Sounds like a good investment
Rare and sought-after: instruments like the Amati cello of Amaryllis Fleming achieve record prices
It must have hurt Amaryllis Fleming’s soul: the 007 agent James Bond, invented by her half-brother Ian Fleming, abuses a Stradivarius violoncello by using it to steer as they sled down a snowy mountain, sitting in a cello case and being pursued by gangsters. The noble instrument is not exactly treated with care in the film “The Living Daylights”, which was released in 1987 and in which a female sniper, of all people, knows how to handle it.
But Amaryllis Fleming, the author’s younger illegitimate half-sister, was a cellist, and one of the best in the UK. She played with the pianist Artur Schnabel, the violinist Joseph Szigeti and under conductors such as sir John Barbirolli. and she was the first soloist of her day to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s sixth cello suite as it was originally intended: on a five-stringed instrument.
This special violoncello owned by the Englishwoman, who died in 1999, has now been sold, and once again it became clear that when instruments of this calibre change hands, the sums – as in this case – quickly reach seven figures. However, the trade in such pieces rarely takes place in full view of the public. This was not the case with Amaryllis Fleming’s instrument, but the exact price was also not disclosed in the sale.
Stringed instruments, especially the violins of the leading northern Italian families Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati & Co. fetch top prices on the market, and the trend is rising. This is a “commodity” that is several centuries old: Andrea Amati, quasi the progenitor of violin making, was born around 1505, while Antonio Stradivari’s “golden” and thus today most valuable period began almost 200 years later. 650 Stradivari instruments are known, but there are at most half a dozen on the market.
This scarcity – in addition to the still singular craftsmanship and cultural value of course – determines the price. Worldwide, there are about three thousand stringed instruments worth one million GBP and more – this is the figure given by violin maker, dealer and restorer Florian Leonhard, and he gives the value in British pounds because he is based in London with his company “Florian Leonhard Fine Violins”. After his training at the Mittenwald violin making school, he worked for W.E. Hill and Sons, where he became head restorer. Since 1995, he has restored, appraised and certified old master instruments on his own account. Renowned musicians such as Leonidas Kavakos, Daniel Hope, Julian Lloyd Webber and Alina Ibragimova have been supplied by him with renowned working materials, although the buyers themselves are usually companies, banks and investors. They usually pass the instruments on as patrons.
Leonhard also sold Amaryllis Fleming’s five-string violoncello: an extremely rare piece in its design and condition by Hieronymus Amati, known as “Ex-Amaryllis Fleming”, which was made in Cremona around 1610. Even for Leonhard, who already had many unique pieces of the highest price league on the table, it was “really exciting to hold this instrument in my hands”, as he says. “after 400 years, the cello is still so original and pure!” it is rare to see a cello from this period that has remained unchanged in all its important parts. Amati’s work was very modern and ahead of its time. The design and the curvature of the instruments have been retained by luthiers of the following centuries, so that soloists can produce a sound that fills modern concert halls.
One reason why this sale could be publicised in many details: The buyer is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – and the private sellers will use all the proceeds to support musical charities. “Something like this, of course, makes the sale particularly rounded,” Leonhard is pleased to say. “A museum with hundreds of thousands of visitors and the option that the Ex-Amaryllis Fleming will even be played in concerts occasionally – in our business, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Amati-instruments are mainly collectors’ and museum instruments – the prices, however, do not reach the boundless heights of those Stradivaris that are actually played by famous soloists. Antonio Stradivari also built (albeit few) violoncellos, and compared to these, the ex-Amaryllis Fleming seems downright cheap. Two sales of Stradivari-Celli, both conducted eleven years ago, make this clear. The instrument of the famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, for which only about 1 million US dollars had been spent in 1990, was sold in 2014 for 20 million. The estimated value today: 30 million, which corresponds to a return of a good 10.5% per year. Julian Lloyd Webber’s working instrument was even better invested: it went over the counter in 1983 for £192,000, sold in 2019* for £14 million, worth an estimated £22 million today. 12.25 % p.a. – it is not for nothing that instruments of this type also play first fiddle in terms of the risk/return ratio. In a comparison of asset classes, according to an analysis by market expert Rachel Campbell, Assistant Professor of Finance at Maastricht University, surprisingly only fine wine can keep up with double-digit returns; the classical art market itself does not have this potential. One difference, however: a violin gets better and better the more regularly you play it. The same cannot be said of wine when it is put to its proper use.
* The original version incorrectly stated 2014.