Instruments from the violin family can sell for sums akin to those commanded by famous pieces of art. But what is it that gives these particular instruments — perhaps above all others — so much value and an allure that captivates players, collectors and investors alike?
Angus Kerr, Investment Director, Rathbones
A delicate violin sits on top of a large loudspeaker in a converted chapel. In an unlikely combination of the holy and the infernal, the speaker is blasting out AC/ DC’s Highway to Hell — heavy metal at its most raucous. The scene marks an unusual stage in the restoration of a 400-year-old instrument, but then this is a story full of surprises.
Perhaps the first is that the villages around Newark, Nottinghamshire, have become a focal point for a number of the country’s finest luthiers and restorers. Although its members are too humble to admit it, the resulting community is the UK’s equivalent of the celebrated Italian comune of Cremona.
It was in Cremona that the prototype of the modern violin was invented in 1566. It was also in Cremona that many of the precious instruments that today’s experts are now painstakingly bringing back to life were first given form.
In Balderton, three miles from the centre of Newark, John Gosling and his fiancée Sally Nicholas own Chapel Violins. Thanks to the exquisite skills of the couple and their team, what was once a place of worship now reserves reverence for hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of string instruments.
Many of these are resting on small, hand-woven rugs that are themselves draped over benches; others are receiving the full heavy metal treatment. Their bodies have stiffened over the centuries, and it seems there are few better ways to relax the wood than to subject it to pounding rock tunes.
Age and provenance
These instruments are so valuable that they are stored in an off-site vault when not being worked on. Alongside his brother Paul, who runs his own workshop nearby, John is currently restoring a Montagnana cello that could easily sell for £1 million. What is it about these instruments that means they attract such extraordinary valuations?
The name of the maker is arguably the most important determinant of a violin or cello’s value. Renowned names like Stradivari, Guarneri and Montagnana regularly sell for millions. But discovering who an instrument was made by takes serious detective work.
“You very quickly learn to pay no attention to the labels,” says Paul. Instead, he says, he and his colleagues look at myriad factors. They examine the shape of the body and the distinguishing scroll of the Fs carved into it. They will also run dendrochronology tests and use ultraviolet lamps to differentiate original wood and varnish from previous restoration work.
The instrument’s provenance -— how distinguished the lineage of its ownership is — is another important consideration.
The right combination of these factors can give rise to stratospheric valuations. Take, for instance, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri. The violin was made by Giuseppe Guarneri almost 300 years ago, played by renowned 19th-century composer and violinist Henri Vieuxtemps and now by best-selling player Anne Akiko Meyers. It sold for £10.5 million n 2012.
But this still does not fully answer the question of why these particular instruments are so valuable. Any instrument can be old, made by a renowned maker and played by renowned players, but most never reach the price of a fine violin or cello. Even an example as musically and culturally significant as the Steinway piano used by John Lennon to write Imagine only auctioned for £1.67 million. While Lennon’s piano may only be a quarter of the age of the Vieuxtemps violin, it is unique in the truest meaning of the word, whereas there are thought to be around 150 Guarneri violins in existence.
John Gosling says the reason why the Guarneri violin is so much more valuable than Lennon’s piano is that it is a work of art with a purpose.
He says: “A Guarneri violin is less like a piano than it is a da Vinci painting, and one of those recently sold for $450 million at auction. You could buy an orchestra of Guarneris for that; in fact, you could buy a few.”
As with fine art, the value of a violin or cello has a lot to do with the rarity of people with the right skill and technique required to create them.
Techniques and materials
The precision and attention to detail required to make these instruments, where tenths of millimetres can make
a huge difference to sound, mean this is a highly skilled craft. So is restoration. And it requires enormous patience.
Crouching over a bench in a corner of the workshop, Florian Forconi is fixing a tiny crack in a 400-year-old Maggini violin. She applies a slither of water using an ultra-fine sable-hair brush across the crack and then, holding either side of the instrument, gently bends the wood to flush the crack clean before applying glue made from rabbit ligaments to seal it shut. It could take her a year to finish the restoration — the instrument might then sell for as much as £150,000.
No expense is spared in sourcing the right materials. Some restorers will seek out wood that is centuries old for repairs. One theory suggests the sound of Stradivarius violins and cellos — famously inimitable — is due to the wood from which they were carved. Stradivari worked in a time known as the Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that led to slower, more uniform tree growth, which in turn is supposed to have led to a richer tone.
For all the impressive craftsmanship and heritage, do these instruments actually sound better?
Blind tests comparing Stradivarius violins to other models have often gone against the old maker, with even audiences of experts unable to discern the difference.
John says: “It’s so difficult to say what a ‘good’ sound is. You can have an instrument that three or four people love and then one person hates it. Even with a Stradivarius there’s no guarantee the sound will be to your taste. Many professional players prefer to play a Guarneri or a Montagnana.
“A good historic instrument can give an elite player an edge. Because of the craftsmanship and the history behind these instruments, there’s a whole ceremony attached to playing them. The player feels it and so, through the player’s performance, the audience can too. With something like a Stradivarius, a Montagnana or a Guarneri, the player will understand the history behind them so they know that as they play they are becoming a part of that instrument’s history. It all adds to their value for the player and the audience.”
And, fortunately, for the owners too. In other fields of art investment the owner is often tempted to keep their treasure hidden away from the public eye, but for owners of violins and cellos there is more opportunity of enhancing the value of an instrument by having it played by a famous musician.
The prices these instruments command may be eye-watering and perplexing to some. But for the players, the owners and the audiences, the rich heritage as well as the maddeningly precise labour and painstakingly sourced materials that go into making and restoring them mean these works of “fine art with a purpose” are worth every penny.