Tuesday, November 08, 2011 | Posted by: Fiona Cullinan
Categories: Personal | Tags: investment, HNWI, Bespoke magazine, investing, guide, value, collecting, collectible, prices, musical instruments, buying, violins, expert, rare
There are definitely strings attached to investing in rare musical instruments with little or no provenance. Not only does it take considerable expertise to assess the authenticity of an investment-class violin, but most collectors are also classical music patrons who lend out their investment to the world’s best players. Lisa Freedman interviews maestro Florian Leonhard (pictured) about investing in rare violins …
The rising value of rare violins
Fashion has always played a part in the art market. Buyers and sellers factor in this season’s passion for the 20th century against last year’s enthusiasm for Victoriana, or the long-term prospects of Botticelli over Picasso. One particular art form, however, has remained impervious to the swings and roundabouts of taste. Old Master stringed instruments demonstrate a pleasingly consistent upward curve.
“The price of the rarest violins doubles every 10 years,” says Florian Leonhard, one of the world’s leading experts in the field.
For centuries, the finest musical instruments have been the preserve of the wealthy. Classical music originated in the courts and cathedrals of Europe and the musicians who performed before emperors and popes required the best equipment to satisfy this exacting audience.
It’s only relatively recently, however, that stringed instruments – particularly those created in Italy between 1700 and 1720 – have developed into an asset class of their own. In the late 1970s you could buy a Stradivarius violin for under $300,000; today, prices start in the millions.
How are violins judged?
One reason for the precipitous rise is the expanding interest in classical music – and the finite supply of instruments to play it on.
“The classical musical tradition was born in a small corner of western Europe, but has expanded round the world,” says Leonhard, who regularly jets off to Russia, the US and the Far East. “Violin-making is a fossil profession; instruments built before 1800 remain unique in the way they fulfil players’ needs.”
Violins are judged by their tone, responsiveness, elegance of design, condition and precision of their craft, and the most coveted were created by the Cremona-based craftsmen Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesu’, whose instruments are thought to possess a quality that has eluded all subsequent makers.
Investor collectors tend to be patrons of the arts
The violinist’s punishing trade, like Formula 1 racing, requires an instrument to match the skill of the performer, and the market in stringed instruments is underpinned by the demand from top-class soloists, as well as from investor collectors. The latter – wealthy individuals and financial institutions – rarely reserve their purchases for private pleasure. “Investors are generally patrons of the arts,” says Leonhard. “They lend their instruments to leading musicians.”
Old Master instruments differ from other collectibles, too, in that provenance is often difficult to establish (violins were rarely noted in household accounts). This means, in a field where fakes abound, the connoisseur has a particularly vital role to play.
Real or fake?
German-born Leonhard, 48, is one of the rare elite trusted to validate the authenticity of the most valuable. Trained as a violin-maker at the Mittenwald School in southern Germany, he quickly became head restorer at the celebrated London manufacturer and repairer W E Hill and Sons.
“You have to let your eye develop and to do that you have to handle the best.” In 1995 he set up on his own and, today, from his elegant house and studio in north London’s Hampstead, employs a workshop of talented young craftsman, providing a temporary home to some of the world’s finest instruments, as well as handing out advice to collectors and star performers such as Maxim Vengerov and Julian Rachlin.
“There’s always someone knocking at the door,” he says.
Which, for those interested in investing, is no bad thing.
VIOLINS TO INVEST IN: AN EXPERT’S GUIDE
Pietro Gallinotti (1885-1979), 1924, £28,000
Italian Pietro Gallinotti apprenticed at the age of 10 as a cabinet-maker, but it was only when he was ordered to do so as a prisoner in Czechoslovakia during the First World War that he began making violins. After his release he opened a workshop in his native Solero, where his fame in building violins, violas and cellos grew and he won important prizes throughout Italy for his expertise. Later, he extended his range to include guitars, when the great Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia became one of his loyal clients.
Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi (1714-1787), 1762, £225,000
The Milanese maker, Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi is considered among the half dozen or so finest stringed-instrument makers in history. He served his apprenticeship in Cremona, the heartland of the Golden Age of instrument making, before returning to Milan in 1734 to set up his own workshop. His work is recognised by the distinctive arching of the violin belly in relation to its back, by the unusually graceful scroll carving, often small and broader than the work of other master luthiers, and by the striking hue of the varnish. His finest instruments possess a full tone of great carrying power.
Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786), 1755, £900,000
Guadagnini was born near Piacenza. Though he claimed in later life to have been a student of Stradivari, it now seems likely he was self-taught after an apprenticeship as a wood worker. Fewer than 100 of his violins survive.
Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), 1720s, £4 million
The Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari is regarded as the finest stringed instrument maker ever to have lived. During his 70-year career in Cremona, Stradivari developed the shape and finish of violins in a number of ways. Around 1700 he created his ‘Grand Pattern’, embarking on two decades that authorities know as his Golden Age. Only about 450 of the 700 or so instruments he created survive and these epitomise what every player and collector is ultimately looking for. “Stradivari’s instruments tick all the boxes,” says Leonhard. “The varnish, the ground, the choice of wood, the modelling, the arching, the craftsmanship, the sound, the beauty, the projection and the colour all score 10 out of 10. No other maker can fulfil all these criteria to that degree.”
Grant Thornton does not have any expertise in this area and cannot advise. Professional advice and specialist assistance should be sought in relation to any particular circumstances.
Interview: Lisa Freedman. Images: © James Pfaff. This article first appeared in Bespoke magazine in Summer 2011. You can subscribe to future copies of Bespoke via a quick sign-up on our subscriptions page.
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