Preserving the Legacy of the Luthiers
NEW YORK—Thinking about investing in a Stradivarius or a Guarneri del Gesù? Well, sound is the very last thing you should consider.
When determining the value of a violin, it comes down to the maker of the instrument and the condition it is in, according to Bruno Price and Ziv Arazi, co-founders of Rare Violins of New York.
These considerations determine value because every instrument is distinct— the best ones even more so—and the most valuable and valued instruments require a certain level of skill and finesse to play, on top of a compatible playing personality.
Since Italian luthiers Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri (also known as “del Gesù”) crafted their instruments in the early 1700s, makers have looked to their genius and players have consistently coveted their wares.
Even today, a person with no interest in violins probably has some idea that a Stradivarius must be exceptional somehow—and probably worth a lot.
“This is where the stupidly expensive ones are,” Price said, pointing to a top shelf housing several violins.
“And here is where we have the unbelievably expensive ones,” he said, gesturing to the next row down. “And this [next row] is where the ridiculously expensive ones are, and so on and so forth, until we get to the bottom row here, where we have the ones that still no musician could afford.” Today, an entry-level investment instrument costs at least $100,000.
Price and Arazi opened Rare Violins 15 years ago, after both had been in the business for several years prior. In addition to private sales of violins, violas, cellos, and bows, the shop offers appraisals and restoration.
One of the biggest changes in the violin world in the last few decades has been demand, and thus price. Musicians used to be able to afford rare violins, instruments made by the old Italian masters. Today, prices run in the millions and can usually only be afforded by a musician with the help of a sponsor or a foundation.
But Price and Arazi are still in constant communication with musicians, whether it is because the musicians are in need of an instrument, repair work, or instrument advice.
The pair consider themselves matchmakers and custodians, working to find the best instrument for each individual—an instrument that will foster growth—and keeping the great instruments of the past and present in the best condition possible.
“We’re problem-solvers, really,” Price said. They also strive to strip away the mystery surrounding these instruments.
Both former professional musicians—Price a cellist and Arazi a violinist—they combine their knowledge of how sound is produced with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of stringed instruments, which allows them to recognize the value of an instrument just by looking.
“What we look at is how things work, why they work. Many problems that so many musicians have are not always technical or physical; sometimes it’s inherent to the instrument,” Price said. After all, the physical difference between two violins millions of dollars apart in value, with sounds as different as day and night, is mere millimeters.
Coveted by Performers
There is a violin joke that goes, after a performance, a woman once told Jascha Heifetz how great his violin sounded. So he took the violin out of its case, held the instrument up to his ear, and said, “Funny—I don’t hear anything!”
Now, while it’s not the first consideration, the sound of a valuable violin is, of course, still important. They are musical instruments, after all.
When musicians come looking for a better instrument, what they’re looking for is a powerful sound with a lot of character. Musicians often speak of tone “colors,” referring to how wide a range of nuances or textures or characteristics—essentially, differences—they can get from an instrument. Discovering these colors in an instrument can be a challenge, pushing players to become more aware of how they play and enabling growth as a musician.
No two instruments are the same, and the same instrument in two musicians’ hands can sound like entirely different instruments, as demonstrated by two cellists visiting Price and Arazi’s shop in early January. Give them different bows, and again the instrument will sound completely different.
It’s almost shocking, when one considers that these versatile and resilient instruments have changed by only millimeters in the last five centuries.
The violin, viola, and cello were invented by Andrea Amati in the 16th century and improved upon by his family over the following generations. Minor improvements have been made over the centuries, but luthiers—makers of stringed instruments—have yet to come up with a more perfect design.
“At the very, very top, you’ve got Stradivari and Guarneri. No instruments that compare to those are made after 1750, simple. And there’s a finite number of those. Those are still the two makers that the violinists want,” Price said.
“Nobody can afford them, so it goes to the next level, of makers who were really good and occasionally made one that might compete,” he said. “Bergonzi, Guadagnini—those used to be poor men’s Strads, in the good old days, but even those are not affordable anymore.”
