“It was a dream come true to see it and touch it, really an incredible feeling”, remembers Robert Dumitrescu. “I was so excited the first time. I mean, it’s one thing to hear it played in a concert hall, it’s another thing to hear it directly from your own ear.
Dumitrescu is enthusiastic – enthusiastic, 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 luthier of all time. And it is valued at several million.
Dumitrescu is director of the Guarneri company based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, which holds a collection of some of the best violins in the world, organizes and advises on violins, and helps people invest in them.
“There are people who buy art and what is their motivation? They hang it on their wall, their friends come over and say ‘wow, you got one’…. Well, who cares? laughed Dumitrescu. “Owning a violin like this is something very different. It’s a strange idea for many, for those perhaps who only really know modern music. But there are enough who really understand. It’s not just about profit. »
Profit helps, of course, although you need a Royal Albert Hall full of cash to be part of the club to start. Last June, a rare Stradivarius – as Stradivari violins are called – sold at auction in New York for the not-quite-record sum of $15.3 million. You can bet the full house that it will sell for a lot more next time.
“There has been interest in people investing in these instruments in a world where they are increasingly looking for very safe, inflation-proof investments. People are looking beyond the usual asset classes – property, commodities, etc. “says Florian Leonhard, violin restorer, maker and violin dealer based in London, who is also the official string instrument expert for the city’s Royal College of Music. “There is a return to tangible assets and mobile.” It is easy to transport a violin from one jurisdiction to another in order to resell it for a more advantageous currency.
And antique violins, violas, cellos (slightly less portable) – the three pillars of the category known as “beautiful 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, some of which are off the market and in museums, with around 600 others believed to be lost or destroyed. Certainly part of the skill in trading these types of fine stringed instruments – and there are only a handful of very well connected specialist dealers in the world – is knowing where they are and where they could go next.
“Most of my job is to find them and follow them. It’s, as someone once said of the art world, ‘knowing which painting is on which wall,’ as London broker Roman Goronok puts it.
“I have my little black book, so I know where these violins are, who uses them, which musicians may be at the end of their career and therefore are looking to get their instrument back into circulation. And who may be in the wings waiting to buy. After all, there is a limited supply of these amazing items. It means they are just enjoying.
And there is a very serious appreciation. If Leonhard tells you he only made four sales last year, don’t worry about him – one was a ‘Strad’, which sold to a Chinese customer for over 10 million dollars. Just 20 years ago, the same violin would have been considerably cheaper. Leonhard estimates that the market has generally offered a 26% return on investment over this period, but a 60% return on investment is not unusual. And for those who can’t afford the top dollar for a Stradivari, a little less would get you an instrument by Guarneri del Gesu – the choice of superstar player Paganini – with $6 million for a violin by, say, Giovanni Guadagnini, also considered one of the master luthiers. Also look at Andrea Amati, Francesco Ruggieri or Giuseppe Guarneri. In the pecking order, there is also an investment opportunity in one of the 50 other big, but not so big manufacturers.
The fine-stringed instrument market has also received a huge boost in credibility, which will only boost demand in an asset class that those more interested in BB King than Bartok, Hendrix or ‘Handel, probably hardly thought. J & A Beares, the London-based violin dealer celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, has just completed an exhaustive study of Stradivari instrument sales from the early 1800s to the 1970s – even acquiring dealers WE Hill & Sounds in order to access their folders do this. The result is the first Stradivari price index, and an index backed by KPMG. What does it show?
“Throughout history, prices have risen pretty much in a straight line, and there’s been an even steeper rise in recent decades,” says Steven Smith, managing director of J&A Beares.
“This is extremely useful and demonstrable information that will appeal to investment companies or pension funds, as they tend to think long-term and fiddles are ideal for that,” adds Smith. “And I think provable data means the market can grow more consistently than it has in the past, when a lot of the data was unreliable because sales were trending It could really be a game-changer – not that we encourage people to buy an antique violin just as an investment.
