Stradivarius violins: why are they so special and expensive?
How many Stradivarius violins are there, how much do they cost and why? What’s so special about them?
When you learn something about violins, you probably came across the name Stradivarius and know that they are very special. In this article I answer the questions I get most from my students about Stradivarius violins.
What is a Stradivarius violin and who was Stradivarius?
A Stradivarius violin is one that was made by Antonio Stradivari, who was an Italian luthier (violin-maker) who lived from 1644 to 1737.
Historians hypothesize that Stradivari began his violin-making career when he was around 12 years old, studying with another famous luthier, Nicola Amati, although there is some debate around this topic because of differences in their craftsmanship. Stradivari’s violins lack a small dorsal pin (a small hole just underneath the arching), a common characteristic of Amati’s violins and all of his well-known pupil’s instruments as well. Compared to Amati’s, Stradivari’s violins also have stronger builds, less rounded curves, and the purfling is set farther in. If Stradivari did not study with Amati, he most likely was a student of Francesco Rugeri, another well-known luthier of the time.
Stradivari most likely produced his first decent instrument in 1660 at the ripe old age of 16! He quickly gained notoriety as a high-quality luthier, which allowed him to take a more experimental approach to violin making. Stradivari is credited with several design innovations and refinements that helped bring the violin into its modern form. These include: creating the modern form of the violin bridge, deepening the color of the varnish, and setting the proportions of the modern violin, with a shallower body that creates a more powerful sound than those that came before him.
Stradivari’s ‘Golden period’
The period of 1700-1725 is known as Stradivari’s “Golden Period”, in which he created his highest caliber of instruments. This is of course due to his increased experience with violin making, but his notoriety, which brought him financial gain and therefore helped him purchase higher quality materials, such as better wood and varnish, also played a part. Instruments produced during Stradivari’s Golden Period are the most sought-after and most expensive of his violins. The instruments made after this period show signs of his advancing age; they are less beautiful, heavier, and the craftsmanship wasn’t as refined (although the sound is still incredible!)
What’s the difference between Stradivarius and Guarneri violins?
You may have heard of violins made by Giuseppe Guarnerius, commonly called Guarneri’s. Stradivari and Guarnerius were contemporaries who both made superior quality violins, that differ in a few ways.
Stradivari is known to have executed his violins with excellent physical elements. His violins are perfectly symmetrical, and every curve was executed flawlessly.
Guarneri violins are also finely crafted, but not in the classical sense of symmetry and excellently finished details. Guarneri violins are often lopsided! Many of his violins have one shoulder that is a bit higher, the f-holes are not aligned, and neither are the two sides of the scroll.
Can you see the difference between a Stradivarius and a Guarneri?
Guarneri violins have slightly narrower and longer F-holes, a more refined scroll and typically have a slightly rounder and wider lower bout than that of Stradivarius violins. That means that the soundbox is more curved in Guarneri violins.
Stradivarius and Guarneri violins also significantly differ in sound
Guarneri’s tend to have a richer, warmer sound than Strads, and tend to be stronger and louder. Stradivarius violins sound more bright and crisp.
Players that prefer a darker, silkier tone are more likely to gravitate to the Guarneris, and players who prefer precision and refinement tend to prefer a Stradivarius.
Some well-known players who play (or played) on Guarneri’s include: Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, Eugene Ysaye, and Sarah Chang. See below for the Strad players.
How old are Stradivarius violins?
All Stradivarius violins are around 300 years old. The earliest surviving Strad is ex-Sachs Stradivarius made in 1666, making it 356 years old today (in 2022). The latest surviving Strad is the Paganini-Ladenburg Stradivarius made in 1736, making it 268 years old today (in 2022).
How many violins did Mr. Stradivari make?
Historians estimate that Stradivarius made a total of 1,116 instruments throughout his career, 960 of which were violins.
How many Stradivarius violins exist today?
Although we believe that Stradivari created 960 violins, only 650 remain today, most of which are in the hands of private collectors. There are also about 55 cellos and 12 violas made by Stradivari that still exist today.
How much is a Stradivarius worth?
Stradivarius violins sell for millions of dollars. Yes, millions with an S! The most recent sale of a Stradivarius happened just a few days ago on June 9, 2022. The auction house Tarisio sold a 308-year-old Stradivarius (made in his Golden Period) that once belonged to Toscha Seidel, a student of Leopold Auer. The instrument sold for 15.34 million dollars. This is the second-highest amount ever paid for a Stradivarius, with the highest being 15.9 million dollars paid for the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius in 2011.