By the late 1700s, luthiers started looking back at the old Italian masters (who mainly worked in the northern city of Cremona) and we can see their influences, Price said. But in a way, the instruments lost a bit of character because the starting point was no longer the maker’s own expression. By the mid-19th century, most makers were just flat out copying this or that Stradivarius or Guarneri model, but on different woods.
“There are many instruments made [since then] that were not very good. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they have any value,” Price said.
Demand is what drives value.
The best violinists in the world have for centuries preferred an instrument made by Stradivari or Guarneri, and they will tell you how much character each one of these individual instruments has. They are like no other violins, and even each instrument made by the same maker has different personalities, as if they were people.
And over the years, these violins take on the character of the violinist—we nickname the instruments after the legends who played them. For example, Il Cannone Guarnerius of 1743, named by the Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, is now often referred to as the ex-Paganini. It’s kept at the Genoa, Italy, town hall and often lent to acclaimed musicians for certain performances.
But supply is limited. Fewer than 200 Guarnerius instruments and 700 Stradivarius survive.
A Design That Lasts
Upstairs at Rare Violins, there is a workshop for restoration and repairs, where the philosophy is to be as conservative as possible. “Basically, to never do anything you can’t undo, and never touch the work a maker has done,” Price said.
“There are many shops who feel that the only thing that’s important is to make the player happy, and they may overlook the most important detail of preserving the instruments for the next generation,” he said.
“If we don’t look after them, they’re not going to be around [for] the next generation.”
The shop employs four restorers and one bow-maker, and Price is keen to invite a talented restorer from China. “It’s difficult to get people with the right sort of thinking, because you need incredible patience as well as hand skill and judgment,” Price said.
His hope is that if this restorer agrees to come, it could influence the approach to repairs in China, a country which has in recent years shown tremendous interest in classical music and rare instruments, along with a worrying approach to instrument-making and repairing. “‘Oh, it’s got cracks in the top half of the instrument, so they’ll just replace the top!’ It doesn’t work that way. It’s staggering, these sorts of things,” Price said.
He’s seen instruments go through floods and extreme heat and cold—cringe-worthy and anger-inducing damage—but still come out playable.
“The funny thing is, the reason these instruments are around today is because they’re such a brilliant design,” Price said. With a very conservative approach, a restorer can fix up an instrument without losing its characteristics.
In early January, restorer Tatsuo Imaishi was working on a violin that had been dropped—its front face was split completely in half.
The crack—from one end of the instrument to the other—has probably lowered the value by 10 or 15 percent, Price said. But after the repairs, the instrument may actually sound better, just because Imaishi has more carefully put the instrument back into its ideal shape and made sure everything is in the right place. So sound doesn’t matter, Price reiterated.
But as they started on repairs, they noticed repair work done to the back of the instrument that the client probably hadn’t known about—the sort of work that would halve the value of the instrument right off the bat, Price added.
The biggest change in the business over the last two or three decades has been in the amount of information uncovered, Arazi said.
“It’s great, but there’s also much more to sift through,” Arazi said. “Information both accurate and inaccurate is so readily available.”
Information is shared from all over the world. Serious buyers all come educated, whereas before they had to rely on the word of the local buyer. Good dealers take archiving seriously, photographing and logging the instruments that come through their shop and creating databases.
And makers now know more about how violins were made and used in the past. There is a lot of research being done that should come out over the next two years—enough to render books written 20-some years ago obsolete, Arazi added.
“Part of what we do is try to educate people about what they own, or how to take care of it, or what to look for,” he said.
Because a shop like Rare Violins sees so many great instruments and accumulates so much information, Arazi and Price feel a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to makers and buyers alike.
These instruments are like people, with their individual personalities and quirks. You learn to recognize them, and seeing an instrument again after a few years is like seeing an old friend.
