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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.