There’s no denying violins can be incredibly expensive.
Even as musical professionals, it’s often difficult to find instruments that fit our budget! However, there’s no denying that the quality and pedigree of a violin can really make a difference.
What makes a good violin? Each individual is different, and everyone will like different qualities in an instrument.
But in short, the best description that I would agree with is that the best violins allow you to ‘express yourself adequately’, and that ‘does what you tell it.’
Many people think that the Stradivarius violins are the best in the world in terms of overall craftsmanship.
But is this really the case? Let’s take a look into some of the most expensive (and high-quality) violins and see whether this point holds up.
(But ok, yes- Stradivarius violins are some of the best in the world. It’s one of my life’s ultimate goals to be able to play one some day!)
What are Stradivarius violins? They were made by Antonio Stradivari(1644-1737), who is probably the most famous luthier (someone who makes violins) in history. Around 500 of his violins survive, each worth millions of dollars!
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous Stradivarius violins!
The Molitor Stradivari
This instrument was made in 1797, the beginning of his “Golden Period” where Stradivari began to make certain refinements to the instruments.
This included shortening the instrument slightly to refine the sound quality – and the resulting size is what it still is today!
The Molitor has been owned by a few obscure figures in history such as Napoleon Bonaparte, a wealthy socialite called Juliette Récamier, and American violinist Elmar Oliviera.
It’s now under the stewardship of American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who bought it at an auction in 2010 for $3.6 million!
I took a listen to her playing it and found it to be incredibly sweet in tone, yet really full too – no wonder composers have written specifically for this instrument!
The ex-Ries Stradivari
The Ex-Ries Stradivari has slightly earlier origins and was made in 1693.
It now belongs to Hungarian musician Jozsef Lendvay, who purchased it for a trifling sum of $3.5 million.
Because this is an earlier model, it’s not seen to be quite the same level of quality as his later instruments, but that is essentially a moot point (because who wouldn’t want a Stradivarius??)
The ex-Szigeti Stradivari
The Ex-Szigeti Stradivari is a much later model, dating from 1724 – and it sold for a whopping price of 3.4 million pounds!
It is also known as the ‘Ludwig’, though we don’t know exactly why. It currently has a home in Germany, and is loaned to musicians there.
The Dolphin Stradivari
The Dolphin is really an excellent example of Stradivari’s mastery of violin making.
Crafted in 1714, it has been owned by famous violinists Jascha Heifetz and Ray Chen. It possesses a beautiful, shimmery color and a so-called “striking appearance.” No wonder it was nicknamed the Dolphin!
Currently, it’s owned by the Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanei. With a violin as beautiful as this, you have to be very particular with the maintenance – even down to the cloth you use to clean it!
There’s no place for kitchen cloths like music students might use (I know I used to be guilty of that one…).
The La Pucelle Stradivari
This violin is the same price as the ex-Szigeti Stradivari; an insane 3.4 millions pounds!
It was built in 1709, right in the middle of Stradivari’s golden period. La Pucelle is pretty special as it has an ornate tailpiece, which wasn’t actually created by its namesake.
Later on in the 19th century, a French dealer Jean Baptiste Vuilliame heard the violin and said it was “comme un pucelle” – or, in English, sweet and pure ‘like a virgin.’ He took it apart and added the tailpiece and the name.
The Lady Blunt Stradivari
Noted for its perfect condition despite its age, the Lady Blunt was built in 1729. It has been described as ‘the best preserved Stradivarius’ as it’s hardly ever been used, except once by famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1971.
Mostly, it’s been in the hands of collectors or museums, and we don’t actually know who owns it at the moment!
The violin is named after Lady Anne Blunt (daughter of Lord Byron) who held it for over 30 years. The violin was in such excellent condition that it sold for 11.6 million pounds at its last auction – over four times the Molitor Stradivarius sold earlier that year.
This makes it certainly the most valuable violin in the world. It is also one of the few violins to retain its original neck.
1734 ‘Hercules’ Stradivarius
Just like the Greek legend, the Hercules has an interesting story.
It was stolen from famous violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe while he was playing a concert, as this violin was his backup!
It was in poorer condition than some of the other Stradivari’s, and Ysaÿe preferred his 1740 Guarnerius violin because ‘it was very much less fatiguing to play and also because he found that it was more responsive, in most conditions, to his temperament.’
This violin is now in the possession of the Jerusalem orchestra, where it is given to the concertmaster to play. That’s enough to make any budding orchestral violinist jealous!
1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius
In an attempt to one-up the Hercules, this particular violin wasn’t stolen just once – but twice!
It was first sticky-fingered when it was owned by famous Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, but thankfully it was eventually returned.
On the 28th of February 1936, musician Julian Altman snuck into Huberman’s backstage room while he was performing and stole it while Huberman was performing on another violin, a Guarnerius of 1931.
Unfortunately, Huberman never saw the instrument again, and it was not found until Altman’s death in 1985 where on his deathbed he confessed to his wife that he had sold it to a friend for a mere $100.
