When the Lady Blunt Stradivari sold by Tarisio in 2011 broke all auction records, Benjamin Hebbert looked back on the market shattering prices of the past for the August 2011 issue of The Strad Magazine. Some years on and we’ve seen further extravagant prices asked for and paid for the world’s finest instruments. The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu was sold against a price tag of $18million, and an eye-watering $40million has been asked for the Stradivari Macdonald viola. Here we take a look at sales that changed the face of the market periodically since the seventeenth century. (A version of this article was published in the Strad Magazine August 2011 issue at the time of the sale of the 1721 Lady Blunt).
By the beginning of the seventeenth-century connoisseurs of musical instruments began to distinguish between the qualities of new and old specimens. When Galileo sought a violin in 1637-8, his agent reported the advice of claudio Monteverdi. his nephew wished “to send an instrument of exquisite work” which needed time for it’s cremonese maker to “bring it to perfection”. The letter followed on that “he can, however, offer an old one of superlative merit, but the price asked is two ducats more – that is, fourteen. I have requested him to have this one sent at once, irrespective of price”. We can safely assume that the maker was Amati. The superlative statements applied to both the new and old work that was on offer male it clear that amongst Cremonese violins, the advantages of age were already well understood. Meanwhile in England, and before his death in 1626, Sir Francis Bacon expressed the view that “old lutes sound better than new”. Setting a familiar precedent for the violin market that followed, at a time when a professional lutenist might pay two or three pounds for a good instrument, and ten pounds for an exceptional one, antique instruments could make three or four times more. In an exceptional case, King Charles I was reputed to have paid £100 for a prized old lute by the Bolognese maker, Laux Maler.
During the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries (a period of negligible inflation), receipts from the Lord Chamberlain’s Account Books of the English Royal Court repeatedly give values between £10 and £12 for violins bought for musicians in the King’s employment, sometimes described as Cremonese. John Bannister, master of the King’s violins returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to learn the French style of playing from Lully, submitting receipts upon his arrival for two Cremona violins at a value of £40. In the previous year another celebrated violinist in London, Thomas Baltzar likewise submitted a receipt for £34 3s 4d to buy a pair of fiddles for the Kings service. These prices seem to reflect the purchase of very special violins, and were a foretaste of what would come as the violin sonata became popular amongst wealthy gentleman amateurs. Before long the prestige of owning the most celebrated violins would drive prices upwards and the rage for Cremonese violins that followed was noted by Thomas Shadwell in 1672 in The Miser, where he noted a ‘Cremonia Violin’ amongst the essential assets of a true lover of music. John Evelyn commented in 1683 that “‘Nor have the Cremona Violins or Loxmollar [Laux Mahler] Lutes been lately of such excessive prices as formerly”. Cremonese violins were escalating in price, and as they increased in popularity increasingly existed in the imagination of a broad population, more diverse than the wealthy elite that owned them.
An auction in 1692 sets the trend for violin sales in the following century in which violins would be sold. That year, Edward Millington, a prominent auctioneer working at the Vendu in Charles Street advertised ‘A number of curious violins, Cremonia and others’ forming part of a sale of old master paintings. Nothing further is known of the sale, but the reaction of the playwright, Thomas Southerne in the following year may relate to the results of this auction. In The Maids Last Prayer Sir Symphony plausibly remarked ‘Mines a Cremona, and cost me fifty pounds, gentlemen, Pray suspend your curiosity, and come to my chamber, and I’ll resolve you any Question in Musick’.
