Is a Stradivarius Just a Fiddle?

The violin's unique mythology has made it inordinately expensive, and attractive to disreputable dealers

Norman Lebrecht

No other instrument makes so much noise on the airwaves. You can smash up a piano in front of the Pope, play the cello stark naked in the Oxford Circus rush hour or assault a policeman with a silver flute and all that would make the news is the act, not the instrument. But leave your violin in a taxi or play it in the subway, drop it on stage or get it stolen, and every media outlet from Fox News to Sports Illustrated will headline the fiddle with mounting degrees of manufactured amazement and horror.

What is it about the violin that commands such unparalleled attention? The price, apparently. When Philippe Quint left his 1723 Stradivarius in a Newark airport cab, the BBC told the world that it was worth, wait for it, four, breath, million, breath, dollars (the cabbie who returned it got a $100 reward and some concert tickets). Joshua Bell’s busking stunt in the Washington metro, from which he made $32.17 in tips and the greatest fame of his life, was on a “$3.5 million violin”. Last month, Min-Jin Kym’s “$1.84 million Stradivarius” was recovered by British Transport Police, three years after it was stolen, from beside her feet, in a Euston Station café. And when David Garrett tripped and fell at the Barbican, interviewers were less concerned for possible damage to his spine than for cracks in his “priceless” violin. Each and every one of these incidents made the nightly TV news.

There is a paradox here that screams out for elucidation. The less classical music features in mass media, the greater the media interest in the price of violins. No one ever asks Lang Lang how much his Steinway cost (around two hundred grand, at a guess), but put a no-name violinist in front of a camera and journalists will want to know what he or she paid for the instrument.

The price, as it happens, has little to do with normal economic considerations, namely cost of materials and complexity of manufacture. Making a violin is one of the simpler crafts, practised by peasants for centuries with wood from nearby forests and gut from slow felines. It is, by comparison, much harder to make a good keyboard instrument. Visiting my harpsi-pal Mahan Esfahani, I was stunned at how much he needs to know, for constant tuning purposes, about the intricacy of its insides. The strings of a harpsichord are silken strands of metal, whittled down to wisps at an intense heat that claimed the lives of many artisans in less health-and-safety-conscious times. Its quality depends on the soundboard, just as it does on the violin. Yet you can buy a modern double-manual harpsichord for 30 grand; a violin of equivalent calibre will cost ten times as much.

Over the course of my life, violins have lost contact with functional reality. Around 1960, a London ensemble player earning £1,000 a year could expect to pay twice that sum for a fine 19th-century instrument. Today, the ratio is ten or 12 times average orchestral earnings, beyond the reach of all but the most fortunate.

Private collectors and speculators have helped distort the picture, but not decisively and often with passion. I was once admitted by a butler to an Eaton Square mansion. Dismissing my gasps of wonderment at his wealth of Picassos, Moores, Freuds and Kitajs, the art-aficionado host said, “This is nothing.” Leading me upstairs, he withdrew from beneath his bed the 1741 “Vieuxtemps Guarnerri”. That violin changed hands recently for an asking price of $20 million. Go figure.

The Italian town of Cremona, source of the Stradivarius dynasty, will open a new museum of the violin this autumn. Through the summer, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford staged a silent exhibition of 21 Stradivarius instruments, the largest ever seen in Britain. Visitors flocked to see them from all over the world. One couple flew in from California for two days for the purpose of seeing the cello they owned shown alongside others, as if these were long-lost siblings reunited by a merciful providence. 

It has long been trade practice to ascribe human qualities to old violins, a persuasive factor in price inflation. At the heart of the trade lies an anthropomorphic myth to the effect that a violin harbours the spirit of great artists who once owned it — a Vieuxtemps, a Kreisler, a Menuhin. What is effected in the exchange is not so much a sale as a transmigration of souls.

From this point on, I need to choose my words with care since the trade in violins is legally contentious. An eminent American historian, David Schoenbaum, author of such studies as Hitler’s Social Revolution (1966) and The United States and Israel (1993), published earlier this year an excellent social history of the violin. The original imprint, W.W. Norton, and various others were strongly advised that the professor’s exhaustive examination of musical and monetary fabrications attached to the violin could not be issued in the UK for fear of defamation actions from offended instrument dealers.

Violins, says Schoenbaum, “are notoriously easy to alter, mislabel and confuse. Legitimately and otherwise, they can be copied with uncanny precision.” The trade in antique violins attracts colourful characters. In America, the dominant dealers of recent decades were Fushi and Bein of Chicago, a pair of proselytising Scientologists (both now dead) whose fanatical devotion to a modern, man-made faith was matched only by the certainty of their old-violin certifications. In Austria, the highest profile belonged to the flashy dealer Dietmar Machold who, last year, went from schloss to jail without his feet touching the ground. Twelve violins are still missing. 

There are many reputable traders, notably in London, whose expert valuations inspire trust; of late, however, the sector has been tainted by the media it once courted. Not for nothing, quips Schoenbaum, is the violin known as the fiddle.

And who’s at fault? It is easy to caricature dodgy dealers, cold-eyed bankers and stripe-suited villains who crowd the auction rooms whenever a Strad is on offer. But the unattainable price of a fine violin is not the making of those who merely buy and sell. It lies in a universal human craving — in our desperate desire to own a box of wood and gut that can make the sound of a living creature in love, in song, in pain. At the gates of heaven, the strings I expect to hear will not be on a harp. And they won’t come cheap.

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