A guide to the market for the finest instruments and their values
Legendary players and their often no less legendary instruments used to be inextricably linked. More recently we have been witnessing a shift away from this enviable situation, as most of the greatest instruments (that are not yet in permanent institutional collections), are now owned by others than those who perform on them. Even the world's best paid players can no longer afford to buy them due to an escalation of their value vastly out of balance with the musicians' earning. The fine instrument trade has long turned into an investment - based market, subject to the usual laws of supply and demand seen in other branches of rare art, however with one important difference: instruments are indispensable to the work of musicians, making their investment potential secondary to their primary purpose. Thus, the investor's market in the finest of instruments, with its various nuances and a strong preference for the greatest examples, has always been upward bound.
Appraisers are those most connected to the market itself - the dealers, specialised auctioneers and in some cases, experts. Their evaluations are usually based on a combination of their own and other past sale results of similar items. However, their job is complicated by the fact that no two identical instrument or bow exists for exact comparison. Prices for rare items can fluctuate a great deal from example to example even by the same makers or based on the actual purpose for the appraisal: is the appraisal for a 'replacement value' for insurance purposes, a quick sale through a third party to a dealer or a musician, or for a commission sale through an auction, dealership, etc.? Values can also fluctuate dramatically based on geography, currency, the venue executing the sale, and so on. Apart from published public auction results, most transactions have stayed private and so little more than a value range can be estimated for any given instrument at any given time.
Criteria used for appraising include: authenticity and period of production (if known), condition, level of workmanship, provenance, model, sound quality, varnish colour and fashion. Perceived or actual authenticity of all parts, as well as state of preservation, remain amongst the most important criteria in the process of evaluation and are generally seen as relatively objective. But only a small percentage of fine, old instruments conform to the category of 'fine, original and in excellent condition'. Thus a good start for appraising may be to set a range of retail value for a very fine example, then deduct certain percentages for any deviations from undisputed authenticity and excellent condition.
VALUES OF THE MULTIMILLION - DOLLAR INSTRUMENTS
It is well-known that the very finest, centuries old instruments are now worth millions of dollars. However, only a handful of maker's names are consistently associated with ultra high values: these are Antonio Stradivari and his sons, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and Carlo Bergonzi - Cremona's 'Golden Trio'. Today's increasingly heated market for these three makers' work suggests that the apex of Cremona's golden age lingered over the final, roughly 40 years of its 200 - year history; far higher prices are consistently achieved for their finest examples from their respective prized years, than for instruments in similar condition from their other working periods.
The most discerning connoisseurs seem to associate Stradivari's best work with a period of ca.1707-1718, using the term 'Golden Period' for works from those years. As many exceptional examples of his were also made outside that period the term should, however be used with caution when evaluating and appraising his work. It has been tempting, financially and otherwise to prolong Stradivari's most valuable working period to include as many of his works as possible, so some dealers and connoisseurs have also suggested broader time frames, such as 1700-1725.
Considerably younger than Stradivari, Bergonzi and Guarneri del Gesù began working for their own accounts about half a century later than Stradivari and so during most of Stradivari's arguably best years, their work is either non existent, little unknown or described as 'early' and thus not nearly as well-considered as their later opus. In the meantime, their own best production practically coincides and overlaps; it is generally accepted that Bergonzi's best work comes from ca.1732-1740 and that of Guarneri del Gesù, from ca.1735-1744.
Bergonzi's violinmaking career, spanning over 30 years has posed particular polemics as not many more than a quarter of his 50-60 extant instruments retain their original labels, making them difficult to date. Most of del Gesù's labels too, are not easily authenticated, though due to his extant instruments being several-fold more plentiful than those of Bergonzi, his are more easily classified into several working periods.
Guarneri seems currently to hold the record price paid for a stringed instrument with his exceptional, c.1741 'Vieuxtemps' violin, with over $16m paid for it in 2012. Bergonzi's work, though it has already spiralled in value since the retrospective of his life and work, held in Cremona in 2010, will likely always remain in third place with asking prices for his violins thus far not having exceeded $3.5m - $4m, to my knowledge. However, I expect his very finest works, of similar quality to many instruments by his two more valuable rivals, to move higher against them in the near future.
