari. But how does its performance compare with that of a modern violin?
In September 2010, Dr. Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin organised a double-blind test that took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, in which twenty-one professional violinists were asked to identify old or new violins (3). The violinists were asked to wear goggles while they tested the instruments one after the other. The experiment revealed that under these conditions, no one could identify which were the modern models and which were the old Italian instruments. This raised some eyebrows and drew some intense curiosity from the violin community. A call for an in depth analysis to be performed was projected and acted upon.
26th September 2012 Vincennes, France. The Auditorium Jean-Pierre Miquel was the set location for the second experiment to take place in (3). Dr. Fritz mustered 10 players of the highest caliber and selected six old Italian violins and six modern ones to be judged upon. With a 7 man team compiled of a violin maker, string engineer, scientists and an instrument dealer she performed her test.
The collection of the 12 violins were then put to the test and each soloist was asked to select which violin they would choose out of the 12 to play in an upcoming concert. The violins were then scored on the soloist’s selections. In conclusion of the results, the new violins outscored the old Italian violins, providing no evidence for the greatness of the old Italian violins sound quality within a concert hall.
The experiment ultimately revealed that Stradivarius violins are no better, in terms of performance, than modern models of the violin, despite their great craftsmanship and undeniable quality.
So is the money in the Stradivarius violin just in the name? Most probably, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of a Stradivarius violin. When you buy a Stradivarius you’re not just buying an extraordinary musical masterpiece, you’re obtaining a remarkable relic drawn from the evolutionary chain of the violin; an instrument with a distinguished history. You’re buying a piece of art.
(1) Ingleshayday, 2014. Ingles & Hayday. [online] Available at: http://ingleshayday.com/the-macdonald-viola-stradivari-a-sound-investment.html [Accessed 25/09/2014]
(2) Ingleshayday, 2014. Ingles & Hayday. [online] Available at: http://ingleshayday.com/the-macdonald-viola.html [Accessed 25/09/2014]
(3) Stefan Avalos, 2014. 2012 – The Paris Double-Blind Violin Experiment. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHXOPjI9l0I [Accessed 25/09/2014]
(4) TheStrad, 2014. The Strad. [online] Available at: http://thestrad.com/latest/news/rare-macdonald-stradivarius-viola-fails-to-attract-a-buyer [Accessed 25/09/2014]
(5) Stradivarius, 2014. Stradivarius. [online] Available at: http://www.stradivarius.org/behind-the-legend [Accessed 25/09/2014]