"It was a dream come true to see and touch it, really an unbelievable feeling,” recalls Robert Dumitrescu. “I was just so excitedthe first time. I mean, it’s one thing to hear it played in a concert hall, another to hear it right by your own ear.”
Dumitrescu is enthusing – rhapsodising, really – about a violin. Not just any violin, but one important enough to have a name: The Cathedral. It was made in the late 1600s by Antonio Stradivari, considered the greatest violin maker of all time. And it is valued in the many millions.
Dumitrescu is director of the St Gallen, Switzerland-based Guarneri Society, which holds a collection of some of the world’s best violins, curates and advises on violins, and helps people invest in them.
“There are people who buy art and what’s their motivation? They hang it on their wall, their friends come round and say ‘wow, you’ve got one of those’…. Well, who cares?” laughs Dumitrescu. “To own a violin like these is something very different. That’s a strange idea to many, to those perhaps who only really know modern music. But there are enough that really get it. It’s not just about profit.”
Profit helps, of course, though you need a Royal Albert Hall full of cash to be part of the club to start with. This June, a rare Stradivarius – as violins by Stradivari are called – sold at auction in New York for a not-quite record-setting $15.3m. You can bet the full house that it will sell for considerably more next time.
“There’s been an interest in people investing in these instruments in a world in which they’re increasingly looking more for very safe, inflation-beating investments. People are looking beyond the usual asset classes – property, commodities and so on,” says London-based violin restorer, maker and dealer Florian Leonhard, who’s also the official expert in stringed instruments for the city’s Royal College of Music. “There’s a return to tangible assets and to mobile ones.” It’s easy to take a violin from one jurisdiction into another in order to sell in a more advantageous currency.
And antique violins, violas, (somewhat less portable) cellos – the three pillars of the category known as ‘fine stringed instruments’ – are certainly very safe investments, not least because of their rarity. Only some 650 violins by Stradivari – who lived from 1644 to 1737 – are known to exist, some of which are off the market and in museums, with another 600 or so assumed lost or destroyed. Certainly, part of the skill in dealing in these kinds of fine stringed instruments – and there are only a handful of very well-connected specialist brokers around the world – is knowing where they are and where they could go next.
“Most of my job is in finding them, and in keeping track of them. It’s about, as someone once said of the art world, ‘knowing which painting is on whose wall’,” as London-based broker Roman Goronok has it.
“I have my little black book, so I know where these violins are, who’s using them, which players may be near the end of their careers and so looking to release their instrument back into circulation. And who may be in the wings waiting to buy. After all, there’s a finite supply of these incredible objects. That means that they only ever appreciate.”
And there’s some very serious appreciation. If Leonhard tells you that he only made four sales last year, worry not for him – one of those was a ‘Strad’, sold to a Chinese client for more than $10m. Just 20 years ago the same violin would have been valued considerably lower. Leonhard reckons the market has more typically offered a 26% ROI over that period, but a 60% ROI isn’t unusual. And for those who can’t afford top dollar for a Stradivari, somewhat less would get you an instrument by Guarneri del Gesu – superstar player Paganini’s choice – with $6m getting you a violin by, say, Giovanni Guadagnini, also considered one of the master violin makers. Look too to the likes of Andrea Amati, Francesco Ruggieri or Giuseppe Guarneri. Down the pecking order, there’s an investment opportunity too in one of the 50 other great, just not that great, makers.
The fine stringed instrument market has now received a huge boost in credibility too, which will only drive demand in an asset class of which those more interested in BB King than Bartok, Hendrix than Handel, have likely barely given a passing thought. J & A Beares, the violin dealer founded in London and this year marking its 130th anniversary, has just completed an exhaustive study of Stradivari instrument sales from the early 1800s to the 1970s – even acquiring dealers W E Hill & Sons in order to access their records to do so. The result is the first index of Stradivari prices, and one backed by KPMG. What does it show?
“That through history prices have pretty much gone up in a straight line, and there’s been an even steeper climb over more recent decades,” says J & A Beares’s managing director Steven Smith.
“This is extremely useful, provable information that will appeal to the likes of investment firms or pension funds – because they tend to think in the long-term and violins are ideal for that,” Smith adds. “And I think that provable data means the market can develop more consistently than it has in the past when so much of the data was unreliable because sales tended to be private. This could be a real game changer – not that we encourage people to buy an antique violin purely in terms of investment.”