At £9.8m (at the time $15.9m), the record price for a Stradivarius, made on the outer edge of the master's so called, Golden Period, is still that achieved in 2011 for the 1721 'Lady Blunt' violin. There exist other similar violins, made alongside this one, whose value doesn't come close to it, mainly due to this violin's extraordinary freshness, great history and particularly beautifully glowing varnish. Its most recent sale price in GBP, was almost 116 times greater than the previous record of £84500 ($200,000) paid for it at Sotheby's in 1971! In that year, with that money, one could have bought 15 averagely priced homes in the UK. For what was paid for it in 2011 one could have bought 44 such UK homes. Due to the British pound's longterm slope against the dollar, the violin appreciated a mere 80 fold in USD - still a massively improved performance over the Dow Jones, which in the same 40 years rose only about 14 fold. Whereas the Dow offered high liquidity, the 'Lady Blunt' hugely outperformed it in the long term. I would not suggest that all of Stradivari's or other, less important makers' work have seen anywhere near these levels of appreciation, but overall, they have proven their high, long-term investment potential.
Bargain hunters can still pickup an instrument they could call a 'Strad' or a 'del Gesù' for a couple of million dollars. These will doubtless come with some serious conditional issues, including non authentic parts, but even such instruments are rare and many may prefer a great G.B. Guadaganini instead - usually with a smaller financial outlay. Valuing Guadagnini's work is difficult, because his style changed quite dramatically, in accordance with the towns where, and for which patrons, he was working. While nearly all of his instruments boast superb sound, it is his late Turin works, most influenced by the late Stradivari model, that have historically been judged to be of greatest value, at times bringing close to double the prices of his equivalent works from earlier times. This may change in time and some of his earlier models have been catching up to or have, in a few cases surpassed some of the Turin instruments. Guadagnini's violins and his several violas of good size, will almost certainly see some world records in the coming years.
Other makers' work, in particular their cellos and violas, due to their scarcity, and when of exceptional quality, also attract over a million dollars. In this price category are the violins, violas and cellos of most of the Guarneris and the grand pattern Amatis. Somewhere in this category are now also the finer works of Micheleangelo Bergonzi, the son of Carlo and the extremely rare violas and cellos, by his nephew, Nicola.
Cellos by Domenico Montagnana, Matteo Goffriller, Francesco Ruggeri, the two Rogeris, David Teccher, and Carlo Tononi can also easily break the million dollar barrier. More occasionally, the fine and rare cellos by the first two generations of the Gaglianos, the very finest of which are amongst the fastest rising in the market, have also recently joined the elite group.
The cellos of Montagnana, Goffriller, Tononi, Tecchler and his pupil, Michael Platner can command well over triple the prices of their violins. While Montagnana's and Goffriller's violins are not usually valued as highly as most by Guadganini, they may, on occasion, qualify as fine solo instruments. Most of their cellos, however, in particular those by Montagnana, are of supreme quality and have been played by the greatest artists who have often preferred their lush, powerful tone to even those by Stradivari; Montagnana's best cellos may therefore command prices that begin to approach or, in some cases surpass some by Stradivari.
Violas are in a world of their own and some of the makers cited above either never made them, or made them exceptionally rarely. However, those that do exist, when of desirable size, can achieve disproportionately high prices relative to their violin counterparts, in particular those of the greatest Brescian and Cremonese schools of the late 16th and 17th centuries, as well as those by Goffriller - not to mention the few of Stradivari, should they ever come on the market.
The instruments of the Amatis are particularly difficult to value. Those by the patriarch, Andrea, are too few and mostly permanently held in public and private collections. The sons of Andrea, Antonio & Girolamo made instruments for about 40 years though for the most part, they are the work of Girolamo. They are rare, often in compromised condition and of small size, and are therefore moderate in price. However, should a fine grand pattern example, or their viola in relatively pure condition hit the market, its value would be comparable to that of instruments by Girolamo's great son, Nicolo, whose best and largest violins are valued in the millions. The work of Nicolo's son, Girolamo II, is only now becoming highly regarded, as connoisseurs begin to recognise and admire his hand in some of the greatest late instruments of his father. This contemporary of Antonio Stradivari, sadly made few instruments following his father's death, yet some of his largest grand pattern violins and his cellos are very similar in quality to the very finest works of his father.
Genuine instruments by the best makers, whether classical or more modern, provided they are in fine condition, make excellent, low risk, long term investments, while in many cases, they also serve as players' best friends, and are often also used for publicity and promotion. Other, more easily found works, either in less fresh condition or of lesser pedigree, fall into a category whose investment potential depends on many objective and subjective factors, not the least of which is playability. Such instruments, given time, are also bound to appreciate, albeit at lower rates than the few highly sought - after names hunted down consistently by institutions and wealthy investors. The extreme fluctuation in price between the finest examples and 'basement bargains' are also common with lesser instruments, but generally the price difference between something good to very good and superb, may be at least double for instruments and bows of any price category.