Rare violins once owned by famous virtuosos such as Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin have sold privately in recent years for up to $20 million. The instruments they played usually bear their name, such as the ‘Earl of Plymouth’ Stradivarius, now known as the ‘ex-Kreisler’ to polish his reputation, mystique and market value.
Can Toscha Seidel work with the same marketing magic, even if his fame came mainly from Hollywood and not from the concert hall?
Musicians and collectors will soon know. Following a worldwide tour currently underway, the violin Seidel owned and played, the 1714 “da Vinci” Stradivarius, will be sold by the online auction house tarisiofrom May 18 to June 9. It is the first Stradivarius from the so-called golden age of violin making to be auctioned in decades.
Unlike most musical instruments, all Stradivarius violins have been given names over time, some quite imaginative, such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The “da Vinci” has no connection with Leonardo. As a marketing tactic, a dealer who sold three Stradivarius violins in the 1920s named them all after famous Renaissance painters: in addition to the “da Vinci,” the “Titian,” and the “Michaelangelo.”
The violin itself is, of course, the most important factor in determining its value, with instruments made by the Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri families of the Italian Renaissance fetching the highest prices. Condition is another critical consideration. But so is the identity of the previous owners – its provenance.
Few will recognize Seidel’s name today. But in the 1920s he was so successful that he was able to buy the “da Vinci” for $25,000 (more than $400,000 today), a sale that made the front page of The New York Times. on April 27, 1924† Seidel said at the time that he would not trade the violin “for a million dollars” and considered it his most treasured possession, adding, “The tone is of extraordinary power and beauty.”
Seidel was so well known in his heyday that George and Ira Gershwin wrote a comedy song about him and three of his Russian Jewish peers: “Mischa, Sasha, Toscha, Jascha.” (“We are four violinists three.”) Both studied in St. Petersburg with the eminent teacher Leopold Auer; and both immigrated to the United States after the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. They made their Carnegie Hall concert debut within months of each other, to critical acclaim.
Albert Einstein took violin lessons from Seidel and together they performed Bach’s Double Concerto for a fundraising campaign. They wore thick curls of unruly hair that enhanced the caricature of the long-haired musician like Liszt.
Both Seidel and Heifetz settled in Los Angeles, where the burgeoning film industry paved the way for Seidel’s success. In the 1930s, he was surrounded there by a mob of mostly Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany and war-torn Europe. Among them were the composers Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Seidel played the main violin part in many of Korngold’s acclaimed film scores, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (for which Korngold won an Academy Award) and “Anthony Adverse” (ditto). The two men recorded an arrangement for violin and piano of Korngold’s suite for “Much Ado About Nothing,” with the composer at the piano.
Music directors and composers sought out Seidel’s warm, rich tone. He was the concertmaster of the Paramount Studio Orchestra and played the violin solos for MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” and David Selznick’s “Intermezzo”, in which a famous violinist (played by Leslie Howard) falls in love with his accompanist (Ingrid Bergman).
“That we largely associate love scenes or depictions of those less fortunate in movies — or any scene that evokes tears or strong emotions — with the sound of the violin is largely due to Seidel,” Adam Baer, a violinist and journalist, in an article from 2017 for The American Scholar. (Baer’s violin teacher studied with Seidel and insisted that his students listen to recordings of Seidel’s performances.)
Though best known for his film work, Seidel also played standard classical repertoire, soloist with orchestras and toured in recitals. In the 1930s, he was heard by millions of radio listeners as a musical director and a frequent soloist with the CBS symphony orchestra. In 1934, he had his own weekly broadcast on the network, “The Toscha Seidel Program.” (There are several recordings of his luscious sound on YouTube, including: a 1945 recording of Chausson’s “Poem” with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.)
“He was a singing violinist, influenced by the cantorial tradition,” Baer said in an interview. “He played with as much depth of tone and emotional intensity as anyone I’ve heard on disc.”
But Seidel never achieved the enduring international fame of Heifetz. In Los Angeles, Heifetz often called on Seidel to play with him in string quartets, literally taking on the role of second violin.
As Hollywood’s golden age faded, the studios abandoned their own orchestras and relied on freelancers instead. And as he got older, Seidel developed a neurological disorder that gradually diminished his game. This once-eminent violinist ended up in a pit orchestra in Las Vegas before retiring to an avocado farm in California. He died in 1962, aged 62, with his violin by far his most prized possession.
That violin was last sold at auction in London in 1974 for £34,000 (over $3 million today). It is currently owned by Japanese restaurant chain magnate Tokuji Munetsugu, who has amassed a collection of rare stringed instruments and sponsors an international violin competition in Japan. (Munetsugu, 73, didn’t say why he’s selling it.)
Film music has found its way into concert halls, and the “Star Wars” and “Jaws” composer John Williams is arguably the most popular living American composer† But film scores and their mostly anonymous players have long been largely shunned by the classical music elite.
Could the sales of “da Vinci” still set a record?
The “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius, once owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, holds the current record for a violin sold at auction. (The 2011 sale for $15.9 million was also handled by Tarisio.) Like the “Messiah” Stradivarius now owned by the British Museum, the “Lady Blunt” was hardly ever played and is in pristine condition. stands.
Carlos Tome, a violinist and co-owner of Tarisio, said the auction house has not published an estimate for the “da Vinci.” Citing its rarity — a Golden Age Stradivarius — its good condition and its “unique Hollywood provenance,” he said he expects it to sell for between $15 million and $20 million.
“It could set a record,” he said, pointing to the rise of a class of wealthy collectors since the “Lady Blunt” was sold ten years ago. (Other dealers say there have been multiple private sales since then at prices in excess of $20 million.)
Baer rejected the idea that the “da Vinci”‘s Hollywood pedigree could curb its value at auction. While admitting that Seidel didn’t record the most intellectually rigorous music, he added that “the fact that he was a Hollywood performer shouldn’t diminish its value at all.”
“He was a great classical musician before coming to Hollywood,” added Baer. “And ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a pretty big deal.”