In 2000, a peculiar story arose in pop culture circles. John Lennon‘s pristine Steinway used in his prayer for peace and disavowal of commercialism, ‘Imagine’, ironically went up for auction at a Hard Rock Café in London. In a beautifully juxtaposed, almost satirical affair, George Michael, the Gallagher brothers, and Robbie Williams all went to bid on the iconic cultural behemoth.
The Wham! star won out. Michael paid £1.45million for the piano and announced, “It’s not the type of thing that should be in storage somewhere or being protected; it should be seen by people”. Thus, he toured the piano around the world “as a symbol of peace” and used it during the recording of his song ‘Patience’ in 2004. He put this pricey bit of kit to benevolent use in keeping with his charitable nature.
Alas, his purchase pales in comparison to the priciest musical instrument ever sold. There are two contenders for that crown and a further potential last-gasp winner. And once more, just like Mozart outselling Beyoncé back in 2016, the instruments prove that there is still a pretty penny in classical music.
The first is an undisputed contender: the ‘Lady Blunt’. This violin was sold in 2011 for a world record fee of $15.9m. The violin is considered one of the top two preserved Stradivarius instruments on the planet. It was made in 1721 and was later named after one of its first owners, Lady Anne Blunt, who was the renowned co-founder of the horse-breeding facility known as the Crabbet Arabian Stud, set up with her poet husband, Wilfrid Blunt, near Cairo.
The ‘Lady Blunt’ was sold at an official auction raising funds for the Tōhoku tsunami, so the figure it posted is validated. However, there is a second Stradivarius that some claim has surpassed it: the Duport Stradivarius cello. This instrument was welcomed into the world in 1711 following a commission by Louis XIV’s physician, Francois Chicoyneau.
Since then, it has continued to live an esteemed life. It was bought by the famed cellist and composer Jean-Louis Duport. He christened the instrument with his name when he passed it on into circulation, and it eventually wound up with modern classical champion Mstislav Rostropovich who purchased it in 1974 to use in concert. Following his death, it was reportedly purchased by the Nippon Music Foundation for $ 20million, but this has never been verified. In fact, the instrument has pretty much disappeared now, creating a modern-day Stradivarius mystery.
Who was Stradivarius?
While the price of lucrative violins often varies, Stradivariuses are guaranteed to withhold their value at this stage. These are instruments created by the Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari. He was a master craftsman born in Cremona in 1644. It is estimated that he made 1116 instruments in his life, 960 of which were his trademark violins.
Sadly, only 650 instruments survived, and they are often considered the finest ever made. But beyond that is the historical esteem that they have built up. Not only are they finely crafted pieces of art, but also artefacts that have acquired backstories that imbue them with a sense of drama beyond the specific sound.
Alas, not every expensive instrument was made by this master, who died at age 94. The Vieuxtemps Guarneri Violin was recently purchased anonymously for a reported $16m and loaned to Anne Akiko Meyers to play for the rest of her life or as long as her chemistry with it remains. In astounding condition with no patchwork performed at all, this unique model was built by another renowned Italian luthier, Giuseppe Guarneri, in 1741, later acquiring its name when it was played by the Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. But in this case, given that the purchase was anonymous, its price is only reported.
However, all of these instruments could be beat by the MacDonald Stradivarius Viola. This is one of only ten Stradivarius’ ever made. After a life in the hands of the greatest viola players ever, it went up for auction in 2014 with a minimum bid of $45m. This failed to be matched, so if you’ve got that sum lying in the cracks of the sofa, then you could own what would likely be the most expensive instrument in history and likely remain so as we move into a more digitalised age.