"When Giovanni Battista Viotti arrived at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, even a young man of his prodigious confidence and talent could not have known the impact his performance would have on the world of classical music. There in the cavernous surroundings, vacated by Louis XIV for the splendour of Versailles, three reputations were to be made: his own as a musician; that of the violin as a virtuoso solo concert instrument, and the name of its maker, Antonio Stradivari.
The violin he played that day at the Concerts Spirituel of 1782, has become the focus of an extraordinary campaign - launched yesterday - to keep what is now known as the Viotti Stradivarius in Britain. Last week, for the first time in 200 years, the violin was played before a public audience, at the Dukes Hall of the Royal Academy of Music. "It was magnificent. Those of us that were lucky enough to be there had tears in our eyes," said Curtis Price, the academy's principal.
The academy must now raise £1m before 31 March in order to add the instrument to its renowned collection at York Gate. There it will be available to be played by musicians under "controlled conditions" and remain on show to the public six days a week.
The estate of the son of the last purchaser of the violin - which is donating the instrument on condition of anonymity - proposed a deal with the Inland Revenue when he died in 2002. It offered the violin to the nation in lieu of £1.4m in taxes. The violin itself has been valued at £3.5m although it could fetch more than double that if it were to be sold at auction.
The Viotti is on a par with the "Messiah", or Le Messie, Stradivarius in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which, the conditions of its bequest state, must never be played. But the Revenue wants its money and wants it fast. The National Art Collections Fund, which has already helped save such masterpieces as Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, has given a grant of £100,000. An emergency application to the National Heritage Memorial Fund is being considered....
In France, the Viotti was admired and highly sought after among the instrument-makers of the time, most notably Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The first biography of Stradivari appeared in the middle of the century by François Fetis. It sought to explain the unparalleled quality of his instruments - and it contained a list of the best examples, placing the Viotti third.
The instrument itself was to begin an unsettled period. It returned to England in 1897, in the care of WE Hill and Sons, the family company that dominated the world trade in violins for nearly two centuries. One of the sons Arthur, recorded the moment he first saw it in his diary: "Silvestre arrived this morning from Paris bringing with him the Strad violin that he and Alfred and I had been corresponding about. It is one of the handsomest I have ever seen, and the figure of the wood and the colour of the varnish are both of the most magnificent description …"
Six months later, however, it was sold again, this time to Baron Knoop, the son of a textile magnate from Estonia. The Baron held the Viotti for a few years before selling it back to the Hills. In turn it was sold to another enthusiast, Richard Baker, to add to his Stradivarius collection. Once more the Hills bought it back this time only to sell it once more for the sum of £8,000 in 1924 to a young Scottish aristocrat. And there it remained, largely unplayed, languishing at the family seat in the Home Counties.
There were one or two notable exceptions - Yehudi Menhuin played it, and so did Gyorgy Pauk during efforts to convince the Inland Revenue of its value. The last person to do so was Clio Gould, professor of violin at the Royal Academy, whose performance was broadcast on BBC2's Culture Show last night. Since the death of the son of the last purchaser in 2002, the instrument has been entombed in the vaults of Christie's.
Its condition is said to be remarkable, having sustained a crack on either side of its front at some point before it was first acquired by the Hills. Ironically it is not the forces of decay which threaten the future of this remarkable instrument, but the British Government. "
The Saving of a Stradivarius, Jonathan Brown, The Independent, London