Why Old, Expensive Violins Are Not Always Best

Email a Friend

Concert audiences may never know if a violinist is playing on a rare instrument from 18th-century Italy or a modern one that sells for the cost of a used sedan. But don't tell that to the owner of the "Lady Blunt," a 1721 Stradivarius violin that sold for $16 million at an auction last June. Or the recipient of a 1707 Stradivarius cello owned by the late Bernard Greenhouse that fetched $6 million in January.

Antique instruments are selling for astronomical prices these days, but some question whether they deserve all of the accolades. In a controversial study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, blindfolded experts were unable to pick two Stradivarius violins from modern instruments, based on their sound alone.

In this podcast Naomi Lewin asks three experts about this line between myth and merit: Steven Isserlis, the cellist and author of a Guardian article on the aforementioned study; Daniel J. Wakin, the classical music and dance reporter at the New York Times; Sam Zygmuntowicz, a Brooklyn-based violin maker whose instruments are used by some of today’s leading string players.

"Just because they're expensive doesn't make them better or worse than anything else. It's well known that listeners can't tell the difference between Strads and new violins. It's been done over and over and it's not even controversial at this point." --Sam Zygmuntowicz

"These instruments have souls. The souls have been growing in the Strads. We don't know what the Stradivarius's sounded like two or three hundred years ago. But I think the sound has grown and the souls have grown. They have these layers of color." --Steven Isserlis

"Money and value and a tool of performance are very separate. There's a clear-cut market for these instruments just as there's a market for great works of art. There is an existing market that functions because of dealers and perceptions and because people have money and they want to invest in things." --Daniel Wakin

Weigh in: Are you drawn to hear performers who play on rare instruments?