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

Interview

Friday, April 11, 2014

Violinist Ilya Kaler participating in the study at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris, in 2012 Violinist Ilya Kaler participating in the study at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris, in 2012 (Stefan Avalos)

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

Guests:

Samuel Zygmuntowicz

Produced by:

Matt Frassica

Comments [4]

Cervantes

nothing proven or disproven. it's a limited study that isolates one aspect of a sonic dynamic. doubtless,it could very well have validity;but to close the door and say nuff said,would be beyond asinine.

Apr. 15 2014 02:54 PM
Arthur Romano from 07607

I must say that tonight's 'Studio' was one of the best I've had the opportunity to listen to. All the guests and commentary were so interesting.
Thanks.

Apr. 14 2014 09:02 PM
Martin from Hoboken, NJ

As a professional violist, I can say that the issue of tone and playability is fairly complex - with some aspects more subjective and others more "objective". How an instrument "works" for a player is a very personal matter: how the bow (bows are another topic!) interacts with the string, the whole kinetic feel of the body and the instrument. Too, the sound of the instrument under the performer's ear is different from what the audience hears. "Blind" audience tests of sound quality lie in the more "objective" realm but are not foolproof. Psychoacoustical studies have shown that, in a large space, merely increasing the volume makes a sound more attractive to most listeners. Also, taste in stringed instrument tone has changed over time: louder and brighter seems to be winning out in recent decades, which would bode well for the robust instruments being created by the present generation of talented makers. And I have high respect for those fine artisans. In many cases we might be better off labeling sounds "different" rather than "better" or "worse". Each instrument, old or new, has its own distinct character. Nevertheless, I still prefer the tone of the best 18th c. Italian violins and 'cellos over the finest new instruments I've heard. For violas, and basses, I'm less convinced - because these instruments have never been as standardized in size or form, which has created a more fertile field for experimentation by makers over the last hundred years or so.

Apr. 14 2014 11:26 AM
Milos from Brooklyn, NY

This phenomenon reminds me of a recent study showing that wine experts were unable to distinguish between $15 bottles of wine and ones that cost hundreds of dollars. The placebo effect is alive and well everywhere in human life: as our expectations go, so goes our subjective experience of a thing.

Apr. 13 2014 11:19 AM

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