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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why the fate of music hinges on a $20 million violin

By Norman Lebrecht / October 22, 2008

The best violin in London has been put up for sale in Chicago, a worrying sign of straitened times. The fiddle, a 1741 Guarnerius del Gesu, has a pedigree to die for. It was, for 11 years, the working instrument of the great Belgian virtuoso, Henri Vieuxtemps, passing on his death in 1881 to an even more celebrated soloist, Eugene Ysaye.

Since 1966 it has been owned and played by a London merchant banker, Ian Stoutzker who, in his teens, was a pupil of Albert Sammons at the Royal College of Music. Stoutzker treasured his Guarnerius dearly. He once took me upstairs in his Belgravia mansion and showed me where he kept it, underneath his bed, ready to be played first thing in the morning or during a sleepless night.

But these are unsettled times and Stoutzker, 79, is making cautious disposals. In July he and his wife, Mercedes, sold a 1967 Francis Bacon portrait at Sotheby’s for $27.4 million, having bought it some weeks after it was painted for a few thousand pounds. He wants $20million for the Guarnerius, which would be twice as much as the highest sum ever paid for a musical instrument. But Stoutzker may be onto something since no violin has ever been known to lose value and big money, with nowhere safe to invest in banks and shares, is rushing into collectables and art.

In depression and recession, music tends to be more resilient than other sectors. Musicians, mostly world travellers, can usually find a pocket of prosperity that will pay their fees until the worst blows over. If their savings are depleted, there is more than one way to make a musical living, as many found in 1929.

The pianist Artur Schnabel, his share holdings suddenly worthless, lifted his firm ban on making records and signed with EMI to play the 32 Beethoven sonatas. Jascha Heifetz, another crash victim, put his spare income into buying rare first editions of English literature, which he could barely read. Igor Stravinsky composed a simple Capriccio for piano and orchestra that he could play himself as soloist, earning two cheques every time he took it on tour. Sergei Rachmaninov bought property in Switzerland.

No leading musician was forced to sell an instrument to survive. On the contrary, it became a mark of machismo for musicians to boast of their ability to withstand hard times. The pianist Arthur Rubinstein once invited Stravinsky and Rachmaninov to dinner in Hollywood, not realising that the two Russian exiles loathed each other. Only when someone asked how much money each had lost in the Revolution of 1917 and the crash of ’29, did the conversation warm into friendship as each bragged of his ingenuity in avoiding financial disaster.

Orchestras, too, flourish in depression. London went from one symphony orchestra to three in the post-crash period of 1930-32 and from three to five in the austerity years of 1945-57. In the US, working musicians found comfort in bands and new lines of work in Hollywood studios. No matter how tight the money got, the public demand for music shows an exponential increase whenever financial confidence fails.

In the oil crisis of 1974 and the recessions of 1981 and 1992 no musical organisation went bust, no concert hall closed and no star performers went on the dole. For musicians it was business as usual, and for some a bit better than usual. With currencies shaky, several wealthy men invested in pedigree violins, which they generously loaned out to young performers who could never have hoped of such bounty in normal circumstances. It was around this time that the philanthropist Stoutzker, with his friend Yehudi Menuhin, set up Live Music Now to bring the joys of real performance to deprived young people.

Now, however, the prospect is darker. Over the past generation, musical bodies have relied heavily for sponsorship on banks and financial services. Scotland’s two troubled banks support the national orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival. The Royal Opera House receives money from Coutts, the private banking arm of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The London Symphony Orchestra is underpinned by UBS, the Swiss finance house, the New York Philharmonic by Credit Suisse.

With banks making losses and coming under tighter regulation, future sponsorship is in doubt. 'The climate is expected to remain quite dire,' concludes a UK survey by Arts & Business. Many orchestras and opera houses will face a shortfall next year and their remedy will be to rein in artistic ambition, giving fewer new productions and less daring repertoire. Still, art abhors a vacuum and bold work may well gravitate to smaller forms – to chamber opera and solo recitals.

There will be enough work for good musicians but there will also be a threat to the availability of instruments. Much hinges, in fact, on the fate of the Stoutzker fiddle.

Most of what you read about violin prices is myth and nonsense. A Moscow lawyer Maxim Viktorov supposedly paid a ‘world record’ $3.9 million in February this year for a so-called Vieuxtemps Guarnerius, which experts insist is not the Vieuxtemps, nor in prime condition, nor played by Vieuxtemps for more than a few minutes.

The real value of top violins is set in private treaties. My sources tell me that one benchmark Stradivarius was sold to a California businessman last year for eight million dollars, another to a Russian foundation this year for the same amount. The immaculate ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius, named after a grand-daughter of Lord Byron, set the current record when sold for $10 million to the Nippon Music Foundation, which loans violins to such talents as Lisa Batiashvili, Nikolay Znaider and the Tokyo String Quartet. In 1971, the same Lady Blunt sold at Sothebys for just $200,000, illustrating just how attractive instruments are as an investment.

The Stoutzker fiddle is on the market to attract a different kind of investor. Chicago dealer Geoff Fushi has contacts with Russian oligarchs and with the Chinese president Zhang Zemin who has visited his premises. If it reaches the asking price, instrument costs will double overnight, whether for the ream of Cremona or for the kind of violins that young artists need to start out. That would be a disaster for music the world over. There will be plenty of work for musicians in the recession to come but whether they have something to play on depends upon a commodity price that could be about to explode.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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