A $10 Million Fiddle? Stradivarius Takes Another Bow at Auction

Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2011

By Ellen Gamerman

A Lady Blunt Stradivarius sale is to help tsunami and quake victims.

In the world of violins, the Lady Blunt is royalty.

Built in 1721 by Antonio Stradivari, the well-preserved violin sold for a record-breaking sum at auction in 1971. Now, it’s poised to repeat that feat. This week, the Nippon Music Foundation in Tokyo announced it will auction the instrument on June 20, with all proceeds benefiting victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

Four decades ago, the violin sold at Sotheby’s for more than $200,000, prompting gasps in the London auction room. Nippon Music, which bought it in a private sale in 2008, paid more than $10 million.

The instrument is valuable largely because so few have played it. The original varnish shimmers, the sharply curved edges aren’t dulled by handling and the marks of Stradivari’s tools are still visible on the maple and spruce body.

“I remember being initially very unimpressed by the way it looked because—I mean that as a compliment—it looks like a brand new violin. Then you realize, ‘1721, oh my God,'” said Itzhak Perlman, the famed concert violinist who plays a Stradivari violin and one made by the roughly contemporaneous Guarneri family.

Concert violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who performs on a Guarneri, played the Lady Blunt briefly before the 1971 Sotheby’s sale and considers it a museum piece, not meant for Carnegie Hall without a major overhaul first. “Even Vivaldi you couldn’t play on that thing now,” he said in a phone interview. “You’d crack it if you put too much pressure on it.”

The violin is named for an early owner, the English aristocrat Lady Anne Blunt, a granddaughter of Lord Byron and an importer of Arabian horses from Egypt. It’s one of 600 Stradivari instruments existing today. (The instrument is known as a Stradivarius because the Italian craftsman Stradivari put a Latinized version of his name on the labels.)

Unlike fine works of art, the most highly sought-after violins are sold privately, not at auction, partly to allow musicians and their patrons more time and flexibility to test whether the instrument is a good fit.

The current auction record for a violin is $3.6 million for a Stradivari sold last year at Tarisio, an online house that’s also running the Lady Blunt sale.

Tarisio director Jason Price brought the violin to New York from Tokyo earlier this month, locking it in a sprinkler-free fireproof vault in Tarisio’s offices and occasionally taking it out to show collectors and curious musicians. The violin will tour roughly eight cities internationally to stir interest before the sale.

Peter Biddulph, a veteran violin dealer in London, said the rarity of a prized violin at auction could help drive up the instrument’s price. “If you want to buy the world’s best-preserved Stradivari violin, this is your opportunity,” he said.

Nippon Music Foundation president Kazuko Shiomi said the group owns 19 Stradivari violins and loans most of them to musicians.

Victims of the tsunami and quake “have lost the most important thing in their life,” she said. “We felt that if we are to do something, we should let go of the most important item, and that is the Lady Blunt.”


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