``Lady Blunt,'' ``Wilhelmj,'' ``Red Diamond.'' To the uninitiated they could be successful racehorses or speedboats. They are, in fact, violins and the competitive event they have been entered for is Sotheby's next auction of musical instruments on Nov. 14 in London.
Violins with names are no ordinary fiddles. There are many remarkable features about these violins, not least of which is their common origin from the hand of the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari.
The appearance on the market of any instrument by Stradivari causes something of a stir, but the arrival of no less than four at once, (there is also a cello), adds up to a very special occasion.
Antonio Stradivari became a legend in his own lifetime. Born in 1644 in Cremona, the great center of violin making in Italy, he enjoyed an exceptionally long career during which his prowess might occasionally be equalled but never excelled. Stradivari was one of those rare artists for whom old age did not mean decline, but rather the opposite. He did not reach his peak until in his 70s, and continued to work until his death at the age of 93.
The instruments of the ``golden period'' of the early years of the 18th century are considered the finest, and it is these that are distinguished by their names. Stradivari's reputation is based not only on his brilliant technique which involved the use of a unique varnish of a red/brown tone, the composition of which is still unknown, but that he pioneered the form of the violin which has remained almost unchanged to this day.
Such has been the legend of Stradivari that his name has tended to overshadow those of other great makers such as the Amati and Guarneri families in all but the most knowledgeable on the subject.
The ``Lady Blunt'' is a very well-known violin and takes its name from Lady Anne Blunt, granddaughter of Lord Byron, who owned it for a long period in the 19th century. Andrew Hooker of Sotheby's musical instrument department, places this violin at possibly No. 2 in importance among Stradivari's violins. Made in 1721, the ``Lady Blunt'' has survived ``almost perfectly preserved.'' During the 19th century, it was necessary to alter the necks of earlier violins to increase their volume to suit the larger concert halls, and the ``Lady Blunt'' was no exception. However, the alteration was carried out with the greatest care by the leading Parisian violin maker and dealer, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. He went to the trouble of preserving the original finger board and base bar which he had to remove, and these have remained with the violin.
When this violin was last sold at Sotheby's in 1971, it made 84,000, almost four times the previous record. It now seems likely that last year's record 396,000 for ``La Cathedrale'' will be swept away by the ``Lady Blunt'' which is estimated to reach 1 million.
The ``Wilhelmj'' (the `j' pronounced as a short `i') was made in 1725 and takes its name from the 19th-century German virtuoso August Wilhelmj who played it almost exclusively during a long and successful career. While not in the pristine condition of the ``Lady Blunt,'' it is an outstanding violin from the ``golden period'' with a great reputation for concert performances. Consequently, it is also likely to easily exceed the previous record.
The ``Red Diamond'' is in every way a colorful instrument. The name derives from the distinctive red tone of the varnish and it is a late piece of 1732. Few violins, or any other work of art, can boast of such adventures as the ``Red Diamond'' has experienced. The violin had been on extended loan to Sacha Jacobsen, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, when, in 1953, both maestro and violin were caught in a flood. Jacobsen was saved, but he was unable to rescue the ``Red Diamond'' whi ch was swept out to sea. Its loss was immediately reported, and hours later it was found washed up on a beach, still in its case. However, the salt water had dissolved the glue and it was in pieces and waterlogged. Quite remarkably, the loss assessor dealing with the claim, without waiting for anyone's approval, sent the instrument to the leading restorer, Hans Weisshar, without delay. His quick thinking saved the famous violin. The restorer immediately coated all the varnished surfaces with paraffin to all ow the wood to dry out through the unvarnished areas, which took about a month. Weisshar made such an excellent job of the restoration that, far from the value of the instrument being impaired, it sold for more than could previously have been expected when auctioned soon afterwards. The only scar the ``Red Diamond'' bears of this adventure is the damaged label, which is now in three pieces.
Labels inside violins inscribed ``Stradivari'' have been the cause of many a raised hope on the part of their owners. These hopes have always to be let down, if not dashed, as thousands of instruments bear the magic name, often in script or even printed. Most of these are not attempted fakes or forgeries -- it would be very difficult to carry that off successfully. These labels simply indicate that the violin is made in the style originated by Stradivari at a much later period and poor quality.
All three distinguished violins come to the auction from the same collection and are likely to be bought by collectors. The ``Lady Blunt'' is not likely to be much heard as its unused condition contributes substantially to its rarity and value. The ``Wilhelmj'' and the ``Red Diamond'' are seasoned performers, and it is to be hoped that they will not disappear into a bank vault only to reappear in a few years time at twice the price.