When a Guarneri “del Gesù” violin known as the “Baltic” hits the auction block at Tarisio on March 15-16, bidders won’t be vying over its sound alone. “The Baltic is not just an instrument,” says Carlos Tome, the director of Tarisio New York.  “People that are participating in the market for something like the Baltic are looking at this as a financial investment.”

Valued in excess of $10 million, the violin, made around 1731, is set to attract a combination of institutions, private individuals and consortiums of investors. “Banks and foundations are the newest participants in our market,” Tome says.

Yet, unlike other collectibles that double as investments (stamps, coins, paintings), the Baltic actually does something—namely, produce the extraordinarily rich, deep, resonant sound for which Guarneri’s violins are known. 

In that respect, the forthcoming sale of the Baltic, which could top the existing $15.8 million record set for a violin at public auction, underscores the intricate system of  determining value in the fine instrument market. These are antiques whose quality is dictated by condition, provenance, and nearly as important, sound. “The rarity of the occasion, and the rarity of this instrument, is what makes this sale so exciting,” Tome says.

The Top of the Market
Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), known as Stradivarius, is arguably the most famous instrument maker in history. Based in Cremona, Italy, he produced an estimated 1,100 instruments, About 600 of his violins still exist and are played with regularity after three centuries.

Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (1698–1744), known as Guarneri del Gesù, was also based in Cremona. Both makers are thought to have sourced wood from the same area, which a recent study suggests might explain their inimitable sound. But Guarneri made a mere 250 or so violins, of which about 150 are known to exist now. As a result, even though Stradivarius is more a household name, violins by Guarneri often command as much as—if not more than—similar pieces by Stradivarius.

People claim to prefer one maker over the other, but one thing is undeniable: Instruments from both dominate the high-end instrument market. “The two makers that define the market in terms of value and recognition are Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesù,” Tome says.  

Determining Value
Violins by these Italians might have been created equal, but three centuries of continuous use take a toll. While many aren’t in their original condition, the majority of known examples by the two makers—either restored and or pristine or somewhere in-between—remain in use.

The Baltic is in excellent shape. As a prime example of Guarneri’s work, it was exhibited in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art twice—in 1994 and in 2012—and was owned for nearly 50 years by the family of Sau-Wing Lam, a China-born, U.S.-based collector and arts patron.

Tome says the violin’s presale estimate of $10 million is a deliberately modest number. “We’re placing it at an attractive price only to attract and generate interest,” he says. “We expect its final price to be in excess of $10 million, up to $20 million.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.