On this day in 2008, the world’s most expensive violin was played for the first time in seventy years.
Ask most people what they think the world’s most expensive violin might be, and nine times out of ten you would hear the answer, a Stradivarius. In principle this would be correct, as the Italian master violin maker Antonio Stradivari made seven out of the eight most expensive violins ever sold. But the number one spot was not made by Stradivari, but is in fact the work of his compatriot Giuseppe Guarneri.
The record-breaking violin, the Vieuxtemps, was sold at auction in New York in February 2008, eventually attaining the staggering price of 3.9 million U.S. dollars. It eclipsed the previous highest price paid for a violin, which until that point stood at 3.54 million dollars, paid for Stradivari’s most celebrated violin, known as The Hammer. The Vieuxtemps was bought by a Russian lawyer, and subsequently lent to the renowned concert violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, who, on this day in 2008, played the violin in front of an audience for the first time in seventy years, at a specially arranged concert at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Guarneri, commonly known as Guarneri del Gesu, was an instrument maker of rare distinction. Born in Cremona in 1698, he came from a long line of luthiers (a profession dedicated to making and repairing string instruments). His grandfather, Andrea, was apprenticed to the prestigious violin maker Nicolo Amati, who is also credited with training Stradivari.
Throughout his relatively short career, Giuseppe Guarneri was outshone by his famous colleague. Stradivari, 54 years Guarneri’s senior, gained a reputation for expert craftsmanship early in his career, ensuring that he could command high prices for his violins, and could work to his own pace. Guarneri struggled to compete with him, and his violins appeared surprisingly slapdash in comparison. However, Guarneri’s instruments, of which fewer than 200 survive, while not looking particularly refined, have come to be recognised as some of the highest quality ever made. They are revered for their exquisite tone, and coveted by the top violinists all over the world. Illustrious names such as Yehudi Menuhin and Niccolo Paganini are among the virtuoso performers to have played Guarneri’s violins.
Since being bought by its Russian owner, the Vieuxtemps, named after its one-time owner the 19th century violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, has once again been offered for sale. The asking price has now been raised to an eye-watering 18 million dollars! With such a high price tag, it may well be another seventy years before the world’s most expensive violin is played again.
Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Caption: A Sotheby’s employee holds the Vieuxtemps on 13 February 2008.