The earliest record of a violin achieving £100 is found in 1705 when Nicolo Cosimi, a pupil of Arcangelo Correlli resident in London, and an inveterate dealer in instruments sold a violin to Lord Baltimore. For the century that followed, the sum of £100 appears to have remained as a sort of ceiling for the value of violins. In 1774, for example, the Carbonelli sale conducted by Mr Bremner on the Strand achieved 80 guineas for a Stainer of 1668, 60 for another made in 1674, and a mere 30 guineas for a Stradivari. The sale of a significant music collection belonging to John Stanley, and conducted by James Christie in 1786 included a 1617 Amati violin and a Cremona dated 1657. The publicity surrounding the sale and the high prices achieved in the promoted an excitement for violins at auction. The satirist, Peter Pinder wrote one of his Fairwell Odes for the Year 1786 remembering the auction:
In the same year, the playwrights, Elizabeth Inchbald and Thomas Holcroft took the same circumstances to an extreme in the prologue of The Widow’s Vow (needless to remark, the first occasions that a violin auctioneer has appeared either a play or an ode):
The justifications for high prices up to the beginning of the twentieth century appear to have been inspired by passion rather than sound economic sense, with the most generous sums paid within very close social groups where one particular instrument had become highly coveted. One such example was a Barak Norman cello belonging to John Crosdill. The Prince of Wales, his pupil, took a liking to the cello and gave several liberal offers for it. Having had all of his offers refused, the prince borrowed the cello for an evening and never returned it. Crosdill was instead allowed to keep an Amati cello that had cost 70 guineas in lieu of it, and given a sinecure place of £100 per year. We don’t know the date of the transaction, but the prince was crowned George IV in 1820, five years before Crosdill’s death leaving a minimum sinecure of £500 on top of the Amati cello. It may have been much more. Yet even with the greatest of instruments, over-pricing could leave an auctioneer severely burnt. This was certainly the case at the Christie’s sale in 1827 comprising instruments belonging to the late Sir William Curtis, one of the great collectors of the day. The Spanish Court viola estimated at 150 guineas failed to take a single bid, and the 1572 King cello by Andrea Amati failed to sell against an eye-watering estimate of 500 guineas. “A document was given to the proprietor when he purchased this instrument, stating that it was presented by Pope Pius V. to Charles IX., King of France, for his chapel. It has been richly painted, the arms of France being on the back, and the motto ‘Pietate et Justitia’ on the sides. The tone of this violoncello is of extraordinary power and richness”. A 1647 Nicolo Amati (now, the Ole Bull) was bought in at 185 guineas, though “justly considered as one of the most beautiful and finest instruments in THE WHOLE WORLD”, and a 1684 Stradivari cello that had been preserved in a crate of cotton for a hundred years, (now the General Kydd) failed to find a buyer at 235 guineas. Remarking upon the period, W. T. Parke recalled in 1830 “That there exists a sort of mania amongst certain connoisseurs in fiddles, (as in regard to pictures,) is not to be doubted, as the following fact will show : Mr. Hay, a former excellent leader of the King’s band of musicians, produced on his favourite violin, made by Klotz, a German, a tone so sweet and powerful, that he had been frequently solicited to part with it, and was, on one occasion, offered for it by a noble lord three hundred pounds in cash, and an annuity, durante vita, of one hundred pounds! Mr. Hay, however, possessing a handsome independence, and not being desirous to part with his instrument, rejected the offer, and dying some years afterwards, this rara avis, at the subsequent sale of effects, produced but forty pounds!”.
Lady Blunt’s purchase of her 1721 Stradivari from Vuillaume in 1864 must count amongst the great prices paid for a violin during the nineteenth century. Vuillaume acknowledged that ‘this fine instrument is absolutely complete, and in an exceptionally rare state of preservation’, setting the price at £260. During this period it was unusual to see a Stradivari sell for much over £150, yet in 1862 and again in 1972 Vuillaume exhibited the Messiah, claiming a value of 15,000 francs (£600). The tremendous differential between the two values can only be explained as part of the myth-making that surrounded the Messiah and Vuillaume’s ownership of it. It is otherwise difficult to justify so large a premium over the price of the Lady Blunt. Passion, mystique, provenance and other intangible elements of human desire continued to define prices for violins during the nineteenth-century at levels far beyond their economic value as raw instruments. Therefore, whilst the Lady Blunt reflects the upper end of a market controlled only by the musical nature of rare violins, examples that had particular personal associations continued to achieve vastly increased prices. “The highest Price ever given for a fiddle was for a Steiner make – by the father of General Neville of Cincinnati, America – he gave 1500 acres of land, worth a dollar per acre – suppose a dollar was worth four shillings (moderate value) £300 – but as the City of Pittsburgh was soon after built in this 1500 acres, how much must the fiddle have cost? The next highest priced was sold in 1856 (14 years ago) at £40 per ounce”. A violin roughly weighs 14 ounces, giving a price of £600.
At the end of the nineteenth-century, the market for rare violins would increase exponentially. The success of dealers such as W.E. Hill & Sons appears to have come about because of rapid movement in the values of great instruments. The Messiah, valued in the 1870s at an unthinkably high 15,000 francs sold in 1890 to Hills for 50,000 francs (£2000) palling earlier prices into insignificance. The late nineteenth-century had witnessed rapidly emerging interest in violins from a cash-rich, largely English middle class which pushed prices ever higher. As the Americans came into the market following the first world war, values would reflect the rapidly growing market. To buy the same violin in the 1920s, Henry Ford believed it was worth offering a blank cheque.