The Macdonald Stradivarius of 1701. Photo Credit: Bertrand Guay
In 1701, a sweet 56-year-old Italian man made the finishing touches on a viola commission for a nearby nobleman.
Around 313 years later, that same instrument became the ire of the internet.
In 2014, the multinational fine art giant, Sotheby’s, attempted to sell one of the rarest instruments of all time at the highest price of all time — 45 million dollars for the golden period “Macdonald” Stradivarius viola of 1701. The now infamous sealed-bid auction made headlines across classical and mainstream media. It became an even bigger story when the Macdonald ultimately failed to attract a bidder, inciting a digitally palpable wave of schadenfreude among the auction’s many detractors.
As many violin makers did back in the day, Antonio Stradivari labeled his name in Latin in all of his finished products, which is why his instruments go by the “Stradivarius” title. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Macdonald is a piece by the legendary instrument maker, Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737). While we can debate all day about the long-touted innate superiority of “strads,” the fact of the matter is that the instruments made by Stradivari, an 18th century artisan, are essentially on par with the most well-crafted violins of today. Add on the fact his violins are now over 300 hundred years old, and it’s easy understand why the Stradivari name is so often synonymous with perfection.
It’s estimated that Stradivari made around 1,100 instruments, which besides violins includes violas, cellos, harps, and even guitars. Today, only around 650 known to still exist.
The rarest strads include his violas, as its estimated that he only ever made around 15. The Macdonald Stradivarius is one of 11 true violas (not counting a twelfth that was whittled down from a viola d’amore) that still survive today.
But even so, the 45 million-dollar price tag Sotheby’s placed on the Macdonald surprised many. However, in looking at the circumstances that surrounded the Macdonald at the time, its supposed value is a bit more understandable.
Although the Macdonald had a long string of owners throughout its three centuries, its most notable was the world-renowned 20th century musician Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet. Schidlof was given the instrument in 1964 by the dutch electronics company Phillips, which at the time owned the classical recording label Deutsche Grammophon. Schidlof performed and recorded with the Macdonald until his death in 1987.
When Schidlof died, the heirs of his estate promptly threw the Macdonald in a vault for nearly thirty years. In doing so, the Schidlof estate (I’d guess purposely) ensured the inflation of two of the most valuable aspects of the Macdonald.
First, when the Macdonald was vaulted, it missed out on decades of potential usage, resulting in its current status as one of the best preserved Strads in the world, viola or otherwise.
Secondly, because the Macdonald was kept in private hands for so long, you could say it “outran” the last of its siblings. Out of the 10 other surviving violas, the Macdonald is the last one that isn’t owned by a museum, foundation, or government, making it the only strad viola in the world available for private purchase.
The best preserved strad in the world is the “Messiah” violin of 1716. Its in so good of a condition that its colloquially referred to as having never been played (which is a bit of a stretch). Photo Credit: Oli Scarff
When the Macdonald’s auction was announced (and proven unprofitable) dialogues about the relation between art, music, and commodity were abound across major news sites and music communities.
In the opinion of this writer, the most interesting discussions had in the wake of the Macdonald Stradivarius boiled down to whether or not instruments have more or less value being museum pieces vs. actual performance tools.
On one hand, instruments such as the Macdonald are works of art in and of themselves, and are literally part of instrumental history. Consequently, they should be displayed and valued as much as any painting would be. After all, if a few streaks of color by Mark Rothko can go 72 million dollars, why can’t a couple pieces of wood by Stradivari go for 45?
Rothko’s abstract painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) was sold at 72.84 million dollars in 2007 making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. Photo Credit: New York Times
But the problem with this rationale is that works like paintings are made for viewing…and instruments aren’t. More to the point, when instruments like strads risk going to folks like non-musician collectors, a process begins to occur that’s completely contrary to their existence: they start to sound bad.
In order to maintain the color, volume, and general playability of pieces like the Macdonald, instruments need to be played consistently. When the wooden body of the instrument isn’t stimulated with regular and comprehensive vibrations of frequency, its sound becomes duller and less expansive — or dormant, as some players put it.
Even David Aaron Carpenter, the musician who performed with the Macdonald during its 2014 auction tour, acknowledged that it would take “years” to optimize the sound of the Macdonald due to its previous inactivity. Although he later described the experience of playing the instrument as magical, he also had another word for the Macdonald, “uncomfortable.”
At the moment, Jimi Hendrix’s iconic Woodstock Fender Stratocaster is privately owned (and largely unused) by Microsoft co-Founder Paul Allen. Photo Credit: Karen Moskowitz
It’s a poetically double-edged sword. While preservation is paramount in examining and appreciating history, the historical artifacts in this scenario are ones whose express purpose for existence is sometimes voided by their preservation.
Thankfully, a strong number of museums and foundations loan out their precious instruments to professionals for special occasions and partnerships. In the well trusted hands of players such as Ursula Sarnthein and Antoine Tamestit, instruments like strads are given the perfect life of alternating between educational display and live performance.
Pictured far right is Ursula Sarnthein with her “Gibson” Stradivarius viola of 1734, on loan from the Stradivari Foundation. Photo Credit: Stradivari Stiftung
With time, the histories of Stradivari’s instruments have changed, for better and for worse. The Macdonald Stradivarius, after 317 years and roughly 23 owners, has journeyed from Stradivari’s own workshop in Northern Italy to a vault presumably somewhere in London, where it lays locked away from the world once again — now with a notorious reputation to boot. But its future may hold sweeter possibilities. Who knows what could happen in the next 300 years?
Hopefully, the Macdonald will eventually find a decent home. After the 2014 auction, the New Yorker sat down with David Aaron Carpenter and asked if he would ever throw his hat in to purchase the Macdonald. “Four more years,” he said — which is now.
If anyone was still looking to get Carpenter a gift for the holidays…