At Bein & Fushi’s Rare Violins on Michigan Avenue, you can find dozens of fine violins. Some have been re-strung or repaired, while others have been completely restored. But there is one violin in this shop that is kept under lock and key away from the others.
“Every time I take it out of the safe, it goes directly into a case that we carry it around in,” says store owner Geoffrey Fushi. “And I must say that we are generally not that careful with others.”
The violin was made by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu in 1741, and is named after one of its former owners: Henri Vieuxtemps, a 19th-century Belgian composer.
The Vieuxtemps violin has been played by some of the greatest virtuosos in history, including Eugene Ysaÿe and Yehudi Menuhin. Today, it is owned by a London banker who has asked Fushi to find a buyer for it.
Fushi remembers the owner’s instructions: “‘I’m considering entrusting my violin to you to sell. Now my violin is the greatest one. So I think it really merits an impressive price.’”
And what is that “impressive” asking price? A whopping $18 million.
But for the elite group of musicians who have been fortunate enough—not only to handle the Vieuxtemps but to actually play it—its incredible value doesn’t seem to shake their confidence.
Sang Mee Lee, a native Chicagoan and violinist with the Beethoven Project Trio, has had the opportunity to play the Vieuxtemps several times.
“As an artist, as a player, you honestly don’t think about the price, the value, whatever,” Lee says. “You’re most interested in the sound and the beauty of the tone….the beauty of the craftsmanship.”
Lee played the Vieutemps at Fushi’s shop two weeks ago, and was once again taken aback.
“It may sound a little corny, but these violins have souls. They absolutely do. And this violin, it carries something,” Mee says, cradling the violin. “It’s from another world.”
That magical quality has driven high-tech efforts to unlock the centuries-old secrets of the violin. Earlier this year, a team of scientists at Northwestern Memorial Hospital helped to analyze the instrument’s craftsmanship by taking CT scans of it along with three other rare violins. The scans measured the overall outline of the instrument, thickness and density of the wood, and details about the curves of the front and back plates.
But some violin experts are doubtful that instruments like the Vieuxtemps can ever be recreated.
“Science can do so much, and tell us so much, but it can’t really supplant art,” says Stefan Hersh, a violin dealer, professor and director of the orchestral program at Roosevelt University. He once worked for Fushi tracking rare violin prices, and says the reason the Vieuxtemps is the most expensive violin in the world right now is because it’s up for sale.
“Suffice it to say that among the violins that it would be grouped with, any of them that would trade would set a world record. Maybe almost every time they would trade,” Hersh says. “So the most valuable instrument is the one that traded last, in a sense. And when this one trades again, it will probably be for a certain length of time the most valuable one until another in that very, very narrow group of the best instruments in the world trades again.”
Hersh says it’s difficult to judge whether or not the Vieuxtemps is in fact the greatest violin ever made, but nevertheless he says it is one of the best.
“It’s among the best violins in the world. I would love to have it. I don’t have $18 million in spare change lying around, or even $17.5 million to make an offer,” Hersh says. “But I would love to have such a violin. That’s a thrilling object.”
Fushi says he’s seen some interest shown in the violin, but his true hope is for the instrument to stay right here in town.
“I’d love to have it end up here in Chicago, and displayed at the Art Institute, have it played six or 10 times a year for important performances,” Fushi says. “Usually music lovers wouldn’t say that, but it really deserves to be preserved and played by the greatest artists.”