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Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu

What would you do if the tools you use to do your job cost you a half-million dollars?

This is the quandry that working musicians face. Responsive, sweet-toned instruments have never been cheap. Even 20 or 30 years ago, a good midrange historical violin would easily have cost an orchestra player a year or two’s worth of salary.

Since then, prices have soared. In 2006, a Stradivarius violin sold at auction for over US$3.5 million. This year (2010) a Chicago dealer is offering a Guarneri del Gesu once owned by composer Henri Vieuxtemps. The asking price: an eye-popping US$18 million.

Even for soloists of international stature, these instruments are simply out of reach.

The problem is that fine musical instruments are increasingly seen not as vehicles for musical expression, but as investments. They are slipping away from musicians and falling into private investors’ collections.

Thoughtful musicians treasure the living art from history’s great instrument workshops. They play them daily. They become one with these instruments. They share their art with us.

But increasingly, these artists are shut out. Many of those who didn’t or couldn’t buy – maybe I should say "invest" – in the 1980s or before may now never own an historical instrument.

What to do? For many, a modern instrument is the only answer. Fortunately, outstanding instruments are made in 21st century workshops all over the world, including right here in the US. And increasingly, students and those just beginning a career are turning to the world’s low-cost manufacturing center for help. Look inside the instrument, and the words “made in China” are on the label.

WKSU’s arts reporter Vivian Goodman recently spoke with musicians and instrument makers about the situation. Here’s her take on the story.

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Further reading:

The Mona Lisa of Violins in The Guardian

A Modern Strad in WKSU Classical

A Nation of Pianos and Pianists in WKSU Classical

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