Why are Stradivarius violins so expensive?
There are four main reasons why Stradivarius violins are so expensive.
Supply and demand. There are a finite number of Stradivarius violins left and no more can be made. Simple economics tells us that when the demand outweighs the supply, the value increases.
The quality. As we previously discovered, musicians believe that Stradivarius violins are the highest quality instruments available to the public.
The condition and history of the instrument. Any Stradivarius violin that exists today is around 300 years old, making it a significant historical artifact. The better the condition, the higher the price.
Stradivarius violins are a status symbol. Since they are so rare and expensive, owning a Stradivarius is definitely a status symbol. They are also a great investment as they will never decrease in value.
How can I tell if a violin is a real Stradivarius?
How can you spot a Strad and know if you happen to have one in your attic?
Nowadays, there is certainly no shortage of violins bearing the name “Stradivarius”. It is very common for makers to model their violins after Stradivari in hopes of boosting their sales!
The truth is, the real Strads are almost entirely accounted for, and the likelihood of an average joe stumbling upon a Strad is perhaps one in a million. This is not to say it’s impossible, just extremely unlikely.
The only way to tell for sure if a violin is a real Stradivarius is to have it examined by a high-quality luthier, however here are some common characteristics of a real Strad label. For the date, Stradivari only printed the first digit “1” and the last 3 digits were handwritten. Towards the end of his life, he would also mention his age, writing things such as “I made it in my 89th year”, written in German. If your violin label does not have these characteristics, it is definitely not a Strad!
Who owns a Stradivarius violin?
The majority of Stradivarius violins belong to either museums or private collectors, who often loan the instruments to well-known violin soloists.
Below are some famous violinists who play on Strads:
- Anne Sophie Mutter actually alternates between two Stradivari: the Emiliana (1703) and the Lord Dunn Raven (1710).
- Itzhak Perlman owns the Soil Stradivarius (1714), formerly owned by Yehudi Menuhin.
- Joshua Bell owns the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius (1713).
- Leonidas Kavakos owns the Willemotte Stradivarius (1734).
- The Oistrakh Stradivarius (1671) was owned by David Oistrakh, but now resides in the Glinka Museum in Moscow.
- The Ex-Marsick Stradivarius (1715) is owned by the Fulton Collection, but it is on loan to James Ehnes. This instrument was previously owned by David Oistrakh.
- Maxim Vengerov owns the Kreutzer Stradivarius (1727).
- The ex Adolf Busch (1716) is owned by David Garrett. He also sometimes plays on the San Lorenzo Strad (1718) which is owned by Georg Talbott.
What makes a Stradivarius violin so special?
Many musicians consider Stradivarius violins to be musically superior to any new instruments. Stradivarius violins obviously hold a lot of historical value, but they also have a brilliant sound, depth, and character unlike any instruments created since. But how is it possible that, despite our many technological advances, we cannot create violins that sound better than the ones created in the 17th and 18th centuries?
Scientists are still searching for the reason why Stradivarius violins are so special. An early hypothesis was that Stradivari added something into his unique varnish, but it has since been chemically tested and nothing unusual about his varnish was revealed. Scientists hypothesize that the Little Ice Age (1300-1850) may have been a factor since it would have caused the wood Stradivari used to grow more slowly, and thus be denser, creating a unique sound. They have also found that the wood Stradivari used was treated with various chemicals, such as aluminum, calcium, and copper, which may alter its acoustic properties.
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Do Stradivarius violins really sound better?
Yes and no. There is no doubt that Stradivarius violins are of extremely high quality and fine craftsmanship. They are easy to play, project well, have a sweet sound, and allow the player to create an extremely wide range of different sound colors. With that being said, Stradivarius violins are most often played by some of the most well-known and highly regarded violin players in the world. This begs the question: is it the instrument or the player?
Until recently, Strads have been thought of as the epitome of violins. There have never been and never will be instruments that compare. However, in 2012, a study was done by the research group of Claudia Fritz, CNRS researcher at the Institut Jean Le Rond d’Alembert which may contradict this long-held belief. Violinists played several different instruments, including those made by Stradivari alongside newer instruments. This study showed that violinists preferred newer instruments to famous Italian violins and were actually unable to distinguish between the two.