In 1701, a 56-year-old Italian man made the finishing touches on a viola commissioned by a nobleman who lived nearby. 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 world’s rarest instruments at the highest price of all time—$45 million for the “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 wave of schadenfreude among the auction’s many detractors.
As many violin makers did back in the day, Antonio Stradivari labeled his finished products with the Latinized version of his name, which is why his instruments go by the “Stradivarius” title. Photo credit: Public Domain
The Macdonald is a piece by the legendary instrument maker Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737). It’s estimated that Stradivari made around 1,100 instruments, including violins, violas, cellos, harps, and even guitars. Today, only around 650 are known to still exist.
The rarest Strads are his violas, as it’s estimated that he only made around fifteen of them. The Macdonald Stradivarius is one of eleven true violas (not counting a twelfth that was whittled down from a viola d’amore) that still survive today.
For comparison, the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius of 1721 was sold for a record $15 million in a benefit for the victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Photo credit: Daily Mail
Despite the rarity of the Macdonald, the $45 million price tag Sotheby’s placed on the viola surprised many. However, when you look into the history of the instrument, its high valuation 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. In 1964, the Dutch electronics company Philips, which owned the classical recording label Deutsche Grammophon, purchased the instrument for Schidlof to use in his quartet’s recordings. Schidlof performed and recorded with the Macdonald until his death in 1987.
When Schidlof died, the heirs of his estate placed the Macdonald in a vault for nearly thirty years. In doing so, the Schidlof estate ensured the inflation of two of the most valuable aspects of the Macdonald. First, when the Macdonald was placed in storage, 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. Second, because the Macdonald was kept in private ownership 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 Stradivarius viola in the world available for private purchase.
The best-preserved Strad in the world is the “Messiah” violin of 1716. It's in such good condition that it's colloquially referred to as "having never been played" (which is a bit of a stretch). Photo credit: Oli Scarff
The most interesting discussions in the wake of the Macdonald Stradivarius auction centered around the question of whether instruments have more value as museum pieces or as tools for performing music. On the one hand, instruments such as the Macdonald are works of art in and of themselves and are 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 for $72 million, why can’t a couple pieces of wood by Stradivari go for $45 million?
Rothko’s abstract painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) sold for $72.84 million in 2007, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. Photo Credit: Liz Baylen for The New York Times
But the problem with this rationale is that works like paintings are made for viewing and instruments aren’t. Moreover, when instruments like Strads are sold to collectors, a process begins to occur that’s completely contrary to their intended purpose: they start to sound bad.
In order to maintain their unique sound color, volume, and general playability, instruments like the Macdonald need to be played consistently. When the wooden body of the instrument isn’t stimulated with regular and comprehensive vibrations, 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 described it as “uncomfortable.”
It’s a double-edged sword. While preservation is paramount in examining and appreciating history, the artifacts in this scenario are ones whose express purpose for existence is sometimes voided by their preservation.