Asking price would make Vieuxtemps Guarneri the most expensive musical instrument ever
Made in 1741 by Guarneri del Gesù, the violin goes on sale with Bein & Fushi of Chicago hoping to get $18m (£12m)
Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell discusses what it feels like to play a Guarneri del Gesù violin once owned by composer Henri Vieuxtemps Link to this videoIn the rarified world of old violins, the Stradivarius is commonly thought of as the very best. But for many connoisseurs and concert performers, the pinnacle is the work of a craftsman from Cremona in Italy known as Guarneri del Gesù.
One of the last violins to be created by the master, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, made in 1741 three years before his death. Now it has been put up for sale in Chicago. If the violin achieves the asking price of $18m (£12m), it would be by a wide margin the most expensive musical instrument on Earth.
Dubbed the Mona Lisa of violins, it has been played in concert halls around the world by some of the greatest virtuosi of its 269-year existence. It is named after Henri Vieuxtemps, a 19th-century musician who composed solo pieces for violin which he performed using the instrument.
The instrument is owned by a retired British financier and music philanthropist, Ian Stoutzker, who bought it from Sir Isaac Wolfson, founder of Wolfson College, Oxford. It is being sold through one of the world’s leading traders in rare violins, Bein & Fushi of Chicago.
Geoffrey Fushi said the instrument was one of the most unusual of Guarneri’s output. It is larger than most, with enormous projection. “I believe it is a living entity, a living being,” he told the Guardian. “Musicians say the same thing – that the instrument dictates to them how they play the music.”
Philippe Quint, a soloist, has performed on the Vieuxtemps several times with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “This instrument has the most unbelievable power, not just in loudness but in sound quality. It has a huge palate of colours that allow you to express a wider range of emotions.”
For years lovers of the violin have obsessed over the Vieuxtemps. In 1891 the London trader Arthur Hill, who was selling it, wrote in his diary: “What a pity we are not rich enough to keep the violin ourselves as its tone and other merits are perfect.”
It is a favourite parlour game of violin aficionados to compare the creations of Antonio Stradivari with his younger rival, Guarneri.
Stradivari lived to 93 and about 640 of his violins survive. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, to give his proper name, by contrast, died in 1744 at 46, and only about 140 survive.
Fushi said the consensus was that “a Guarneri is like a rich chocolate, while a Strad is like strawberry or vanilla ice cream. The Guarneri is often deeper, darker in sound.”
Professor David Schoenbaum, of the University of Iowa, who is writing a book on the social history of the violin, said it was almost 100 years after Guarneri’s death before his genius was recognised. In 1830 Niccolò Paganini took the Cannone Guarneri to Paris where he astonished audiences with its richness and power. That violin is now regarded as a national treasure and kept in a museum in Genoa.
Bein & Fushi’s sales price has raised eyebrows in the historic instrument market. The previous record price was almost half: last October another Guarneri, the Kochanski, sold for $10m.
Most observers expect the Vieuxtemps to go to a museum or hedge fund or other institutional collector, as the days in which private individuals and players could afford any Guarneri, let alone a prime specimen, are long since past. Fushi said he had received expressions of interest from all over the world.
One of the only collection of violins still in private hands is that of David Fulton, a retired Microsoft magnate, in Seattle but, as in fine art, the money is increasingly coming from the east.
• This article was amended on 6 and 7 July 2010 to make clear in headlines that the Viextemps Guarneri has not yet become the most expensive instrument, and that (contrary to a heading) it is for sale not auction The original also located Chi Mei Museum in Taipei and referred to the soloist Peter Quint. These have been corrected.