Classic models: take a bow

Stradivarius calls the tune with his 290-year-old 'lady'. By Andy McSmith
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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 gasps of astonishment on the last two occasions it was up for sale because of the prices it fetched. This time, the money raised – which is expected to exceed £6m – 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 da Vinci'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 so 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 this 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.

It is named after an English aristocrat, Anne Blunt, a very gifted woman 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, who was the 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, 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 wherabouts of every one is known, except for one instrument worth £1.2m stolenfrom a coffee shop on Euston Station six months ago.

Any Stradivarius marked Made in England is fake.