can't touch this

Big investors are hoarding string instruments at the expense of musicians

August 21, 2014
August 21, 2014

The “Macdonald” viola is one of only 10 Stradivarius violas in existence, and one of only two violas crafted by the famed luthier Antonio Stradivari during his “golden period” of production. The 18th-century instrument would be highly coveted by any collector attempting to complete an all-Strad string quartet.

This, according to the auctioneers trying to sell it, should make it the most valuable musical instrument in history. But this summer, the offers received by Sotheby’s and Ingles & Hayday failed to meet the viola’s $45-million reserve price.

Perhaps because $45 million is a tall ask. It’s roughly triple the sum paid for the standing record-setting instrument, a Stradivarius violin sold in 2011 for $15.9 million (and that price was four times the previous auction record for a Strad). One instrument auctioneer told Businessweek that the Macdonald’s “quantum-leap” pricing was out of step with the violin market, which favors slow, steady growth. (The average price of a Stradivarius has risen by nearly 11% annually over the past decade, according to one London instrument dealer.)

There are some doubts about the superior sound quality of Strads: In blind tests, accomplished violinists didn’t shown a preference for Strad violins over high-quality new ones. For their part, Sotheby’s and Ingles & Hayday are holding out for higher offers.

Their optimism may have something to do with the waves of prosperity hitting big auction houses of late. Alternative investments such as art, wine and classic cars have shot through the roof as the global economy has teetered. That has left investors scrambling to park chunks of cash in more unusual places. Instrument dealers, meanwhile, have talked a big game about, for instance, the 40 million violinists in China who will eventually drive up the asset’s price.

Meanwhile, musicians are losing out. Prices for fine instruments are now out of reach for even the most successful concert artists. As such, many resort to courting wealthy benefactors and foundations who grant them access to fine instruments in return for private concerts and added cachet. String players are especially vulnerable because supply is low; unlike pianos, brass and wind instruments, what are considered the best string instruments are hundreds of years old. The lucky few who do own their fiddles, says one dealer, often end up hawking them to fund their retirement.

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