Ka-ching to their bow
By the time you read this, two multimillion-dollar violins will have made the flight from the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwan to Sydney.
A 1709 Viotti Stradivarius and a 1732 Perkin Burnford (made by Carlo Bergonzi) are the stars of the Violin Treasures from Cremona exhibition, which is part of the biennial Musica Viva Festival to be held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music from April 4-7.
These two instruments are considered priceless but a clue to their monetary value lies in their insurance premiums. The Strad is insured for $6 million, the Bergonzi for $2.5 million. This explains why they travelled here with a bodyguard.
There are more expensive violins in Europe. These travel with two bodyguards. Those from the Chi Mei are typical of violins from the golden period of instrument making. Few musicians can afford one, so instruments of this calibre are usually bought as investments by benefactors who then lend them to performers.
Dene Olding, first violinist with the Goldner String Quartet and concert master with the Sydney Symphony, is one musician who has benefited from this tradition.
He plays a 1720 Joseph Guarneri, which he bought with the help of benefactors. He was alerted to this instrument by a dealer who heard that it was available in Australia as part of a deceased estate. He won't disclose how much he paid for it.
"I own my share in it," he says.
He certainly sees it as an investment and follows the international market for vintage violins. Happily, prices for Guarneris are steadily going up, as they are for Strads.
Olding's violin is one of the best in the country, and despite its age and value is played regularly.
"It is your professional tool of trade," he says. "These instruments need to be played to retain their complexity of sound."
They are more robust than they look. He even uses it for rehearsals. The Sydney Symphony has itself invested in a number of vintage instruments for use by its principal players. They consider this increases the overall quality of sound. Other Australian musicians have obtained their tools through the National Instrument Bank, set up in 2008 by the Music Council of Australia.
Through this initiative, corporations and private collectors are encouraged to lend high-quality instruments to musicians who otherwise would not be able to afford one.
One benefactor is Ulrike Klein, founder of the Jurlique skincare company and a music lover all her life. She decided to set up her own foundation in 2010 to finance the purchase of two antique Guadagnini violins and a viola for use by the Australian String Quartet. In 2011 she bought a cello with the help of donors.
"I always have them on loan," Klein says. "I don't need to own them personally."
While those who make donations can theoretically claim these as tax deductions (check with your financial adviser first), the question of self-managed super funds investment is more complex.
Lilly Camden, a violin expert who helped organise the Musica Viva exhibition, says she has explored the possibility of claiming antique instruments as part of an SMSF but ATO regulations only allow this if the purchase is stored in a safe. This also applies to art, coins and stamps.
This is impractical in the case of violins, which, as she puts it, "have to be played to keep them alive". Buying one can still be a good investment. The value of antique instruments has been steadily rising for decades and Camden suggests that more modern violins are also worth considering. Those made in Australia by A.E. Smith from the 1930s to the '50s are now considered rare and desirable.