A radiant, otherworldly sound, unique and inimitable: the legendary 18th-century Italian violin-maker Antonio Stradivari knew how to enchant the musical world with violin tones. Whether it is the German star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter or the Dutch “king of salon music,” Andre Rieu, the Stradivarius violin is their constant companion.
About 1,000 violins by Antonio Stradivari are said to have survived. Anne-Sophie Mutter owns two of them, the “Emiliani” from 1703 and the “Lord Dunn-Raven” from 1710. The instruments usually bear the names of their previous owners or famous virtuosos who played on them. In terms of price, they range from €3 to 16 million ($3.2 to $17 million), with the upper limit remaining open.
When the absence of performances due to the COVID pandemic prompted Andre Rieu to become concerned about the continued existence of his “Johann Strauss Orchestra,” he considered selling his valuable Stradivarius in 2021. But it did not come to that. Now, for this year’s holidays, he again lets the sound of his violin unfold with its engaging effect, among other things in his program “Christmas with Andre.”
The most expensive violins in the world
For a long time, the most expensive violin in the world was the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius, which sold for over 15 million euros. But then, violins made by Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu were auctioned off for more than 16 and 18 million euros after 2010.
Since then, far higher sums have been circulating, with the buyers often remaining anonymous. Only about 200 of the instruments made by violin maker Giuseppe Guarneri, who lived from 1698 to 1744, are still left in the world, which drives up the prices.
German-American violinist Augustin Hadelich has been playing a Guarneri on loan since 2020. “The sound of the violin fascinated me, and I knew right away I wanted to play it,” Hadelich told DW in an interview. “The sound is rounder and warmer. Especially on the lower strings, the violin sounds broader, fuller and billowing, and not all violins have that.”
Expensive instruments on loan
Many well-known virtuosos, but also talented newcomers, are given the chance to use valuable instruments by borrowing them. For example, the Russian cellist Anastasia Kobekina plays on a cello by Antonio Stradivari from 1698, lent by a Swiss foundation.
The young Spanish violinist María Duenas, who signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 2022, is praised for her virtuoso playing and artistic maturity. That also drew the attention of potential lenders.
The Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben provided her with a Nicolo Gagliano violin. The 20-year-old also plays a Guarneri del Gesu from 1736, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation, which belongs to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and which owns one of the largest Stradivari collections.
How to access such a valuable violin?
For more than a year, 23-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been playing a cello made by Matteo Goffriller in the 1700s. The Venetian instrument-maker was famous for the outstanding quality of his cellos. Kanneh-Mason was taken away by the round, full sound: “My whole playing has changed and grown with this instrument,” he said in an interview with DW.
His cello is on loan from a group of six sponsors. The deal was brokered by violin expert Florian Leonhard. Leonard deals in the coveted instruments of past centuries. “It’s common knowledge that instruments are a good investment,” Leonhard says in a DW documentary. “The number of old instruments is finite and we have more and more interested parties all over the world.”
Violins as an investment
Well-known British violinist Daniel Hope doesn’t really need a middleman. “One day I got a call out of the blue and a lady said she wanted to make an investment,” Hope tells DW. He was to choose an instrument; the lady wanted to buy it as an investment, and he was to play it.
“It’s almost impossible for artists to afford these instruments anymore because the price explosion is insane,” Hope says. He chose the “Ex-Lipinski” violin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu from 1742, named after the 19th-century virtuoso Karol Lipinski.
Being able to play Mozart’s violin
Some instruments are so rare that you’re happy just to play them once — even if it’s not a Stradivarius or Guarneri violin. Violinist Renaud Capucon usually plays on a Guarneri del Gesu once owned by the famous violinist Isaac Stern.
In 2021, for the 100th anniversary of the Mozart Festival in Würzburg, he got the opportunity to play on a violin that once belonged to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It comes from the workshop of Pietro Antonio Dalla Costa, built in 1764. The instrument is owned by the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg.
For Capucon, it was not only a great joy, but also a challenge: “The instruments were brought [to the festival] by the people from Salzburg, and they kept them with them at all times,” Capuçon told DW after the concert. “If we wanted to rehearse, we had to ask. So, I didn’t get to play the violin very much, but it was a wonderful experience, the instrument was very sonorous.”
An expensive violin is like winning the lottery
String instruments — including a Mozart violin — must be played to preserve their sound. Ultimately, it is not only the violin maker or the previous owner who influences the value, but also the renowned virtuosos who have played the instrument over the centuries.
“I try to appeal to people who also think about the emotional part of the investment. It is absolutely essential that young and rising future stars have the right tools,” says violin expert Leonhard.
Such an opportunity was given to star violinist David Garrett, who reaches an audience of millions with his crossover musical programs. At the age of 13, he was given a real Stradivarius on loan for several years. Most recently, he played on a Guarneri del Gesu, lent out by the Italian city of Cremona.
The violin excited the 42-year-old so much that he bought a Guarneri from 1736 at an auction in Paris in September 2022 for €3.5 million ($3.7 million). “The winning bid was like winning the lottery for me,” Garrett told the press at the time. He can be heard with his new Guarneri on his “Iconic” tour in 2023.
This article was originally written in German.