A Stradivarius violin “of outstanding power and beauty” used to play Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz is expected to break records when it is put up for auction next week.
The 308-year-old violin, previously owned by Toscha Seidel, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, was created during Antonio Stradivari’s celebrated “golden period” and is expected to sell for more than $20m (£16m) when it goes under the hammer at specialist auction house Tarisio on 9 June, making it the most valuable violin ever sold at auction.
The violin, called “da Vinci, ex-Seidel”, is expected to achieve the huge price because of its unique provenance. As well as being one of Stradivarius’ best – and still playable – violins, it was used by Seidel to record the scores to several early Hollywood movies including Intermezzo, in which a famed violinist, played by Leslie Howard, falls in love with his accompanist (Ingrid Bergman), Melody for Three and the 1939 musical classic The Wizard of Oz.
As well as using the violin to perform solos and with orchestras in some of the world’s most famous concert halls, Seidel also taught others to play.
One of his pupils was Albert Einstein, who in return for the lessons gave Seidel a sketch depicting the phenomenon of length contraction from his theory of relativity. The pair went on to perform a Bach double concerto at a fundraiser to benefit German Jewish scientists imperilled by the Nazis.
When Seidel bought the violin for $25,000 in 1924, it made front page news in the New York Times. At the time Seidel, an immigrant from Odesa, now in Ukraine, said he wouldn’t trade the violin “for a million dollars” as it was his most treasured possession. “The tone is of outstanding power and beauty,” he said.
Violinist and writer Adam Baer said everyone has likely been affected by Seidel and the violin even if they have never heard of him. “That we largely associate love scenes or depictions of the less fortunate in films – or any scene evoking tears or strong emotions – with the sound of the violin is largely due to Seidel,” he said in an article in the American Scholar magazine.
“And that is precisely what makes the ‘da Vinci, ex-Seidel’ Stradivari so significant,” said Jason Price, the founder of Tarisio, which specialises in selling violins and bows. “Whether we know it or not, we have heard this voice before and its memory recalls all the emotions, the tears and the romance of the great silver screen.”
He said the violin was extra special because “it ticks all the boxes – it’s a perfect and rare instrument, it’s something that has been played in things we know and love like The Wizard of Oz”. The opening bid in the online auction will be $8m.
In the run-up to the auction, the violin has been on a world tour, with private viewings arranged for potential buyers in London, Berlin, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York.
Price said that “unfortunately no musician in the world will be able to afford to buy the violin”, but that doesn’t mean they won’t end up playing it.
“Syndicates and trusts have formed to buy violins, and loan them to musicians to play,” he said, describing it as a collaboration similar to that of “race horse, jockey and owner”.
Among those who may bid is the UK’s Stradivari Trust, which was set up in 1985 by Cambridge entrepreneur and philanthropist Nigel Brown to help to fund the acquisition of a violin for the young Nigel Kennedy. There is also interest from several US foundations, as well as similar initiatives in Norway, Japan and Taiwan.
“They’re buying them to make them available for people who should be playing them,” Price said. “This is not a good market to try and get rich quick in.” He said violin prices have remained stable for many years.
The violin, which has been named “da Vinci” since the 1920s in a marketing drive to associate it with the Italian artist, was last sold in London in 1974 for £34,000. It is owned by Tokuji Munetsugu, a Japanese multimillionaire who owns the Coco Ichibanya restaurant chain, who has a vast collection of rare string instruments which he loans out via the Munetsugu Angel Violin Competition. Munetsugu, 73, has not said why he is selling the instrument.
The record price for a violin sold at auction was set by the “Lady Blunt”, a Stradivarius once owned by the granddaughter of Lord Byron. It was sold for £9.8m in 2011.