Investing in Music
Is there any creative field where one can unequivocally state the name of its greatest proponent without sparking a discussion or argument? Unlike painting, sculpting, writing or music composition the violin making world has two names that surpass all others.
The very greatest violins ever made all came from one small city in northern Italy, Cremona; all were made between 1685 and 1745 by the members of two families, Guarneri and Stradivari. Their work stands alone, far above that of their predecessors and indeed any maker since.
Stradivari did not make his instruments for the average musician. His commissions came primarily from the nobility throughout Europe. When we consider that the most important violinists at that time, the Baroque era, were Corelli (1653-1713), Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Tartini (1692-1770) it is staggering to imagine these makers’ constant striving to produce ever greater violins. Their beauty notwithstanding, it would be many generations before the richness, complexity and shear strength of sound would be fully appreciated.
It was not until the Romantic era, almost three quarters of a century later, that the unquestionable superiority of these instruments to players and listeners was universally acknowledged. Their ability to deliver demanding solo violin music with clarity and great presence in the new concert halls rather than salons made them essential companions to soloists. Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was the most celebrated virtuoso of his day. His performances, especially of his own compositions, were legendary and sensationalized by stories of his gambling and extravagant lifestyle. His fame ignited Europe. The violin that accompanied him throughout his life was made by Guarneri del Gesu in 1743. It had been given to Paganini when he was 15 years old and left to the city of Genoa on his death. His violin, known as the “Paganini - Canon”, is housed today in the Palazzo Doria Tursi in Genoa and is rarely heard in concert.
Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840)
Paganini was not the first soloist to be sponsored or to receive patronage, but the impact of his performances and those of virtuosos who followed inspired the purchase of many great instruments. Instruments have been loaned to top players and occasionally, as in the cases of Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline Du Pre and others, even given to them. Like the “Paganini-Canon”, top instruments are now known by the names of their famous players and owners, including those of various Kings, Princes, Barons, Lords, Dukes, Counts and Earls.
When we consider names such as Medici, Napoleon, Rothschild, Wanamaker, Henry Ford and even Louis Vuitton, the idea that these families bought instruments solely as investments is quite unreasonable.
The patronage of artists has always appealed to Society. A painter or sculptor might produce an inspiring work that would impress the patron’s friends and colleagues. Likewise, music can entrance and seduce huge audiences, keeping them spell-bound with very personal experiences. A solo violin, being so close to the human voice, can touch the listener on every emotional level. It is this individual intensity and impact that makes the sponsorship and patronage of violinists such a unique endeavor.
VALUE AND APPRECIATION
There are approximately 600 violins by Stradivari and 140 by Guarneri del Gesu still in existence. Of these almost a third are in collections or museums and no longer heard in the concert hall. Many have not survived the ravages of time. Wars, natural disasters and accidents have prompted foundations and museums to collect and preserve the better examples. With fewer instruments available to the ever increasing number of talented string players, prices have escalated dramatically.
Fine examples of violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu range in price from $3,000,000 to $15,000,000. As their values have escalated, so have those of the second and third tier makers. Musicians’ salaries are no longer in line with instrument prices, so a young professional cannot even dream of purchasing one without assistance.
As a new member of the Cleveland Orchestra in the early 1960s, Philipp Naegele was told by George Szell that he needed a better violin. He was newly married, starting a family and had a mortgage. It was a huge struggle for him to buy the Guadagnini violin that was offered to him – it took him 5 years to pay for this violin. Rare Violins of New York recently sold this violin for over $750,000 to a Foundation that is loaning it to a concert artist. The thought of an orchestral musician today being able to purchase such an instrument on only his salary is inconceivable.
Reasons for sponsoring a musician with the purchase of an instrument can vary. Whether it is for the glamor and satisfaction of helping an individual or simply a means to attract publicity, the motive is usually personal.
Sponsoring an individual soloist or concertmaster can be the most gratifying. In 1989 the gentleman who was persuaded to purchase the Stradivari for Gil Shaham, instead of another piece of artwork, was told that it would be a great financial investment. Within the year Gil’s career sky-rocketed and he was playing to packed halls all around the world. For those who knew this gentleman and saw him at many of those concerts, it was evident that this investment brought him unexpected pleasure and an experience of unimaginable magnitude.
In 1998 a young couple came to New York looking to buy a Stradivari violin for the concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony. The orchestra was celebrating its 50th anniversary and had an upcoming East Coast tour that included a concert at Carnegie Hall. The couple, who knew nothing about violins, had one objective, namely to create publicity for the orchestra and cultivate support for classical music in the city of Nashville. Indeed, their acquisition prompted the purchase of other great instruments for the orchestra and eventually the building of its new concert hall.
Many orchestras in the US own instrument collections or have the use of great instruments. The Chicago Symphony owns 2 Stradivari violins in their collection, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has 1 Stradivari violin and 1 Stradivari cello, and the New York Philharmonic owns 1 Stradivari violin and a Guarneri among their 15 or so instruments. In 2003 the New Jersey Symphony acquired a collection of 30 instruments in the hope that the enhanced prestige and media attention would build greater support in the community and attract new benefactors. However, the timing was wrong and four years later, faced with financial issues, the orchestra was forced to place the instruments for sale. The collection was purchased by two investment bankers who agreed to allow the orchestra to continue using the instruments for a minimum of five years.
The most active orchestra purchasing instruments in the last few years is the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. The conductor and director, Valery Gergiev recognized the urgent need to develop the sound of the orchestra and inspire its players. The initial proposal to one of the Theatre’s wealthy sponsors was simple. Rather than financing a single ballet or opera production for which there would be the fleeting acclaim of one evening, he should purchase a great instrument and establish a permanent endowment. It was a huge success for the orchestra, and inspired a flood of on-going purchases that have amounted to many tens of millions of dollars. As the world’s greatest instruments continue to leave the US at an alarming rate, the need to educate and cultivate new sponsors and collectors within the US has become critical. The alternative is to face a future that is musically and culturally deprived.
In November 2010 the Dallas Symphony Orchestra launched the Great Orchestra Campaign to raise $50 million “to enhance the artistic growth of the DSO and to help solidify financial stability.” Spearheaded by their Music Director Jaap van Zweden who personally pledged a substantial amount, the orchestra was well on the way to achieving their goal within the first month of the campaign announcement. The publicized “artistic enhancements” included the hiring of new musicians and funding for national and international tours. What has not been publicized is that one of the first objectives of van Zweden was to acquire high quality instruments. As a string player himself he is acutely aware of the huge impact great instruments make on the orchestra, and his enthusiasm with local patrons has inspired several purchases for the Dallas Symphony Foundation.
The Dallas patrons who purchase an instrument experience the ideal sponsorship. Supporting an individual who performs in the orchestra and gives solo and chamber concerts is an immense inspiration not only for the sponsor and musician, but to fellow musicians and the community as a whole. Should circumstances change and the instrument needed to be sold, the patron would find that the musical investment was financially beneficial as well.
G.B. Guadagnini, Milan c1750
There have been several independent studies on the increasing values of fine stringed instruments and all show with great enthusiasm what impressive financial vehicles these investments can be.
This may be true but there is an equally good reason to purchase…