Play it again, Vieuxtemps. But for $18 million?

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This article appeared in the NY Times recently and was written by Tom Hundley. The mind boggles...

After playing a few notes on the celebrated Vieuxtemps violin some years ago, Ruggiero Ricci, the American virtuoso, is said to have offered to trade his wife for the instrument.

After playing the Vieuxtemps, Mr. Quint said the instrument had “this ferocious power, this incredible beauty.”

It might interest Mrs. Ricci to know that the actual asking price is now $18 million, which would make the Vieuxtemps the most expensive musical instrument on the planet. Ian Stoutzker, a London banker who owns the Vieuxtemps, has entrusted Geoffrey Fushi of Chicago with the job of finding a buyer.

Mr. Fushi, a celebrity in his own right in the rarefied world of rare violins, said he had received nibbles from European royalty, Asian tycoons and at least one publicity-shy New York art collector.

He said his own preference would be for the Vieuxtemps, a 269-year old Guarneri, to remain in Chicago, which has become an international hub in the rare-violin trade thanks mainly to the business savvy and promotional flair of Mr. Fushi and Robert Bein, Mr. Fushi’s business partner, who died in 2007.

The Vieuxtemps, named after Henri Vieuxtemps, the 19th-century Belgian composer and virtuoso who once owned it, made its Chicago debut last year in the hands of Joshua Bell, who was performing as guest soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Both the musician and the instrument drew rave reviews.

The violin was back on stage at Orchestra Hall earlier this month. This time the soloist was Philippe Quint, a young Russian-born American.

The day after the concert, Mr. Quint dropped by Bein & Fushi’s studio on Michigan Avenue to audition the Vieuxtemps and a few other rare violins for a potential buyer from Mexico.

“Last night when I played with the C.S.O., it felt like a supernatural experience,” Mr. Quint said. “This instrument does things you can’t describe in words. Its sound impacts my whole body. It has this ferocious power, this incredible beauty. To the professional ear, it can only be considered one of the world’s great miracles.”

Hanging on the wall in the room where Mr. Quint gave his mini-concert is a painting of Eugene Ysaye, the early 20th Century composer, playing what could well be the Vieuxtemps — testament to the small universe of violin virtuosos and their prized instruments. Other notables who have played — and paid homage to — the Vieuxtemps include Yehudi Menuhin, Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.

“Zukerman played it four or five months ago, right there in my studio,” Mr. Fushi said. “And Menuhin, after he played it, he told me it was the greatest instrument he had ever played.”

Yes, but it is really worth $18 million? Dealers, including Bein & Fushi, have occasionally been accused of buying low, selling high and otherwise manipulating the market. Others say the law of supply and demand suggest the high prices might be justified.

Only about 640 violins built by Antonio Stradivari beginning in the 17th Century, survive today. And even fewer — about 140 — remain from his great rival, Giuseppi Guarneri del Gesu. Increasingly, they are being purchased by museums and foundations.

“There will come a time, maybe 20 years from now, when you won’t be able to buy a Strad or a Guarneri for any amount,” said Mr. Fushi, a large man who smokes Gauloises, drives fancy cars (including a 2001 Rolls Royce Silver Seraph) and wears handmade alligator cowboy boots in a rainbow of colors.

He noted that when the Vieuxtemps last changed hands in 1967, it sold for $80,000, which at the time was about three times the going rate for a top Guarneri.

Last fall, a prized Guarneri was sold privately to a Russian collector for a record $10 million.

David Schoenbaum, a historian at the University of Iowa who is writing a social history of the violin, said he was skeptical when he first heard the asking price.

“It’s a top of the line del Gesu and it’s worth a lot of money, but I’d never heard of a price like that,” Mr. Schoenbaum said. “On the other hand, if you compare it to art, it’s practically pocket change.”

There are top violinists who would argue that some of the instruments being made by today’s master craftsmen are as good as the old Italians. So why do the Guarneris and Stradivariuses command such astronomical prices?
“The short answer is that you can’t make a 300-year-old instrument today,” Mr. Schoenbaum said. “You can’t replace 300 years of mystique.”

In his firm’s promotional literature, Mr. Fushi likes to emphasize the investment value of rare Italian violins, noting that over the last half century, while the price of gold has increased by 2,500 percent and the Dow has gone up about 1,400 percent, violin prices have soared by 26,000 percent.

All of this is fine for investors and for middlemen like Mr. Fushi, but a problem for musicians who find themselves priced out of the market.

One solution is the Stradivarius Society, which the Bein & Fushi firm organized in the mid-1980s. The Society encourages wealthy investors to buy rare violins and lend them to young musicians like Mr. Bell and Mr. Quint.

Or as the late Mr. Bein liked to simplify it: “Owner, horse, jockey.”

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