Classical music is all about pedigree. When it comes to string instruments, the name Stradivari means violins that purr like Ferraris, cellos as coveted as Louis Vuitton one-time wears, violas rarer than Nintendo gold cartridges. They command a price commensurate with reputation.
Two factors play into this — one, Stradivari instruments are extremely old, well-made and -preserved instruments; and two, when financiers and real estate moguls zoom in on new investment opportunities, woe unto those who cross them. These wood boxes with strings and fancy varnish get pretty expensive, pretty quick.
Young guns looking for that ultimate edge gravitate to the Stradivari and Guarneri schools of luthierism. Because this requires a six- or seven-figure outlay, either a loan or a benefactor is essential for bankrolling the venture.
But what happens when you find out the golden calf ain’t so golden? What if the hype machine unnaturally inflated the value of some of the music’s most desirable instruments?* New research out of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pours boiling coffee on our champagne party.
Researcher Claudia Fritz took 15 new instruments, nine old Italian instruments (six by Stradivari, two Guarneri ‘del Gesu,’ and one 18th-century Italian), and had ten upper-echelon violinists play them in a double-blind study.
Violinists were asked to play and critique the violins in a formal concert hall somewhere in Paris, using pieces familiar to classical audiences — the Franck Sonata, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, and Sonata #1 by Brahms.
The results? These top-flight violinists preferred newer violins. What’s more, they had trouble identifying the Strads and del Gesus.
This Paris study comes on the heels of one conducted in an Indianapolis hotel room in 2012 during a violin competition. The Indianapolis ordeal prompted an amount of anger due to its perceived lack of rigor — players only got about 20 minutes to fool around with the violins, and it was staged in a dry room rather than a concert hall.
The latest study by Claudia Fritz et al. confirms that what happened in the dead of night in an Indiana hotel room was no fluke. An impeccable pedigree and heavy pricetag can’t fool the ear or the fingers. They want what they want.
See the introductory video to the latest Strad-test below.
*Has artificial inflation ever happened in the history of investments, even once? Of course not!