An Instrument’s True Value

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Instrument's True ValueWhat makes certain musical instruments valuable? How is that value properly calculated? And is there any correlation between a historic musical instrument’s value and the quality of the music it creates?

Commanding Millions. Stradivarius violins, for example, command millions of dollars at auction; the “Lady Blunt” Strad sold for $15.9 million several years ago. Because only approximately 600 of luthier Antonio Stradivari’s string instruments exist from the early 1700s, their scarcity boosts prices. It’s simple economics.

Since Strads are so prized, they are often purchased as investments. Wealthy patrons also buy them to loan to accomplished musicians. In April 2014, eight Stradivarius violins came together at “Strad Fest L.A.” organized by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. One reviewer praised these historic musical instruments for their “warm, honeyed and substantial sound.” Later, after naming the musicians participating in this landmark evening, he noted, “the real stars were the violins.”

Fooling the Ears. But if that reviewer had closed his eyes, his ears might have opened his mind to a new perspective. A recent study found that much of a Strad’s musical value exists only in the consciousness of the musician. For this research, ten world-class violinists played a variety of instruments – including million-dollar Strads – in dim light while wearing dark glasses to obscure historic instrument details. These violinists overwhelmingly preferred the feel and sound of newer, less expensive instruments – most valued at 1/100th of the cost!

Rising to the Occasion. In a similar manner, seemingly nondescript violins received attention last week in Berlin at a concert marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, these instruments earned their notoriety not from their origins in the workshop of a legendary luthier, but by surviving the terrible crucible of World War II. These instruments – 16 violins and one cello – had once belonged to Holocaust victims and survivors.

As with the Strad Fest L.A., historic musical instruments again grabbed the spotlight. A reviewer claimed they “were hardly up to the quality of the Berlin Philharmonic’s usual instruments; yet the players did much more than rise to the occasion.” Spectators were also inspired: “…the audience in the jam-packed hall stayed riveted until the very end, and the applause matched the music and its intensity.”

Inspiring Performance. How can a spendy Stradivarius play second fiddle to a contemporary creation or Holocaust hand-me-down? We think the musician’s passion will trump the instrument’s price tag every time. Remember, “instrument” is also defined as “a means whereby something is achieved, performed or furthered.” Without the skill and emotion of a musician to enliven it, any instrument – and especially a violin – is only a hollow shell.

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