And he doesn’t mean he expects all of his clients to practice their shrill rendition of “Three Blind Mice” every night. Rather, there is another layer to this interest in violins and cellos.
Like much of the classical repertoire played by these instruments, there is the calmness of this market that attracts a certain type of investor, suggests Florian Leonhard. They tend to be part of a still small, niche coterie of well-educated people – invariably classical music fans, of course – less interested in taking what are, in effect, bets on a hot new artist who can pay big or can shell out entirely.
“With art, there is always volatility. There is this subjective and erratic judgment of assets. On the other hand, there is real value in a violin; they are long-established objects, which have survived the ups and downs of economy and fashion, which are the expression of craftsmanship at its peak,” explains Leonhard.
And, yes, there’s also an appreciation for a prestige item that’s always a talking point – there’s as much cachet to owning a Stradivari as there is a Warhol. The owners become a part of the record of this instrument, in a way a small part of the story.
But, more than that, here is an object that usually makes an owner – either outright or, as is increasingly the case, through a syndicate – a patron of the arts. How? Because your old violin could be loaned to an orchestra, a conductor or a professional musician. As Dumitrescu notes, “these instruments are only getting more and more expensive, so that even the best players in the world cannot afford them themselves”.
Fear not for your investment either, as these instruments are like international celebrities in the world of classical music – which, with 40 million children in China alone now learning the violin, is exploding. This makes them almost impossible to sell illegally, so they are perfectly insurable. If it reassures you more, having your violin played by a famous virtuoso only adds to its value.
“Previously, the focus on getting people to invest in quality string instruments was based on the return they offered, but frankly, you won’t lose value. Now what really attracts investors is the philanthropic aspect,” explains Leonhard. “It’s like being a fantastic racing driver with a bad car – it limits your career. And likewise, you have to pair the best violinists with the best instruments. As a player you want the depth, the brilliance, the colors, the projection of your sound that an antique string instrument provides. And where many instruments, like a piano for example, get tired with age, a violin or cello gets better.
Leonhard talks about investors who worked hard all their lives but gave up on the finer parts of life. Now they want to be part of something that “brings beauty and inspiration into their lives,” he says. “Yes, some investors take a rather mechanical approach and put their fiddle in a safe somewhere in Geneva. More now appreciate that they are tools and the ideal is that they are played.
Ask a violin expert if perhaps Stradivari’s pre-eminence is just a marketing twist, a bit of branding, and you’re pretty quickly corrected. Stradivari is to string instruments what Einstein is to physics, or Edison is to invention. This is partly a product of the fact that Stradivari lived long enough for his time, very productive and practical, putting his touch to every violin that bore his name. “But it was more that he was constantly trying to perfect his product by changing designs, experimenting with materials, varnishes, etc. He was a pioneer,” says Steven Smith, a man who takes his Stradivari so seriously that he has assembled a research team to create a six-volume definitive document of all of the luthier’s violins – set to be published in here the end of the year and revealing, he says, that there are more of them than first thought.
“What’s remarkable is that over the centuries, Stradivari’s reputation has survived,” adds Smith. “But then this reputation is justified, because his violins are works of art. Study one of the masters of lutherie and it’s like looking at the works of great painters or sculptors. You see their dedication to what they have done.
To know them is to love them, as BB King would have said. And what about BB King and his instrument of choice, the electric guitar? Are they into more contemporary music just tuned to the wrong station, in terms of money?
Slowly, as popular music approaches its first century, the world of string instruments worth investing in is expanding its remit and opening up opportunities for those who don’t have millions to lose. 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 sweeter $30,000.
“Martin, Gibson, Fender – these are top picks, loved for their sound, their history, their looks. These are the kind of guitars that won’t lose their value,”
enthused Walter Carter of vintage guitar dealer Carter Vintage in Nashville.
Move over the fiddles, he jokes. “As long as the guitar isn’t supplanted as the most popular instrument for the masses, I think its market follows a fairly stable trajectory as well.” ■