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Top Five Famous (and Infamous) Violins

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There have been hundreds of violin makers, or luthiers, but two Italians dominate the conversation, especially when it comes to the most famous instruments in history. Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù built creations that three centuries later can eclipse their fiddlers in sheer stardom. Men will scheme, steal and pay large fortunes to behold these violins’ aural fruits.

1. Luigi Tarisio, one of the earliest collectors of Stradivari's violins, would taunt other string instrument connoisseurs with descriptions of his red-hued beauty, to which a fellow violin appreciator said, “Then your violin is like the Messiah: one always expects him, but he never appears.” The instrument was known hence as the Messiah Stradivarius. Made during Stradivari’s golden period (about 1700-1720), it is considered flawless among the master’s finest instruments. Strangely, it’s rarely been played, but its pristine condition can be admired in person at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

2. Guarneri del Gesù doesn’t have the name recognition of Stradivari, but his violins fetch even greater sums at auction than his contemporary. His ex-Vieuxtemps, named for the violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps, a 19th-century owner of the instrument (others include Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman), has been called the Mona Lisa of violins. It was put up for sale this summer with a $18 million asking price, maybe less than the da Vinci would fetch at auction, but enough to make the violin the most valuable instrument in the world.  

3. Whether or not the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini solicited the devil for better fiddling skills, his renown was certainly aided by the help of another Gesù masterpiece, Il Cannone. Paganini later bequeathed the precious Guarneri to his hometown of Genoa, where it’s displayed behind glass in the city hall. But unlike the Messiah, it is still in playing shape, getting a monthly workout from its caretaker and an annual concert by the winner of the Paganini competition. Regina Carter became the first non-classical musician to play it in 2003.

4. Itzhak Perlman’s favorite violin, the King Joseph Guarneri del Gesù, received star treatment as the subject of a 1980 monograph by a pair of Chicago-based violin experts devoted to the instrument. The del Gesù’s are often favored by violinists because of their deeper more sonorous tones, especially in the lower notes. The Strads tend to have more brilliant highs. Violinist James Ehnes called the King Joseph "very human, with a warm voice."

5. The Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius is named for an English violinist, but it’s much more famous for its later life, which reads like a mystery novel. It was twice stolen from the Polish violinist Bronislav Huberman; the first time the instrument was found a few weeks later. But it disappeared after a 1936 concert in Carnegie Hall while Huberman played his del Gesù on stage. It took a deathbed confession almost 50 years later to locate the instrument. It later seduced American violinist Joshua Bell in 2001, who devotes more space to the Gibson’s backstory than his own bio on his Web site.