How Crazy Is It to Spend Millions for an Old Violin?

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More than 350 years ago, Antonio Stradivari created the best string instruments ever made — or at least, that’s the popular myth, reinforced by stratospheric auction prices and retold in movies like The Red Violin. A Strad that sold at auction in 2011 holds the current record for the most expensive instrument at $15.9 million, and Sotheby’s estimates that a rare Stradivarius viola will bring in $45 million this spring.

This is in spite of the fact that Strads are not actually superior to today’s best instruments. A study out this week from the National Academy of the Sciences found that violinists can’t really tell the difference between the million-dollar violins and new instruments from the best makers, which might sell in the range of $50,000. The majority of the violinists actually preferred the modern instruments. This confirms a number of previous studies that have reached similar conclusions.

So why would someone pay as much as $45 million for a not-better instrument? “It’s kind of an absurd price, but there’s probably someone who’s willing to pay that,” says Samuel Zygmuntowicz, one of the world’s top living violin makers. Zygmuntowicz has made instruments for Isaac Stern, the Emerson String Quartet, and many others. He believes that musicians continue to be attracted to old Italian violins because of what they represent. The golden age of Stradivari and his contemporaries (in mid-17th to mid-18th century Cremona) came at the culmination of years of experimentation and improvement. “Skilled makers, working with skilled players, produced an incredibly effective design.”

Zygmuntowicz, like other top makers, learned his craft by copying instruments by masters like Stradivari, adding their own improvements and modifications that have come along in the intervening years. “If you don’t quite understand the inner workings of something, the best strategy is to do exactly what somebody really good did,” he tells Kurt Andersen. So it’s no surprise to him that contemporary instruments perform as well or better than their ancient relatives. A few years ago, Zygmuntowicz took part in a project called Strad3D, which used 3D imaging and CT scanners to figure out what made Stradivari’s violins tick. That study helped him appreciate the technical reasons behind design elements that have been handed down through violin makers for hundreds of years.

But the stratospheric prices mean those instruments will increasingly be seen as collectible assets, not useful tools. The age of the Strad may be coming to an end. “That viola, we can kiss it goodbye as a musical instrument,” he says. “Like it or not, (musicians) just have to get over Strads.”

Music Playlist

  1. Fugue in A flat major, BWV 862

    Artist: Emerson String Quartet
    Album: Bach: Fugues, Arranged for String Quartet
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  2. Fugue in D major, BWV 850

    Artist: Emerson String Quartet
    Album: Bach: Fugues, Arranged for String Quartet
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon