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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before