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 names, such as the “Earl of Plymouth” Stradivarius, which, to restore its reputation, mystique and market value, is now also referred to as “the ex-Kreisler”.
Can Toscha Seidel use the same marketing magic — even though his fame came mostly from Hollywood rather than the concert hall?
Musicians and collectors will soon find out. After a world tour currently underway, the violin Seidel owned and played, the 1714 “da Vinci” Stradivarius, will be sold by online auction house Tarisio, from May 18 to June 9. This is the first Stradivarius from the so-called golden age of violin making to be auctioned in decades.
Unlike most musical instruments, over time all Stradivarius violins have acquired names, some rather fanciful, 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 ‘da Vinci’, ‘Titian’ and ‘Michelangelo’ .
The violin itself is naturally the most important factor in determining its value, with instruments made by the Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri families of Renaissance Italy fetching the highest prices. The condition is another crucial consideration. But so does the identity of its former owners – its provenance.
Few people can recognize the name Seidel today. But he was so successful in the 1920s that he was able to buy the “da Vinci” for $25,000 (over $400,000 today), a sale featured on the front page of The New York Times on April 27, 1924. Seidel said at the time he would not trade the violin “for a million dollars” and considered it his most prized possession, adding, “The tone is exceptionally powerful and beautiful.”
Seidel was so well known in his heyday that George and Ira Gershwin wrote a comic song about him and three of his Russian Jewish peers: “Mischa, Sasha, Toscha, Jascha.” (“We are four fiddlers three.”) Both studied in St. Petersburg with the eminent professor Leopold Auer; and both emigrated to the United States after the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. They made their concert debut at Carnegie Hall within months of each other to critical acclaim.
Albert Einstein took violin lessons at Seidel and together they performed Bach’s Double Concerto for a fundraiser. They sported thick locks of unruly hair that reinforced the caricature of the musician with long hair, in the manner of Liszt.
Seidel and Heifetz settled in Los Angeles, where the booming film industry paved the way for Seidel’s success. In the 1930s, he was surrounded by a crowd 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 lead violin in many of Korngold’s famous 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 a violin and piano arrangement of Korngold’s suite for “Much Ado About Nothing”, with the composer at the piano.
Musical directors and composers sought out Seidel’s warm, rich tone. He was the concertmaster of the Paramount Studio Orchestra and performed 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) .
“The fact that we largely associate love scenes or portrayals of the less fortunate in movies – or any scene evoking tears or strong emotions – with the sound of the violin is in large part due to Seidel,” Adam Baer, violinist and journalist, in a 2017 article for The American Scholar. (Baer’s violin teacher studied with Seidel and insisted that his students listen to recordings of Seidel’s performances.)
Although best known for his film work, Seidel has also performed standard classical repertoire, solo with orchestras and on tour in recital. In the 1930s, he was heard by millions of radio listeners as musical director and frequent soloist with the CBS Symphony Orchestra. In 1934, he had his own weekly network show, “The Toscha Seidel Program”. (Several recordings showcasing his lush sound are on YouTube, including a 1945 recording of Chausson’s “Poème” 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 record.”
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, studios ditched their in-house orchestras, relying instead on freelancers. And as he got older, Seidel developed a neurological condition that gradually diminished his playing. This once prominent violinist found himself in a pit orchestra in Las Vegas before retiring to a California avocado farm. He died in 1962, aged 62, with his violin by far his most prized possession.
This violin was last sold at auction in London in 1974 for 34,000 pounds (over $3 million today). It is currently owned by Japanese restaurant chain tycoon Tokuji Munetsugu, who has amassed a collection of rare stringed instruments and sponsors an international violin competition in Japan. (Munetsugu, 73, did not say why he is selling it.)
Film music has made its way into concert halls, and “Star Wars” and “Jaws” composer John Williams is arguably America’s most popular living composer. But film scores and their mostly anonymous readers have long been largely shunned by the classical music elite.
Could the “da Vinci” sale nevertheless set a record?
The “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius, once owned by Lord Byron’s granddaughter, holds the current record for a violin sold at auction. (Its 2011 sale, for $15.9 million, was also handled by Tarisio.) Like the “Messiah” Stradivarius now held by the British Museum, the “Lady Blunt” has hardly ever been performed and remains in in a perfect state.
Carlos Tome, violinist and co-owner of Tarisio, said the auction house has not released an estimate for the “da Vinci”. Citing its rarity – a golden-period Stradivarius – beautiful condition and “unique Hollywood provenance”, he said he expects it to sell for between $15 million and $20 million.
“It could set a record,” he said, noting the emergence of a class of wealthy collectors since the sale of the “Lady Blunt” a decade ago. (Other dealers say there have since been several private sales at prices over $20 million.)
Baer dismissed the idea that the “da Vinci’s” Hollywood pedigree might reduce its auction value. Although he admitted that Seidel had not recorded the most intellectually rigorous music, he added that “the fact that he is a Hollywood artist should in no way diminish the value”.
“He was a great classical musician before he came to Hollywood,” Baer added. “And ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a big deal.”