Sell Your Stradivarius ASAP

(Photo: ZakVTA)

Does it make sense that we have gotten worse at making violins over the last 300 years, when we have gotten so much better at making just about everything else? Not really. Finally there is some experimental data on the subject, and it doesn’t look good for those who pay top dollar for fancy old violins.

(Hat tip to Dean Strachan)


Violins get better when the wood gets dryer. I guess you can invent technology to dry wood faster, but I doubt violin makers would go through the trouble of obtaining such a machine. Wood can also get too dry and warp when conditions change drastically so drying naturally is better than grabbing a blow-dryer to do the job.


I heard this report on NPR, and it doesn't surprise me at all.

It's the same issue with all "old" stuff. The issue is that hundreds of years ago the difference between poor or average quality and top notch was massive. This was true in wines, artworks, furniture, textiles, foods, etc., etc.

A few hundred years ago bad wine was REALLY, REALLY bad, like undrinkable. Even 50 years ago bad wine was pretty bad.

So, the reputation of high quality items hundreds of years ago was much more important than it is today, the distinction between top quality and average or poor quality was very large.

Today, however, manufacturing processes have advanced so much and the development of materials is now so much more sophisticated that quality manufacturing is no longer and art form of single individuals, it is now part of widely used practices.

Yes there is still low quality mass produced stuff, but most medium quality stuff these days is pretty darn good, whether you are talking about wine, cheese, musical instruments, clothing, etc. And as for the top end stuff, the fact is that we are farm more sophisticated now, we have better materials, better tools, better analysis and testing, and much broader sharing of information.

People idealize the past, but the reality is that the "good ole days" were never as good as people today imagine them to have been.



Interesting.... Similar results with women musicians. Male musicians maintained for years that women couldn't perform at the same level as men with very logically consistent explanations involving strength, finger length and size and so forth and it held, at least until auditions began to be blind. But apparently, even after "proof" that women perform at the same level as men, there were very few women in the Vienna orchestra this New Year's Eve. Performers will continue to insist the older violins are better despite all evidence to the contrary but it's not just musicians: My dad still maintains the same about cars.

female artist/scientist

When it comes to quality in musical instruments (like Steinways or Strads), if you are a musician, you know the difference in sound that comes out, the feelings you create and touch. Science has that quality. When you hit the right note (make the correct inference or perform the correct calculation), it's """heaven""" and there's no going back to doing the expedient thing. As for old versus new, when you find out that an old discovery that you made prompted your teacher to change course, wow- I did that! I once owned an old piano. Oh, the sounds that I was able to create. Sorta like the cook that gets their dish just right. Had to sell it, but I would not own any other.

Derek Halpern

I suspect that when people play a Stradivarius they FEEL better... and will truly believe they play better because of how the violin makes them feel.

I would even go so far as saying that during an fMRI scan, I would expect their brains to light up significantly more in the pleasure center when playing a Stradivarius, meaning belief can become reality.

(Yes, that's a theory, and I'd love for someone like Martin Lindstrom to test it!).


It reminds me of that old study with Riedel wine glasses.

In a double blind, Riedel wine glasses didn't make wine taste better, but when it wasn't a double blind, people believed the wine tasted better in a Riedel glass.

Either way, very interesting.


It's amazing that 300-year-old Stradivaris are still playable. Wonder how many of the new violins will still sound good in 300 years.


But whatever you do, don't sell it using PayPal!


That is a completely horrifying story that perfectly illustrates the problems with one-size-fits-all policies.


Commenter Derek Halpern nails the problem here. For many musicians aesthetic is just as important than the mechanical aspects of an instrument. When you are playing something that imbues a certain historical aesthetic then you can often play with more feeling and passion.

robyn g

Dear cb; You are missing the point. the instrument enables you to accomplish your objective (to put feeling and passion into it). I spent a day at the Steinway gallery when I was a kid and nothing compared to my old german steinway. I hope to find one again.

Eric M. Jones.

When fine violins are measured against Strads, it becomes clear that "quality" is in the ear of the beholder.

One reviewer quipped when they were trying to straighten out the acoustics of Lincoln Center, you can't make a refrigerator sound like a piano. Well you can't make a new violin sound 300 years old either. Or at least not easily. But you can make a modern violin better in many other acoustical dimensions.

Reproducing Strads is kind of like putting painting cracks on new paintings like those found on old Rembrandts.


I do recall something similar said respect pianos .It was affirmed that a japanese electronics maker -yamaha-never could get the sofistication and high quality of the european brands.But suddenly the big players started performing with the now applauded gizmos!
Of course,always will be persons who believe that the old is better than the new.
I do believe that the over forties -me included-know better how to conquer a lady.

Chris McCracken

I don't know much about violins, but I do know guitars.

Cheap, modern instruments don't have the build quality of gear from the 50s or 60s (at least the reputable brands of the time). But it is true to say modern handmade gear is as good or better.

The biggest difference is - as Raymond alludes in the top comment - is materials. The woods available now are quite different to what was available as little as 20 years ago. As species become endangered or expensive, we start using different woods.

The other thing, which Raymond also alludes to with his drying comment, is the wood age. Wood sap crystallises over time. This can take 50 years in some cases. It is well documented that this changes the sound of an instrument and is very difficult to do any more quickly.

As for whether the violin is worth the money, I don't know. I don't play violin. I can tell you I have played a few vintage guitars that people paid tens of thousands for. Some I liked. Some not so much. I can't say I would pay that much for them, though.



I wonder if this logic apply to art... or if we should treat Stradivarius more like art than functionally.


I concur that age does not define quality of an instrument alone. However, I cannot accept the article implying that historic instruments are overpriced. Pricing is based on scarcity for sure in my interpretation.

So do not buy a Stradivarius, unless you are a collector.


Seems a moot point. Dr. Levitt should point out that only very wealthy people buy antique violins; which applies to no one I know. Additionally, for folks to remove human emotion and psychology from art (or any other hobby for that matter, such as baseball card collecting) wouldn't make it much worth doing. All sounding virtually the same, wouldn't you prefer the instrument with emotional or sentimental value? A generational hand-me-down, or a brand new one? Even on a discounted shelf-quality being even-one would expect that you pick the item with emotional value. This article seems more of the class warfare strain then about quality of instruments. More about the jealousy of the nations wealthy? I say bravo to those who can afford such exquisite pieces-play on Yo Yo Ma!

linda wright

a friend of mines father was in the d day invasion of france some how aquired it and sent it back home i have seen it and herd him play the cotton eyed joe with it he is interested in selling it if the price is rite

Jay Eugene

Well let me spread some hope.. My mother "god bless her soul"! Passed away from cancer. She was pretty wealthy.. When starting to get ill she started selling everything to support kemo, surgeries.. Cut to the chase.. She told me whatever happens I'll never sell what was in this burnt up case that was wrapped in an old quilt.. It never dawned on me that she would even die! Well she did.. And some time passed and I had remembered what she said about whatever was in that quilt.. I unraveled the quilt and it was a Stradivarius that survived some horrific fire.. The case was burnt but when I opened it there it was.. Being a person who's carved wood, oil painted and has pretty good background with antiquities am blown away... Its from the 1700's.. And intact... I really am not looking to get rich.. Just would like the right person to end up with it.. I'm a pretty simple, reasonable guy.. Make an offer..