Classical Music

COFFEE BREAK | 300-Year-Old Guarneri Violin Comes Up For Auction


Views of the Guarnari “Baltic” violin (Photo courtesy of Tarisio Auction House)

A Guarneri violin dating from 1731 is expected to fetch up to $10 million USD at an auction planned for March 2023. It will be sold via the Tarisio Auction House, a web-based auction house specializing in stringed instruments and bows.

There are about 150 remaining violins by the Italian master known as Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù of Cremona, Italy. Many artists, including Paganini, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Jascha Heifetz, have preferred Guarnari violins for their sound. The Guarneri sound, in comparison with a Stradivarius, for example, produces deeper, darker tones.

The violin up for auction is known as The Baltic.

“The ‘Baltic’ is more than an exceptional instrument; it is a singular work of art,” Carlos Tomé, director and head of sales at Tarisio, said in a statement. “Given the limited quantity of violins produced by del Gesù, the upcoming sale marks the first time in over 30 years that an instrument of this type has come to public sale.”

Stella Chen plays the Guarnari “Baltic” violin (Photo courtesy of Tarisio Auction House)
Stella Chen plays the Guarnari “Baltic” violin (Photo courtesy of Tarisio Auction House)

The Baltic’s history

The violin was made by hand in 1731 by master luthier Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù in exceptional quality maple wood, and remains in excellent condition nearly three centuries after its construction.

Bartolomeo Giuseppe “del Gesù” Guarneri was born in 1698, and died in 1744. His brother Pietro also became a luthier, and established himself in Venice. Giuseppe, often called “del Gesù” to distinguish him from his father of the same name, was 32 years old at the time that he crafted The Baltic. He came from a family of luthiers that included both his father and uncle.

After his father’s retirement, Giuseppe began to carve his own path, breaking with his family’s traditions in some cases to create his own unique process. The Baltic has a shorter body, comparatively speaking, and broader wings. The sound holes have a distinct shape. The Baltic is one of the first violins to display his innovative signature style. The violins he produced during the 1730s are considered among the greatest masterpieces of the luthier’s art.

The instrument was most recently owned by Sau-Wing Lam, who purchased the instrument in 1979. It was kept privately by his family after his death in 1988.

Previous owners include classical musician Dorotha Powers in the 1950s. According to provenance notes by Tarisio, Powers traded two Stradivari for The Baltic in her purchase of the instrument from the Wurlitzer Company.

Lam was a Chinese businessman, born in Shanghai. He later moved to New York in 1948, and worked his way to president of the Dah Chong Hong Trading Corporation, Inc. conglomerate. He was also an amateur violinist and violist, and began to collect instruments in the 1960s. His wife Jean was an amateur pianist, and the couple were known for their financial support and sponsorship of student musicians, as well as loaning instruments from their collection.

Chinese cellist Jian Wang attended the Yale School of Music with their support, and went on to become the first-ever Chinese musician to sign an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. For the last four decades, Wang has played a cello loaned to him by the Lam family.

“Sau-Wing Lam was one of the great unsung heroes of the music world,” Wang said in a statement through Tarisio. “Through his vital support of musicians and his careful stewardship of the musical instruments he collected, he established a remarkable legacy that is ready to be shared and passed on to the next generation.”

Interested parties can view the violin at Tarisio’s New York galleries from Feb. 22 to March 16, the final date of the online auction. The catalogue, and a video of artists playing The Baltic in performance, can be viewed here.

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