Here are the Most Expensive Violins of All Time

Monday, October 21, 2013 - 03:48 PM

A Guarneri violin A Guarneri violin (fred.andres/flickr)

Before it was auctioned off on Saturday for $1.6 million, the violin that was said to have belonged to the bandleader on the Titanic was listed at about $300,000. The instrument, which is believed to be German and built around 1880, was a workaday model and likely an imitation of the 18th-century Italian violins that now can cost more than a large Manhattan apartment.

Yet, to some degree, the "Titanic Violin" sale mirrors the rapid inflation seen in the rare string instrument trade over the past decade.

On Monday, Tarisio auction house announced that the Guadagnini that belonged to the Juilliard violin teacher Dorothy DeLay was sold in a New York sale last week for $1.4 million, breaking the previous record for the Italian maker of $1.08 million (for the violin that belonged to Lorin Maazel).

The all-time violin record belongs to the "Lady Blunt" Stradivarius of 1721, which sold for a record $16 million in 2011. For some perspective, the "Lady Blunt" first publicly sold in 1971 for $115,000, which, today, would be about $664,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. As the chart below illustrates, old fiddles have done well. (Story continues below.)

In a study published in August, Brandeis University economists Kathryn Graddy and Philip Margolis show how, in the period from 2007 to 2012, rare violins were seen as an excellent alternative investment. The instruments provided small positive returns of .8 percent annually, compared to negative returns for art and the S&P 500 stock index. Over the past century (see graph below) violins returned 3.3 percent annually, still more than either art or 10-year Treasury bonds. Rare instruments are especially valued as a stable investment in turbulent times (another study put the returns on Strads at 10.5 percent annually between 1980 and 2005).

But the violin market is a tough nut to crack. Graddy and Margolis estimate that auction sales make up only 10 to 20 percent of the market; the rest of sales occur directly from one musician or collector to another. While auction houses provide transparent pricing, dealers can make it easier for musicians to borrow and try out an instrument. There's another wrinkle: both auction houses and dealers charge big commissions that range from about 15 to 35 percent, which could wipe out any returns.

"Overall, investors should be extremely cautious in using old Italian violins purely as an investment strategy," write the authors. "Because most dividends from owning a violin are non-monetary in nature, investors should expect lower financial returns than from monetary assets with equivalent risk profiles."

There is also a larger and more contentious question: are rare instruments so much better than modern ones? In a controversial study published last year 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. "It's well known that listeners can't tell the difference between Strads and new violins," said Brooklyn luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz on WQXR's Conducting Business last year. "It's been done over and over and it's not even controversial at this point."

But cellist Stephen Isserlis took a more mystical view of the Strads and Guarneris. "These instruments have souls," he said. "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."

Below is Graddy and Margolis's data, adjusted for inflation.

Below: Yehudi Menuhin plays the "Lady Blunt" Stradivarius in 1971:


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Comments [5]

Erich J. Schneiderman from Riverdale, NY

I can pick them out a Strad in 2-3 notes. Nonpareil.

Mar. 27 2014 07:26 PM
D. Rizzuti from MA

It is worth considering that the masterpiece is in part made by us, not Maestro Stradivari alone. When he built the "Lady Blunt", it was a very nice violin intended to be sold to perhaps a noblemans court musician, not a multi billion dollar global conglomerate. As such it had a practical application, an aesthetic appeal and solid construction to withstand the rigors of performance. The builder had no idea that his body of work would become the stuff of legend, with a following of true believers to attribute mythological status, panels of experts to dissect the objects and reverse engineer the construction techniques, and a club of owners and dealers happy to see prices go up. Do these original violins deserve the hype? Yes, because they are undeniably beautiful. Are there modern builders making nice violins, yes also.

Nov. 03 2013 08:32 PM
Robert from NYC

OK, the Lady Blunt is almost off the chart at $16 mil, but don't forget it was stuffed with marijuana, adding greatly to its value. Filter the sativa from the Strad and it brings the value down to a more comparable figure.

Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.

And, hey, don't bogart that fiddle!

Oct. 27 2013 09:31 PM
Violin nut

While that table has some of the highest-priced violins listed, it is most definitely not the top 10 sales! Top auction prices and a handful of high-end private sales would be a better characterization. Most (but not all) of the top-drawer items aren't sold by auction, and there is little incentive for anyone to disclose the selling price to the outside world.

Oct. 24 2013 06:02 PM
Charles Fischbein from .

I know it is hard for many associated with Public Radio to credit major philinthropic foundations tied to for industrial giants. That being said it would have been nice if Mr. Wise wold have noted that the Stradivarius which netted over sixteen million dollars was sold by the japanese Nippon Foundation, the proceeds going to help those in Japan raviged by the 2011 Tsunami

Oct. 24 2013 05:31 PM

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