Stradivarius: still priceless after all these years

As a 290-year-old violin is auctioned for millions, Andy McSmith celebrates the most famous brand in musical instrument-making

One of the most valuable objects ever constructed out of spruce wood and sheep gut set off a concerto of mouse clicks yesterday as bidders around the world competed in an internet auction for what is known as the "Mona Lisa" of musical instruments.

The Lady Blunt Stradivarius violin is already a record breaker that caused of gasps of astonishment on the last two occasions it was up for sale because of the prices it fetched. This time, the money raised – a whopping £8.75m – will go to relieving victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Jason Price, director of the Tarisio auction house which organised yesterday's sale, made the comparison to Leonardo's masterpiece, but to the inexperienced eye the violin is, at first glance, unimpressive. Other violins made by the Italian master craftsman, Antonio Stradavari, who died in 1737, aged over 90, bear the marks of the hands that have held them, the bows that have scraped them and the chins under which they have rested. But the Lady Blunt looks almost new, because it has rarely been played, which is part of the explanation for its exceptional value. In 1971, it sold at Sotheby's for what was then a record-shattering sum for a violin of £84,000. In 2008, the Nippon Music Foundation bought it in a private sale for $10m (£6.2m).

Until yesterday, the highest figure reached for a violin at an auction was $3.6m for another Stradivarius, known as the Molitor, sold by the same auction house.

Any genuine Stradivarius instrument is worth a six-figure sum at the very least, but the Lady Blunt is exceptional even among these rarities because its original varnish still shimmers and the marks of Stradivari's tools are still visible on the body.

The concert violinist Itzhak Perlman, who plays the only marginally less valuable "Soil" Stradavari, said: "I remember being initially very unimpressed by the way it looked because – I mean that as a compliment – it looks like a brand new violin. Then you realise, '1721, oh my God!'"

The only other Stradivarius in such pristine condition is the Messiah, made in 1716, which is kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The two instruments were photographed side by side this month, as part of the build-up to the sale of the Lady Blunt.

The 290-year-old instrument is named after an English aristocrat, Anne Blunt, famous in her lifetime as an explorer and horsebreeder as well as being an accomplished musician. Just before her death in 1917, she inherited the title Baroness Wentworth through her mother, daughter of the poet Byron. She bought the violin from her teacher, the French violin maker Jean Baptiste Vuillaume. It has passed through the hands of several other collectors, all of whom have treated it with exemplary care.

Antonio Stradivari, who was born around 1644, made some 1,100 violins, violas, cellos, and guitars. About 650 of these instruments, including 450 violins, survive. There is a much larger number of instruments bearing his name which were not made by him and are not as valuable. The genuine Stradavari have a Latin inscription and a date, and are so rare that the whereabouts of every one is known, except for one instrument worth £1.2m stolen by opportunist theives in a coffee shop on Euston Station six months ago.

A very small number are owned by the virtuosos who play them, because there are not many musicians who can afford the price. Most belong to museums or societies such as the Nippon Music Foundation or the Stradivari Society in Chicago. Others are held by private collectors, some of whom will lend them to professional performers.

No one knows why these violins constructed in a workshop in Cremona, Italy, three centuries ago have their exceptionally rich sound, which has never been duplicated. The master made careful calculations as he worked out the perfect shape for the instrument, the size of the soundholes, the height of the bridge, etc, each instrument uniquely sculpted by hand and ear. It has also been suggested that his secret was in the varnish he used.

Two US scientists who examined the Messiah noted the unusual narrowness of the rings in the spruce wood. This was attributable to the cold weather during the 70 years up to 1715, resulting from a period of low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum. The scientists suggested that these narrow rings could be the cause of the unique Stradivarius sound, a hypothesis that so outraged certain violin makers that the authors were subjected to threatening phone calls.

Parting with the Lady Blunt will be a wrench for the staff of the Nippon Music Foundation, because it is the single most valuable of their large collection of instruments. Its president, Kazuko Shiomi, said: "Each of the instruments in our collection is very dear to us. However, the extent of the devastation facing Japan is very serious and we feel that everyone and every organisation should make some sacrifice for those affected by this tragedy."

Musical perfection

Molitor, 1697 Named after Gabriel Molitor, one of Napoleon Bonaparte's generals, it sold for $3.6m (£2.2m) at the Tarisio auction house in New York last October.

Lady Tennant, 1699 The Scottish industrialist Charles Tennant bought this in 1900 as a present for his wife. In April 2005, it was sold at auction for more than £1m to an anonymous bidder, who allowed Yang Liu to perform on it at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC two months later.

Viotti, ex-Bruce, 1709 Named after the Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, right, who died in London in 1824, and its last private owner, John Bruce. In September 2005, it was bought by the Royal Academy of Music for £3.5m.

Viotti, 1709 Confusingly, Viotti owned two Stradivarius violins, both made in the same year. The other was bought after he died, by the Duke of Cambridge for £152. In 1988, it was sold at auction for £473,000, to a Brazilian who sold it on to the Chi Mei Foundation.

Soil, 1714 Once owned by the Belgian industrialist Amédée Soil (pronounced "swahle"). Bought in 1950 by Yehudi Menuhin, right, who sold it in 1986 to Itzhak Perlman for about £600,000. It also appears in a popular video game.

Earl Spencer, 1723 Named after Princess Diana's great-grandfather the 6th Earl Spencer. The family sold it at auction in 1977. This was the instrument 22-year-old Nicola Benedetti used to perform Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending at the Proms last year. It is reckoned to be worth £2m.

Solomon, ex-Lambert, 1729 Named after Murray Lambert, one of the few female professional violinists of her time, and Seymour Solomon, who bought it at an auction for £17,500 after her death in 1972. Sold at auction at Christie's New York in April 2007 for £1.38m.

And bittersweet symphonies

The internationally acclaimed Min-Jin Kym put down her 314-year-old Stradivarius, valued at £1.2m, while she bought a sandwich and coffee at Pret a Manger, at Euston station on 29 November last year. It was snatched by a gang of thieves, who tried to sell it in an internet café the next day for £100. The three thieves were later caught, but the violin has not been recovered.

The virtuoso David Garrett paid £510,000 in 2003 for a 1772 violin made by an alumnus of Stradivarius. In December 2007, he fell downstairs, landing on his violin case, and smashed the instrument, by now worth an estimated £2.5m. Repairs were expected to cost around £80,000.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?