Can you believe it? Currently, it’s owned by celebrated violinist Joshua Bell, who bought it for four million dollars. It’s now believed to be worth over $14 million!
The Lipinski Stradivarius
The Lipinski was made in 1715 and is considered one of Stradivari’s finest instruments.
It has a very interesting history – named after Karol Lipinski, Polish violinist and teacher of the early 19th century, he gave it to one of his students whose previous violin he smashed against the table into pieces!
It has since passed through various owners, the current one being Frank Almond: concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
In 2014, the poor concertmaster was tasered while walking along the street and the bow, violin, case, and other accessories were all stolen. Thankfully the police intervened, arrested the suspects, and the violin was successfully returned.
A huge relief, of course – given the violin’s worth over $5 million! I took a listen to this one and was just blown away by the beauty and purity of the sound. I’m sure you’ll agree with me!
The Alard Stradivarius
This violin, built in 1715, is now in a collection in Singapore. It sold in 1981 for $1.2 million (which was a LOT of money back then) and a copy of it was made, which is now played by famous American violinist Hilary Hahn.
The violin gets its name from one of its owners, French violinist Jean-Delphin Alard, and is one of the few remaining instruments with its original neck. The Alard has been described as the “finest of the fine” and even “nec plus ultra” (nothing further beyond).
The Baron Knoop
This Stradivarius was made in 1698, which makes it an earlier model. It gets its name from one of its owners, Baron Johann Knoop, and nowadays is owned by David Fulton (who was already mentioned above!).
He has said that the Baron Knoop is the ‘absolute favorite’ of the violins that he’s owned, and describes the tone as ‘warm, sunny, happy’.
The Cipriani Potter
This is probably one of the most interesting Stradivari violins around. It is the earliest of our Strad examples here, hailing from 1683!
What makes it fascinating is both its size and its ornate design; it has beautiful carvings along the sides of the instrument and on the edges too that look like grapevines.
It’s really quite a sight to look at – so beautiful in fact, that many luthiers have made copies of this instrument.
Scholars would now call it a ‘⅞’ size violin, because it is slightly smaller than what a violin would regularly be today.
Like most of these violins, it gets its name from one of its owners: famous violinist and composer Cipriani Potter.
The Lord Wilton Guarneri del Gesù
Now, let’s take a look at some violins that weren’t made by Stradivarius!
This violin was made by another famous luthier and his family, the Guarneri’s. However, ‘del Gesù’ was a particularly noted luthier, who tragically died at only 46 years old.
This one, built in 1742, was sold for $6 million pounds, so they are still incredibly valuable to today’s audience. In fact, some people prefer them!
It was named after Lord Wilton, who owned the violin in the 19th century but who was by no means a professional!
Its present owner David Fulton has called it ‘the Apollo of the violin’ in describing just how powerful and rich the sound is, and also how easy it is to play. It is also sometimes referred to as the ‘ex-Yehudi Menuhin’, who played the violin for over 10 years.
The ex-Carrodus Guarneri del Gesù
This violin was made during Guarneri’s ‘most creative and imaginative’ period in 1743. It is now owned by Australian violinist Richard Tognetti, who is the artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Listen to any recording and you’ll be able to hear the sheer power of the instrument, especially in its lower register. It’s something every violinist dreams of playing!
Guarneri, by this point in his life, both stuck to the original traditions of violin making and also was creative and imaginative to the extreme – making the body slightly bigger, the scroll wider, and f-holes extended out like wings to make the sound richer and more potent.
The ex-Kochanski Guarneri del Gesù
This violin was also made in Guarneri’s last period – around 1741 or so. It has been discovered that this violin was made with wood from the same tree as another of his instruments (the ‘Vieuxtemps’, not listed here today).
It’s named after violinist Kochanski, mentioned earlier, and was also played by Aaron Rosand – who sold it in 2009 to a Russian anonymous owner for about $10 million!
This is around the same as the Lady Blunt Stradivarius mentioned before. Rosand was quite emotional at its selling, saying ‘I just felt like I left part of my body behind – it was my voice, my career.’
1703 Guarneri ‘Filius Andreae’ Cremona
Now, onto a final violin maker: this one comes from the same family as del Gesù – ‘Filius Andreae’ was his name.
He lived some years beforehand, and his level of craftsmanship was not considered to be quite the same level as his successor.
However, this violin is still an excellent instrument due to it being over 300 years old and was once owned by Joseph Jochim, who then gave the instrument to Felix Schumann – the youngest child of famous composer-pianist duet Robert and Clara Schumann. It has quite the pedigree, indeed.
The Bottom Line
These violins are all of exceptional quality; they’re truly the finest in the world!
At the end of the day, most of us will never be able to afford these priceless instruments. However, it doesn’t matter what instrument we play at the end of the day, or how costly it turns out to be.
As long as we feel it can express the composer’s intentions or what we’re trying to say properly, then that’s all that we can ask for.
What makes a good violin?
The Molitor Stradivarius