An Extremely Rare, Centuries-Old Italian Violin Hit a High Note at Auction, Selling for a Whopping $9.44 Million

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An exceptionally rare Guarneri violin—so fabled that it has its own name, the Baltic—sold for $9.44 million (premium included) at auction on March 16, just shy of its $10 million estimate. The final sale price smashed the $3.6 million auction record for a Guarneri instrument (set in June 2022) to become the third-highest price paid for musical instrument.

The Baltic was the star lot of the online auction of more than 100 rare and important stringed instruments and bows at auction house Tarisio in New York. A leader in rare violin sales, Tarisio pulled in a total of over $11.1 million in the sale, while 18 new auction records were set for assorted music-making treasures.

“The Baltic is more than an exceptional instrument,” said Carlos Tomé, the director and head of sales at Tarisio. “It is a singular work of art.”

The Baltic was handcrafted around 1731 by master luthier Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù—known as del Gesù—in the small town of Cremona, Italy. His and his family’s stringed instruments are among the most prized in the world, perhaps owing to a deeper sound than other violins, attributed to the wood used, flamed maple wood. Violinists Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, and Itzhak Perlman are among those who’ve performed on stage with Guarneri violins.

The Baltic violin. Courtesy of Tarisio New York.

The scroll and pegs of the Baltic violin. Courtesy of Tarisio.

Before the sale, the Baltic spent 50 years in the collection of the late Sau-Wing Lam, an American businessman and noted collector of rare musical instruments. Since his acquisition of the instrument in 1979, it was exhibited twice at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, once in 1994 in a show of exceptional Guarneri instruments, and again in 2012, when the museum hosted an exhibition and concert series dedicated to Lam’s collection.

Before Sau-Wing Lam, the Baltic belonged to the classical musician Dorotha Powers, who taught violin to baseball legend Mickey Mantle. She traded in two Stradivarius violins to acquire the Guarneri from the Wurlitzer Company, American makers of pianos and jukeboxes. Previously it was owned by a Baltic family, who were the first to refer to it as the Baltic—and the name stuck.

Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù was only 32 when he made the violin in 1731, breaking with practices established by his grandfather, father, and uncle. With its shorter body length, broader wings, and distinct “hatchet-shaped” sound holes, the Baltic is among the first violins to bear the trademarks of del Gesù’s own style.

More famous of the two violin makers, Antonio Stradivari was born in 1644, about a half-century before del Gesù. Both makers practiced their craft in their hometown of Cremona, Italy. But while some 600 Stradivarius violins have survived, only about 150 Guarneri violins remain, making them a much rarer find.

 

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