INVESTING IN THE CLASSICS
Amelia Hungerford, drawn to the rich history of the Old Italians of Cremona, discovers modern patronage is keeping these instruments’ melodious tones alive.
More than 300 years after they were created, the Old Italians of Cremona still hold the musical world in thrall. This city in Lombardy, just outside Milan, produced the finest musical instruments during the 17th and 18th centuries, and their creators – Antonio Stradivari and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù in particular – have become synonymous with excellence. And while Cremona remains a centre for luthiers, none has ever risen to the heights of Stradivarius and del Gesù. Even today, their violins, violas and cellos are still considered to be the finest ever made.
Inexplicable mystique These instruments are remarkable for the very fact they have remained in demand for more than three centuries, to say nothing of the melodious sounds they produce, and scientists have long attempted to explain their mystique. They have examined the acoustics, the wood composition, the lacquer and even conducted tests by professional violinists to determine what – if anything – was the genius of the Cremona luthiers. No study has as yet unveiled a definitive answer and, in fact, in blind tests the Old Italians tend to be second choice against modern violins. This hasn’t diminished their magic, however, and the talented musicians fortunate enough to play on these masterpieces often describe feeling a pull towards a certain instrument, as if they’ve been chosen as its next custodian.
Collectors seem to feel attracted to these hallowed names, too. Fine stringed instruments continue to fetch millions at auction: the 1741 ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù is currently the most expensive violin ever sold, rumoured to have been bought for more than US$16 million in 2012. Two years later, the 1719 Stradivarius ‘Macdonald’ viola went up for auction with an asking price of US$45 million. It failed to attract a buyer, but that hasn’t hindered the market.