For Sale: Strength, Excitement, Songfulness

An Auction of Isaac Stern’s Instruments and Memorabilia

By Bradley Bambarger

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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Long revered as the savior and president of Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern was first and foremost a world-class violinist. Stern — who passed away Sept. 22, 2001, at age 81 — held as his prized possessions a pair of Guarnerius del Gesu violins that were more than 200 years old when he purchased them. As he recounted in his autobiography “My First 79 Years” (written with Chaim Potok and published in 1999 by Knopf), the veteran musician’s particular “beloved” was the Guarnerius previously owned by a lifelong hero of his, the legendary Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye. Stern wrote that this violin was an instrument that, in the right hands, radiated “strength, excitement, songfulness, masculinity.”

With his globe-trotting concert career, Stern feared loving such a rare instrument to death. So, in the early 1990s, Stern asked luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz to create touring copies of both of his Guarnerius rarities. The uncommon success of this work led to Zygmuntowicz making instruments for such star violinists as Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repim and Leila Josefowicz.

From May 1-8, Zygmuntowicz’s replicas of the Stern “Ysaye” and “Stern-Panette” violins, valued at $20,000-$28,000 and $18,000-$25,000 respectively, will be auctioned off by the Internet auctioneer Tarisio. The auction will include about 200 Stern-related items, including about 30 of his violin bows — among them a very rare Pajeot model with an estimated value of $35,000-$40,000 — and a 12-bow leather case once owned by Ysaye.

Expected to be the top “Stern Collection” item at the auction is a violin made by famed 19th-century French craftsman Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, whose vintage fiddles are often prized by top soloists alongside their Stradivarius and Guarnerius models. According to Tarisio, Stern’s instrument, a del Gesu type crafted circa 1850, has an estimated value of $70,000-$100,000.

Born July 21, 1920, in Kremenetz, Russia, Stern grew up in San Francisco, where he debuted at age 16 in the Brahms concerto. His hit Carnegie Hall debut came in 1943, with an international career as concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber musician to follow. He worked with the best in the business, including close partnerships with Leonard Bernstein and pianist Alexander “Shura” Zakin, his recital mate of 33 years. Stern enjoyed a 54-year relationship with Columbia/CBS/Sony Classical — one of the longest in record industry history — yielding more than 100 recordings of some 200 works by 63 composers, including virtually the entire standard violin literature and new works by Bernstein, George Rochberg, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henri Dutilleux.

In 1962, Stern famously led the crusade to save Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball (an office tower was to be erected in its place). In the years after, he was the great musical institution’s spiritus rector, providing a link to its glorious past while always thinking about its future. An indefatigable Zionist, Stern recounts in “My First 79 Years” his moving experiences playing for Israeli soldiers wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He also made historic tours to Russia and China (although he refused to perform in Germany after World War II, only visiting there once, on Carnegie business and as a “learning experience,” in 1998). An enthusiastic teacher of youngsters, Stern held master classes from Jerusalem to Japan. Star fiddler Pinchas Zukerman was a Stern protégé.

Other Stern effects up for auction include his personal Hamburg Steinway model “C” grand piano, which he owned for more than 40 years and used for recordings with Yefim Bronfman and with his golden latter-day quartet with Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Jaime Laredo. The auction also includes a trove of collector’s items and souvenirs from Stern’s career, including autograph manuscripts by Sarasate and Casals, an original playbill for an 1831 London concert by Paganini, memorabilia from Stern’s saving of Carnegie Hall, photographs signed by the likes of Bernstein and Fritz Kreisler, and two Al Hirschfeld drawings featuring Stern. One nonmusical item for sale is Stern’s personal Art Deco brass cigar humidor. Potential bidders can inspect the lots for sale at pre-auction viewings, held April 28 and 29 at the 165 West 57th St. offices of Columbia Artist Management Inc.

Tarisio’s May auction will also include some non-Stern goods, including a 1687 Stradivarius violin being sold on behalf of an unspecified North American university. According to the auction house, the instrument has an estimated value of $900,000-$1.2 million.

In recent years, Tarisio has been seen by some as rivaling traditional houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the auctioning of fine stringed instruments. The Internet auctioneer holds the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a viola — $775,500 for a Brothers Amati model from 1616.

Bradley Bambarger is creative director for the classical record company and Web site Andante, as well as a contributor to Billboard, Stereophile and the Newark Star-Ledger, among other publications.

FIDDLER ON THE BLOCK: Among the 200 items for sale this month by Internet auctioneer Tarisio is Stern’s Jean Baptiste Vuillaume violin, circa 1850 and estimated at $70,000-$100,000. Vuillaume’s vintage fiddles are often prized by top soloists alongside their Stradivarius and Guarnerius models.

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