While it’s well known that there’s money to be made in all manner of tangible assets ranging from gold to wine, the growth potential of the violin (and its sibling instruments the viola and cello) has remained a comparative secret.
The returns can be decidedly impressive, however, especially at the highest level. Perhaps the best example is that of the celebrated Lady Blunt Stradivarius, which caused amazement when it was first sold on the open market in 1971 for a then-record £84,000 ($201,000 at the time).
Made by the legendary Cremonese master Antonio Stradivari in 1721, it was named after one of its first known owners, Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Romantic poet, Lord Byron.
In 2008, however, the violin was resold for more than $10 million in a private deal – before cropping up again in 2011 at an online auction staged by New York and London-based specialist Tarisio, which moved it on for an even more remarkable $15.9 million – quadruple the previous record for a ‘Strad’, set in 2010 at $3.6 million for the Molitor, a violin once owned by one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals, Count Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor.
The money raised by the Lady Blunt in 2011 went to the Nippon Foundation's earthquake and tsunami relief fund following the disaster in north eastern Japan – but, prior to that, the instrument had returned its various owners a consistent average of 12 per cent growth per year since 1971.
According to Tim Ingles, who runs specialist musical instruments auctioneering business Ingles & Hayday with his former Sotheby’s colleague and fellow expert Paul Hayday, the market for violins, violas and cellos remains decidedly niche – but is becoming more widely recognised.
“Most of the money is in violins because they have been subject to an unusual double whammy,” says Ingles.
“The best 17th- and 18th-century violins that the professionals want to play are in relatively high demand but the supply is very limited – and that alone makes them interesting investments.”
The most sought-after violins are from the three major Cremonese families: Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. There are probably around 500 Stradivari still in existence and, although that is the most recognised name, the instruments made by Guarneri, for example, have been favoured by great players such as Niccolò Paganini, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin.
“There were five makers in the Guarneri family across three generations,” says Ingles, “the most famous being Bartolomeo Giuseppe, known as del Gesù, who was the last of the line and died in 1744.”
In the summer of 2010, an instrument made by del Gesù in 1741 was offered for sale at auction with a starting bid of $18 million but failed to find a buyer. One of the last violins he created, it came to be known as the ‘Vieuxtemps’ due to its ownership during the 19th century by the Belgian virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps. It was later used by greats such as Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.
Its superb, original condition and mellifluous sound has seen the Vieuxtemps rise steadily in value throughout the decades, meaning it has been left unplayed for long periods of time for fear of damage – something that often caused consternation among enthusiasts.
In 2012, however, the London-based specialist J & A Beare helped to organise the sale to an unnamed client who bequeathed lifetime use of the instrument to American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers – who is somewhat spoiled for choice since she also has access to the ‘Royal Spanish’ Strad from 1730 and the aforementioned Molitor.
“There is considerable debate in the violin world about whether to play or to preserve,” says Ingles.
“To play these old instruments in a modern way requires them to be altered. When the violin became a solo instrument in the 19th century, the tension was increased, the angle on the neck was made steeper and the original gut strings were replaced with steel ones. The result is that they are no longer exactly as they were made, but they perform far better than when they were new.”
Perhaps the most remarkable hoard in existence is that of China’s Chimei Culture Foundation, which was set up by the plastics tycoon and violin fanatic Wen-Long Shi in 1977. Among its extensive exhibits is the world's largest violin collection – more than 2,000 examples – which some experts believe could now be worth approaching $1 billion.
It is not necessary, however, to splash out a seven-figure sum in order to buy a good-quality instrument that has a chance of increasing in value. According to Ingles, the minimum realistic entry level at auction is around $35,000, which might buy you a good, ‘modern’ (i.e. post-1860) violin by a maker such as Enrico Marchetti.
“Investing in a violin is something that amateurs need to be very careful with,” says Ingles. “It is a world in which authenticity is key because, since they all look the same to the average man on the street, there are enormous opportunities for faking. The most important thing to remember as a buyer is to find an adviser you feel you can trust.”