This 308-Year-Old Violin Could Become the Most Expensive Ever Sold
May 9, 2022, Smithsonian Magazine
By Antonia Mufarech
The “da Vinci, ex-Seidel” instrument’s estimated worth is $20 Million
If you have ever heard The Wizard of Oz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you may have experienced the emotional tones of the 1714 “da Vinci, ex-Seidel” violin.
Crafted in Italy by Antonio Stradivari, the famous instrument is estimated to sell for around $20 million by Tarisio, an auction house that specializes in bows and string instruments, on June 9. Before the auction, it will be exhibited with special private viewings in London, Berlin, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York.
This Stradivarius violin is expected to surpass the previous sale record for a Stradivarius; eleven years ago, the auction house sold another of the rare instruments in a charity auction that raised $16 million for victims of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unlike its predecessor, the “da Vinci, ex-Seidel” is not only meant to be collected—it can also be played.
The violin’s unusual name refers to both its signature sound and its most famous player.
The instrument “has a luscious, deep and powerful sound and is something that really carries you,” Carlos Tome, director at Tarisio, tells Bloomberg.
“da Vinci” has been part of its nickname since the 1920s, and was inspired by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. According to Tarisio’s Jason Price, one of the auction houses that sold the violin during the 1920s, Caressa & Francais, “baptized” the violin with the artist’s name. This was not the only time owner Albert Caressa christened a violin after an Italian Renaissance artist; he named another two Stradivari “Titian” and “Michelangelo.”
The other part of the name, “ex-Seidel,” refers to the instrument’s previous owner, Russian American virtuoso Toscha Seidel. The violin belonged to Seidel for around 40 years. Seidel originally paid $25,000 for the violin—the equivalent of over $400,000 today.
When Seidel, known as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, acquired the violin in 1924, it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Asked about the violin, Seidel told the Times that “…we precisely suit each other, and I am convinced it is one of the finest examples of the famous violin maker.”
Seidel was correct—it was one of Stradivari’s finest creations. The “da Vinci” was more refined than other violins at the time, as the purfling, or decorative edge, is narrower and more compact, writes Price.
Armed with his “da Vinci,” the musician made an indelible mark on how Americans hear violin music. He performed with major orchestras and had a prolific recording career. He had his own CBS Network radio show and eventually moved to Hollywood. There, he played violin for films such as 1939’s Intermezzo, in which Leslie Howard, a violinist, falls in love with Ingrid Bergman, his accompanist, and 1941’s Melody for Three.
“That we largely associate love scenes or depictions of the less fortunate in films—or any scene evoking tears or strong emotions—with the sound of the violin is largely due to Seidel,” writes Adam Baer for the American Scholar. “ … he laid the groundwork for mainstream America to deepen its love affair with the violin.”
But did he play on the soundtrack of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz? Historian and Oz expert John Fricke says that although it is possible, he was unable to confirm whether Seidel was the film’s violin soloist, reports Jon Burlingame for Variety. Nonetheless, it is likely, as Seidel was working for the studio in February 1939 and most of the film was recorded in May of that year.
Seidel’s works echo across different disciplines. He even gave violin lessons to Albert Einstein in the 1930s and performed with him after the scientist emigrated to the United States in 1933. In return, writes Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson, the physicist explained his new theory of relativity to Seidel and “made him some drawings of moving rods contracting in length” to illustrate one of the key facets of his theory.
The renowned violinist died in 1962. Though he was one of his era’s most famous musicians, today he is all but forgotten. But Seidel’s musical legacy lives on—along with his fine violin.
“… It is our tremendous pleasure to present this instrument, whose exquisite voice still speaks to us through many classical recordings and film scores performed by the incomparable Toscha Seidel,” said Tome in a statement. “We can only imagine the thrill that this instrument has generated for countless musicians and audiences over the centuries.”