Stradivari for sale: a snip at pounds 700,000

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The Independent Online
ANYBODY who is anybody in the international violin community is coming to Britain this week, when London's four biggest auction houses are offering 1,500 rare instruments for sale.

But only a real somebody will be in the running for the star attraction: a fine Stradivari, expected to change hands for up to pounds 700,000 on Wednesday. Indeed, the huge sums of money needed to buy the finest vintage violins are being blamed for depriving talented young musicians of the means to perform at the peak of their abilities.

"If you're looking at pounds 100,000 you're talking about a successful professional or a rich amateur. Orchestral players wouldn't be able to afford an instrument of that quality unless they had funding from elsewhere," said Tim Ingles of Sotheby's.

The Joachim Kortschak Stradivari of 1698 is the highlight of this week's sales, appearing at Christie's only seven months after a Stradivari sold in London for a world-record price of pounds 947,500. Named after two previous owners, both of whom were distinguished musicians (Joachim played duets with Mendelssohn), it has not appeared at auction before.

"There's nothing quite comparable to a Strad. It is an extraordinarily beautiful object, exquisitely made. But they don't come up that often," said Jonathan Stone, head of Christie's musical instruments department.

Antonio Stradivari made around 600 Stradivarius violins in Cremona, Italy, from the early 1660s and became regarded as the world's finest violin- maker. But the best tend to go to the best. "There are a [small] number of violinists in the world who can afford this kind of instrument," said Mr Stone.

According to Clive Gillinson, managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra, most young players simply could not afford even a more modest instrument, which might cost between pounds 25,000 and pounds 100,000.

The LSO has just obtained pounds 425,000 from the National Lottery to set up an endowment fund for the purchase of top-quality instruments, provided it can match that sum from private donations.

"Ultimately, for the quality of the orchestra, you need not only fantastic players and a good conductor, but everybody playing on a good quality instrument," said Mr Gillinson.

Tasmin Little, Britain's 33-year-old star violinist, said her playing improved considerably when she switched from her previous "very nice" instrument to her 1757 Guadagnini. "It wasn't that suddenly I knew how to play. I'd just been straitjacketed before," she said.

The difference was between driving a "crummy car that gets you from A to B" and driving something top of the range, she explained. But when you are starting out the cost of an instrument is "daunting", even with the low-interest rate loans available to musicians. "In the first couple of years of my career when I was 22, I was earning a very, very small amount and I didn't even pay any tax," said Ms Little.

Before this week's sales, the auction rooms will be filled with musicians trying out the instruments. Craftsmanship is the key to a good instrument, according to Peter Beare of the dealers and restorers J&A Beare. "It's the talent of the individual maker," he said.