Instrument-makers often come by to show Price and Arazi their instruments, and sometimes when a really great instrument comes to the shop, Price and Arazi call makers they know to stop by and take a look.
“The level of making today is very, very high, possibly the highest it’s been in the last 200 years,” said Arazi, who owned and played on a contemporary instrument he was very proud of for many years. “Whether the makers today will achieve the greatness of the old Italian makers, that’s anybody’s guess, because I do believe the component of time and several hundred years of playing would contribute to that. None of us know that a brand new Antonio Stradivari was like. But the level today is very, very high.”
Continuing the Legacy
Today, there are makers who want to chart their own paths with no concern for the past, and makers who mainly make copies of famous Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments.
Jim McKean adamantly does neither.
He had been a violin student when he first learned about violin-making, and he immediately thought, “what a great way to spend the rest of my life,” McKean said. Maybe it was because it was the ’70s, and “it was that period of time when people felt that following their hearts and their interests was an OK thing to do.”
So off he went to the Violin Making School of America—the country’s first, located in Salt Lake City and opened just one year earlier in 1972.
“When I walked through the doors, I just felt like I was home,” McKean said.
After graduating, he went to work for two of the top restorers in the country, then opened his own shop in New York, where he worked for 25 years. There, he not only made instruments and did repairs, but managed the whole business.
When he started, there were maybe two full-time violin-makers in the country at most, he remembers. Anyone else only made the occasional instrument and mainly did repair and restoration work.
“Nobody wanted to buy a contemporary instrument. The only way you could sell it was to make a vanity copy of an antique,” McKean said. The first instrument he sold was a copy of a Stradivarius violin.
But McKean did not want to copy instruments. He wanted to follow in the spirit of the old Italian masters, that is, to create working instruments for the players of his time. Stradivari and Guarneri, for instance, were making violins for an emerging kind of player during their time—one who played concertos and solos and needed to stand out over an orchestra.
“I want to manipulate all of the variables at my disposal to make an instrument that will become the voice of a contemporary musician,” McKean said. The tools used by makers today versus centuries ago may have changed, but the instruments themselves have not really. For McKean, the most valuable part of his education was not studying the dimensions of this or that Stradivarius so much as watching and learning from maker and restorer Vahakn Nigogosian, who had learned violin-making in the 1920s in Paris, from a maker who had learned his craft from someone in the 19th century.
It’s a fine balance, McKean explained, to understand the aesthetic and acoustical conception behind the great instruments, and then leave enough distance between yourself and these instruments so you are not always feeling their gravitational pull.
It’s part of the reason he closed up his shop in New York in order to solely make instruments.
Today, McKean specializes in cellos. He is not a cellist himself, but early in his making career, he was captivated by the sound of Marion Davies, former principal cellist at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
“That sound she made was one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard a cellist make, and that imprinted itself on me,” he said. It became the ideal sound that McKean still keeps in his head. Every instrument he makes is to aim for the best realization of that sound. Playability and the response of the instrument are also important, McKean said, but after creating cellos for decades, the ergonomic aspects have pretty much been locked in his mind.
“Every aspect from the selection of the wood to the arching, to the shaping of the f-holes, to the varnish, is the setup I want to make that sound,” McKean said. “What’s changed over the past 30 years is that I’m pretty close to that now.”
Over the years, demand for instruments, along with prices at the top level, have risen around the world, so people are now more open to looking at contemporary instruments.
McKean remembers that the day before he closed his shop, he went to a New York Philharmonic ensemble performance. On stage, there was a Guarneri, a Stradivari, a Guadagnini, and a McKean. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world, to hear one of his instruments live, McKean said. But it doesn’t really last—soon the music itself takes over, and you’re not thinking about who made it.
McKean and Price, who represents McKean and sells his instruments, both find this to be the best part: “When you get the right instrument into the right hands, and someone finds their voice,” McKean said, “there’s nothing like it. They fall in love, right in front of your eyes.”