A 1731 Guarnerius violin could realise US$10 million at auction

A nearly 300-year-old violin that was crafted by the revered Italian luthier Giuseppe Guarneri could sell in excess of US$10 million when it goes up for online auction at Tarisio New York next month.

Named the Baltic, the rare instrument was in the hands of late Chinese-American businessman Sau-Wing Lam, whose collection is dubbed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) as "one of the most important collections of bowed Italian stringed instruments ever assembled by a private individual." It was also exhibited twice at The Met, which speaks to the importance of the instrument. 

Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri 'del Gesù' | The 'Baltic'
Created in 1731
Estimated to sell in excess of US$10 million

Auction House: Tarisio New York
Sale: Fine Instruments & Bows (Online Auction)
Date: 15 - 16 March 2023

In 2010, a “Molitor” violin that once belonged to Napoleon sold for a record-shattering price of US$3.6 million, and the record was broken by a “Lady Blunt” violin the following year, when it fetched US$15.8 million at Tarisio in New York to become the most expensive musical instrument sold at auction. So, why are some violins worth millions? 

The reason lies in the violin-makers. In the violin-making world, two names prevail all others: Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. Both masters lived during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in a small town in northern Italy called Cremona, known as the cradle of violin-making. The luthiers garnered a reputation for constructing the finest stringed instruments in the world.

To the present day, only a few hundred of their instruments are known to have survived – around 650 by Stradivari and 150 by Guarneri, making them exceptionally rare and coveted among both players and collectors.

Auction record for a violin | Lady Blunt Stradivarius, Sold: US$15.8 million, Tarisio New York, 2011

Centuries-old violins are well-known for their unique tonal qualities. As the old wood oxidizes over time, the instrument is refined by age and creates a unique vibration that flows between the resonance chambers. Compared with Stradivari, whose violins have a precise and light tone, Guarneri’s violins are renowned for their deep and dark richness, in which some players prefer.

Guarneri's works are characterized by the letters IHS (Iesus Hominem Salvator) and a Greek cross in the form of a trefoil, hence the name "del Gesù". In fact, it was Niccolò Paganini, the famous violin master, who made Guarneri famous. He considered "the Cannon" violin made by Guarneri to be his favorite and most precious instrument.

The Baltic

The Baltic

Guarneri's works are characterized by the letters IHS and a Greek cross in the form of a trefoil

Created in 1731, the Baltic takes its name from one of its previous owners – the Giese family, who lived outside Berlin in Germany and were successful shipowners and sea captains having traded up and down the Baltic coast. 

Having changed hands several times since 1935, the Baltic was acquired by late Chinese-American businessman Sau-Wing Lam in 1979. A well-known figure of the New York banking scene, Lam was born in Shanghai, China, where he earned a degree in economics from Saint John's University. 

While neither of his parents were music enthusiasts, Lam took up the viola at university and was hooked ever since. Despite never having received music training, his God-given talent and passion catapulted him to a position in a theater orchestra in Shanghai's thriving cultural scene.

After graduating, he moved to Hong Kong and worked for Hang Seng Bank. In 1948, Lam was sent to New York to establish the Dah Chong Hong Trading Corporation’s presence in the United States. During his time at DCH as the president, he went on to establish DCH Auto Group, a top automobile dealership in the country.

Lam Sau-wing, late Chinese-American businessman and a passionate collector of bowed Italian stringed instruments

Lam would play with his pianist wife at home

As Lam thrived in his career, he embarked on his lifelong journey of collecting in the 1960s, eventually assembling an impressive collection of bow Italian stringed instruments, which included Stradivarius violins, viola by Andrea Amati, and several Guarneri. 

Every time he added a piece into his collection, he would invite scholars, dealers, and musicians to his home, where he and his pianist wife would hold impromptu chamber concerts that lasted into the early morning hours. 

Throughout his life, he offered patronage and support to musicians of all ages, preferring to be on the side-lines rather than in the spotlight himself. In the 1980s, Lam spotted the cellist Jian Wang in a film, who was only 10 at the time. Impressed by his talent, Lam offered to sponsor him to study at the Yale School of Music. When Wang arrived in the US, he even gave him a cello made by the Amati family in 1622, which the now renowned cellist still plays up to the present.

After Lam's death in 1988, the Baltic was kept by his heirs, who generously loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum (The Met) in New York for exhibition in 1994 and from 2012 to 2013.