The re-emergence of a long unseen Stradivari violin of the most desirable form, in superb condition, having a first class provenance and a famously splendid tone, is a rare occurrence. Up to the point when we handled the sale of the 1710 ex-Vieuxtemps Stradivari, this violin had been in the hands of only one family for over 100 years and had remained out of view of contemporary experts. Consequently, photographs of the Vieuxtemps Stradivari of 1710 are absent from all of the major 20th century publications on Stradivari. The images presented here are the first modern photos of this spectacular instrument.
Published just after the violin was sold to Dr. Geissmar of Mannheim, the Fridolin Hamma catalogue of 1901 featured the 1710 Vieuxtemps Stradivari ahead of the much-heralded ex-D’Egville del Gesu violin in a demonstration of Hamma’s high relative regard for the Stradivari. Hamma’s black and white photos hardly do the Vieuxtemps justice and the catalogue is by now rare enough to have only been seen by relatively few violin book mavens.
Since 1901 a number of books have been published noting the existence of a fine 1710 Stradivari known as the ex-Vieuxtemps, reputed to have been the famous violinist’s favorite instrument. Doring’s How Many Strads? gives a favorable, albeit second-hand report of the violin.1 The entry in Henley’s Antonio Stradivari and His Instruments is scant but makes an unverified claim that this was the violin presented to the French violinist Count Stroganoff at St. Petersburg.2
In Herbert Goodkind’s Iconography of Antonio Stradivari our example seems to be confused with another 1710 Stradivari known as the ex-Camposelice, which is pictured in the book and clearly does not match the 1710 Vieuxtemps shown here. The two violins may have been confused because of their shared provenance that includes the Duchesse de Camposelice. However it happened, Goodkind seems to have merged two separate provenances for the violin pictured in his book and omitted the existence of the violin that is the subject of this article.3
From the meticulous records of the Hills acquired privately, we can reliably track the provenance of the instrument from their acquisition to the time it left their hands and until the time it reached Dr. Geissmar, from whose estate we acquired the instrument over a century later:
Mr. Hohenmensen, who is a banker, referred to Geissmar, the lawyer of Mannheim, with whom we did business some years ago, and who now owns the Vieuxtemps Strad, which we sold to Percy Woodgate for £800, and he sold it to Hart for £1,400, and Hart sold to Hamma for £1,500. Dr. Geissmar gave the last named 31,000 Marks for it, so the man who made the great profit was the private person, Woodgate, all the dealers coming off second best. When we sold the violin on behalf of the Duchess de Camposelice to Woodgate, I think we got about £100 out of the transaction.
There are other interesting entries in the Hill diaries about the Vieuxtemps Stradivari. The Hills tracked the most important violins assiduously, as they were always on the lookout to purchase back particularly special examples. In their diaries the Hills say, “A finer Strad or Guarnerius from a tone point of view hardly exists.” This is a judgment with which we wholeheartedly concur today.
With a body length of 357 mm and upper and lower bouts of 168 mm and 208 mm respectively, the Vieuxtemps violin is built on one of the fullest, broadest Stradivari models. Stradivari had ended his experimentation with the long pattern prior to 1700,4 and from that time developed and concentrated on variations of the size that has come to be regarded as normal. Stradivari violins from the very start of the 18th century are something of a hybrid model, retaining aspects of the more contoured arch toward the edges, characteristic of pre-long pattern instruments, but combined with the less full arch overall evident on the long pattern violins. Stradivari violins from 1698-1709 usually have a body length of 353 to 355 mm, upper bouts between 166 mm and 168 mm, lower bouts of 205 mm. Over time the more scooped arching of the Stradivari violins from the early 1700s gives way to a more powerful arch, a precursor of the emergence of violins for which Stradivari is most famous. Around 1710, Stradivari began building instruments based on a new large and particularly bold model. Because of their overall size and powerful, less contoured arching, instruments of this type appear generally fuller and stronger than their more feminine siblings. The upper bouts remain fairly consistent between the two models with measurements not normally exceeding 168 mm. The lower bouts are expanded to a width of 208 mm or more and the length of the body as much as 360 mm.5
Whatever the inspiration, with the larger models Stradivari achieved a large volume of air space with a normal stop length resulting in a more readily playable model than the “Long Pattern” instruments. Always experimenting, Stradivari had moved away from the large model by the early 1720s but over the intervening centuries these full-bodied Stradivari violins have come to be regarded as some of the most successful violins of all time, both for their bold and timeless beauty and their robust, yet pure, tone. Some of the most famous and well-preserved examples of Stradivari large pattern instruments built between 1710 and 1720 are:
- 1711 Parke
- 1713 Boissier-Sarasate
- 1714 Soil
- 1715 “Cremonese”
- 1715 Hochstein
- 1714 General Kyd
The choice, highly figured maple on the back of the Vieuxtemps recalls the wood used in other violins of the period including the King Maximilian and Scotta violins, both of 1709, and the Ries of 1710. Stradivari often made heads of less figured wood than on his backs, presumably for ease of carving and to save the most luxurious material for more prominent placement, but the head and the ribs of the Vieuxtemps violin are made of highly figured wood matching that of the back lending opulence to the final result. The spruce for the top of the violin is also extremely fine and the fiery red varnish is exquisite. Overall, time has been kinder to the Vieuxtemps violin than to many other surviving Stradivari instruments, and so as of this writing we can describe this extraordinary violin as being in excellent condition.
The tone of the 1710 Vieuxtemps violin is truly thrilling. There is reserve power in every range and no problem notes or discernable weaknesses. Perhaps most remarkable is not only how loud one can play on this instrument but how softly and beautifully one can remain audible. As a concert instrument this violin is in a class with some of the greatest Stradivari violins we have ever had the opportunity to experience.