The sale of the Mendelssohn Stradivarius violin for a record $1.76 million at auction in London last fall brought music to the ears of the seller, the auctioneer and a Bucks County, Pa., couple whose 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, an accomplished musician, now plays it every day.
The story of how this violin with a history of ownership in the German banking family came to auction and the drama of the sale may some day be retold in program notes when Elizabeth Pitcairn becomes a touring virtuoso.
The Mendelssohn Strad was sent to auction by an unlikely consignor, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, which had received it as a charitable gift.
"It came to us from a New York businessman, an amateur musician who had owned it for more than 30 years," said Caroline Miller, who handled the sale for the UJA-Federation. "He had been advised by his lawyer to make us the beneficiary of his Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust," she explained.
Ms. Miller said the donor, who insisted on anonymity, had turned over his violin to the charity, which set up the trust, sold the violin and invested the proceeds in an annuity that pays him a monthly stipend for the rest of his life. When the trust is terminated, $1.76 million will revert to the charity. No capital gains taxes are paid, estate taxes are avoided and the charity gets a far larger contribution.
It is a good scheme, but it won't work with any old fiddle. The Mendelssohn Strad has more than just a good provenance. It appears in an old photograph of four members of the Mendelssohn family, descendants of Felix, the composer, each playing a Strad. Lily Mendelssohn's, a gift from her father, is known as "the Red Mendelssohn" because of its vibrant red varnish. In 1956, it was sold by Lily's heirs to a New York man for his daughter, for $25,000. Two years later it sold again, this time ,, for $30,000 to the amateur violinist who, realizing how much it had increased in value, gave it to the Jewish Philanthropies.
"The Mendelssohn Strad came to us at just the right time," said Fred Oster, Christie's musical instrument consultant in New York. "We thought we had another fine Strad for our November sale in London, which we photographed and cataloged, but the consignor withdrew it, saying he had been contacted by another auction house and promised much more than the 600,000
pounds we had estimated," Mr. Oster said. "It was a great disappointment to us."
A few weeks later Mr. Oster got a call from Ms. Miller telling him about the Mendelssohn Strad she had to sell: "The other instrument was a nice fiddle, but the Mendelssohn had the most attractive varnish, a rich red and lots of it, far more than remains on most other violins of the period. It was made in 1720 toward the end of Stadivarius' Golden Period when he was in full control of his powers. It is bold yet elegant and made of gorgeous wood."
Mr. Oster said he thinks he may have clinched the consignment for Christie's by charting the performance at auction of 50 Strads offered in the last decade. About 600 violins survive of the 1,000 made by Antonio Stradivarius, who advanced the evolution of the violin to perfection during his long and productive life (1644-1737) in Cremona, Italy. Commissioned by professional musicians, Stradivarius' violins were cared for over the years, and many survive with their histories intact.
Of the 50 Strads on Mr. Oster's list, 38 were offered by Sotheby's; 12 by Christie's. Of the 38 Sotheby's cataloged, only 18 sold; 20 failed to sell because no one bid their minimum acceptable price and they were returned to their owners. Of the 12 offered by Christie's, 10 sold.
The violin withdrawn from Christie's failed to sell at Sotheby's the day before the Mendelssohn sold; the bidding stopped at 600,000 pounds.
There was spirited competition for the Mendelssohn among two Japanese, three Europeans and an American bidding in the salesroom. It sailed past its 650,000-pound high estimate, advancing in 50,000- pound increments. It stalled for a moment at 800,000; then Robert Ames, a bow maker in New Jersey bidding for the Pitcairn family from the back of the salesroom, called out "ten" -- meaning 10,000 pounds more. "Would you say 20?" asked the auctioneer. Mr. Ames nodded, yes, and the hammer fell at 820,000 pounds. With the 10 percent buyer's premium, the bill came to 902,000 pounds, or $1,760,000. The underbidder was a Japanese dealer in the salesroom.
"We had been introduced to the idea of getting a Strad by Chicago dealers who had sold us the Guadagnini violin that Elizabeth had been using," said Mary Eleanor Pitcairn. "We had looked at a Strad they had for sale and even tried it for a week, but we kept hearing about the Mendelssohn through the grapevine. Musicians who had tried it said its bass tone was rich; dealers who looked at it said it was superb. The only way to see it and try it was to go to London, so we went for one day."
"When I picked it up and began to play, the most glorious `D sounds came out," said Elizabeth Pitcairn, who practices on it every day. "A Stradivarius makes you play the way it wants you to."