And he doesn’t mean that he expects all of his customers to be practising their screeching rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’ every evening. Rather that there is another layer to this interest in violins and cellos.
Like much of the classical repertoire that these instruments play, there’s the calmness to this market that attracts a certain kind of investor, Florian Leonhard suggests. They tend to be part of a still small, niche coterie of well-educated people – invariably fans of classical music, of course – less interested in taking what are, in effect, gambles on some hot new artist that may pay big or may bomb entirely.
“With art there’s always volatility. There’s that subjective, erratic judgement of the asset. In contrast, there’s real value in a violin; these are long-established objects, that have appreciated through ups and downs of both the economy and fashion, that are expressions of craft skill at its peak,” argues Leonhard.
And, yes, there’s also an appreciation for a prestige object that’s still a talking point – there’s as much cachet in being an owner of a Stradivari as there is a Warhol. Owners become part of the record of that instrument, in some small way part of history.
But, more than that, here’s an object that typically makes an owner – be that outright or, as is increasingly the case, through a syndicate – a patron of the arts. How so? Because your antique violin could be loaned out to a professional orchestra, conductor or player. As Dumitrescu notes, “these instruments are only getting more and more expensive, such that even the world’s best players can’t afford them themselves.”
Fear not for your investment either, because these instruments are like international celebrities in the classic musical world – which, with 40m children in China alone now learning the violin, is exploding. That makes them almost impossible to sell illegally, so they’re eminently insurable. If it’s further reassurance, having your violin played by a famous virtuoso only adds to its value.
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“The focus on encouraging people to invest in fine stringed instruments used to be all about the return they offered, but, frankly, you won’t lose value. Now what really appeals to investors is the philanthropic aspect,” explains Leonhard. “It’s like being a fantastic racing driver with a bad car – it’s limiting their career. And likewise you need to match the best violin players with the best instruments. As a player you want the depth, brilliance, the colours, the projection to your sound that an antique stringed instrument offers. And where many instruments, like a piano say, get tired with age, a violin or a cello just gets better.”
Leonhard speaks of investors who have worked hard all their lives but who have let the more pleasurable aspects of life fall somewhat by the wayside. Now they want to be part of something that, “brings beauty and inspiration to their lives,” he says. “Yes, some investors take a rather mechanical approach and put their violin in a vault somewhere in Geneva. More now appreciate that these are tools and the ideal is that they are played.”
Ask a violin expert whether the pre-eminence of Stradivari is, maybe, just a touch of marketing, a bit of branding, and you’re very quickly corrected. Stradivari is to stringed instruments as Einstein is to physics, or Edison is to invention. In part that’s a product of Stradivari having been rather long-lived for his times, very productive and hands-on, putting his touch to every violin that carried his name. “But it was more that he constantly tried to perfect his product by changing the designs, experimenting with the materials, the varnishes and so on. He was a pioneer,” explains Steven Smith, a man who takes his Stradivari so seriously he pulled together a research team to create a six-volume definitive document of all of the maker’s violins – due to be published by the end of the year and revealing, he says, that there are more of them extant than were first believed to be.
“What’s remarkable is that over the centuries, Stradivari’s reputation has survived,” Smith adds. “But then that reputation is justified, because his violins are works of art. Study any of the masters of violin making and it’s like looking at the works of the great painters or sculptors. You see their devotion to what they did.”
To know them is to love them, as BB King might have put it. And what of BB King, and his instrument of choice, the electric guitar? Are those into more contemporary music just tuned into the wrong station, money-wise?
Slowly, as popular music approaches its first century, the world of stringed instruments worth investing in is widening its remit, and opening up opportunities for those without millions to spare. A 1960 Gibson Les Paul – arguably the most iconic electric guitar in history – can be had for $325,000, or a 1957 Fender Esquire for a more gentle $30,000.
“Martin, Gibson, Fender – these are the blue-chip choices, appreciated for their sound, history, look. They’re the kind of guitars that won’t lose their value,”
enthuses Walter Carter of vintage guitar dealers Carter Vintage in Nashville.
Move over violins, he jests. “As long as the guitar is not supplanted as the most popular instrument for the masses, then I think its market is on a pretty steady course too.” ■