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Need A Strad? Borrow One Here

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By Author: Nathan Weiss
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The arts, music in particular, have always survived due to generosity of the wealthy. Mozart – whose behaviors excluded him from support from the Church – found his support in a certain Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who also funded the work of Ludwig von Beethoven and Joseph Haydn. Hungary’s wealthy Esterhazy family also supported Haydn. The celebrated Italian violinist and violist Niccolò Paganini was sufficiently wealthy to have commissioned Berlioz to compose “Harold in Italy” in the early 19th century.

It shouldn’t escape notice that Paganini commissioned that piece specifically to have something to play on a Stradivarius viola he had purchased.

Rare is the musician today with the wherewithal to outright purchase a Strad, much less able to pay composers to develop something just for them. In fact, the skyrocketing prices of Stradivari’s fine stringed instruments for sale have effectively put the purchase of these and other fine violins ...
... violas and cellos crafted by other master makers out of reach.

Fine stringed instruments are very expensive

This is because the best stringed instruments exist in an economic equation that differs from great pianos, brass, and woodwind instruments, the modern versions of which are as good as the old ones. In contrast, there is a finite supply of the finest stringed instruments ever made (by Stradivarius and Guaneri, in particular) but there is a growing market. Supply-demand curves being what they are, this has pushed pricing of Strads to as high as $20 million (how much the “Messiah Stradivarius is believed to be worth, sitting in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England).

So how does the prodigy with Julliard tuition debt afford a violin, viola, or cello worthy of her or his talent?

Enter the patrons. While royal courts of Europe are much smaller (and poorer?) than in the past, the techpreneurs and others of wealth are picking up the slack.

A different kind of a violin loan

There are two organizations that exist to be matchmakers between talented musicians and the owners of these extremely valuable instruments. These patrons loan the instrument to the musician.

One such organization is The Stradivari Society, based in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Launched in 1985 by the wife of the president of Motorola, Mary Galvin, the organization loaned the Ruby Stradivarius (1708) to a young violinist, Dylana Jenson. Soon after, the organization arranged the loan of another violin for the prodigy, Midori, when she was just ten years old. Other recipients of great violins through this organization include Joshua Bell, Philippe Quint, Hilary Hahn and Maxim Vengerov.

The Stradivari Society has about two-dozen patrons. The artists must insure the instruments, and some are able to eventually purchase their Strads and Guarneris as their careers take off.

This arrangement comes with an implication of a partnership. The benefactor and beneficiary are friendly, there might be a free private concert here and there – who wouldn’t want Midori playing Pachelbel at their daughter’s wedding? – and the player is always in a position of obligation. It may skew their career choices.

A different arrangement was created around 2013, where the instrument is donated to a university or music school with which the artist is associated. The instrument can be on a lifetime loan to the musician or be purchased by the player. The lender-recipient relationship is eliminated.

The fine arts will probably always be subject to support from the well off. But the economic models are changing to support different relationships – still getting those great instruments out of museums and into the hands of great musicians.

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