Stainer Violin Tops London Spring Auction Highlights
A gorgeous fiddle from an influential builder breaks a record while a few sleepers awake
The London spring sales of fine instruments and bows, which took place March 7–10, posted strong results with all four major houses setting new auction price records. Sotheby’s sold the top lot this season, with an exceptional 1659 violin by Jacob Stainer. Referred to as the “King of All the Stainers,” the lion-headed fiddle sold for £205,250, a new auction record for an instrument by that maker. (All prices include the buyer’s premium.)
In a market obsessed with the names Stradivari and Guarneri, Cremona, or anything Italian, it’s easy to forget that the Austrian luthier Stainer (born ca. 1617, died 1683) was the most popular and influential maker of his time—and for generations after. Stainer was born in Absam, a town near Innsbruck, known for instrument making. But the source of his sophisticated training remains unknown and is the subject of speculation. He may have apprenticed locally, although violin expert Roger Hargrave points out that his style and use of the Amati construction method indicates that he was likely in Cremona at a time when the only significant violin maker to survive the plague of 1630 was Nicolo Amati.
Regardless of Stainer’s origins, his meticulous, silvery-sounding instruments set the standard for elegance, workmanship, and tone until the 19th century, when the increasing demands for volume favored the more powerful instruments of Cremona. Although he claimed to have taught no one, Stainer’s models were the most widely copied, though often so crudely that it’s sometimes hard to remember the sophistication of the originals. This exceptionally lovely violin, which sports the carved lion head, has several certificates, including 1968 papers from Rembert Wurlitzer, Inc., describing it as “the finest example known to us.”
Other auction records included violins by Giorgio Serafin, ca. 1770, for £168,000, and Giovanni Grancino, ca. 1700, for £144,000, both at Brompton’s. Grancino is considered the founder of the Milan school and is known for his meticulous work, despite the Milan school’s reputation for great sound but hurried workmanship (the Milanese makers supplied the working musician of the day).
Part of the allure of an auction is the hope of a bargain, or the excitement of a “sleeper”—a desirable instrument or bow that escaped detection by the auction house, or simply something of uncertain origin placed in the sale with a low estimate and a “let the experts sort it out” attitude. Brompton’s, where results were well in line with estimates, had few surprises, but some sellers at other auction houses are in for nice windfalls. For example, a viola bow attributed to Nicolas Maline with a high estimate of £2,500 sold for £15,000 at Sotheby’s—close to the auction record for an authenticated Maline viola bow. Also at Sotheby’s, Lot 178, a violin catalogued simply as “A Violin, 19th Century,” and priced between £3,000 and £5,000, sold for £15,625—a nice price (and a tidy profit) if it really is 18th-century Italian, as some speculated.
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