J & A Beare has an international reputation for restoring and trading some of the world’s finest stringed instruments, many of them made by the great Italian maker Antonio Stradivari.
Jonathan Arnold visited their London premises to find out more.
I am truly in awe. Arranged in front of me is a row of beautifully-crafted violins, many of which were made in the 17th and 18th centuries by the greatest of all violin makers: Antonio Stradivari.
The violins, and some equally fine violas and cellos, are on display in the offices of J & A Beare, one of the oldest companies in the world restoring, making and trading fine stringed instruments. Each of the instruments has a personality, a history that can often be traced back to its original maker, and many of them are played by some of the world’s great musicians and soloists. It is in this act of continuity that makes a Stradivari or rare stringed instrument so enduring – and Beare’s work so vital.
Just as I am settling into this reverie, captivated by the beautiful woods used, the subtle difference in the keys and scrolls evident from one instrument to the next, Simon Morris, co-director at J & A Beare appears. “Hello” he says, “I’ll just pop down to the safe and bring up a Stradivari.” A Stradivari? What have I been looking at? Many of the instruments lined up behind me will fetch millions of dollars at auction but the one Morris is holding is in an altogether different league. Says Morris: “This is the Tyrrell of 1717, one of the few best-preserved Stradivari violins in the world. Such a unique instrument rarely comes to the market but it would certainly greatly exceed the previous record of $15.9m for a Stradivari.” And there it is, lying on the table in front of me. I am too nervous to even breath on it.
“A Strad,” he says, “is the only fine work of art worth millions that is also a tool of a trade. It’s so much more than a box of wood that makes noise. If you think of the greatest violin maker, you immediately think of Stradivari.”
Morris has the perfect credentials for his role at Beare’s. He began his career as a cellist, became co-principal with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and worked as a chamber musician. Later he played for almost 10 years with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, for which he now serves as a trustee board member. Along with co-director Steven Smith, Morris has been with Beare’s since their own violin dealership, Morris & Smith, Merged with J & A Beare in 1998.
Morris says that he has a “love and passion for who made what” and he clearly adores the instruments that pass through Beare’s hands. Apart from the Stradivari, Beare’s also deals in instruments made by some of the other noted makers such as Guarneri del Gesù or Bergonzi, although admittedly they haven’t quite reached popular parlance in the same way Stradivari has.
Still, a del Gesù or a Bergonzi can be equally prized by both players and investors. There are currently around 600 known Stradivari instruments in the world, but far fewer del Gesu’s – about 150 – and only about 50 Bergonzi. “It’s a diminishing market,” adds Morris.
In essence, Beare’s act as a conduit between patrons, players, and investors, ensuring that those who come to Beare’s know that they are receiving an unrivalled combination of deep expertise allied to bespoke craftsmanship.
Beare’s has the largest stock of very fine and rare instruments in any single location and has even dipped its toe into the auction market.
But what makes the world of fine stringed instruments so unusual is the passion shown by most investors towards their acquisition. These rare instruments are not faceless commodities that languish in a bank vault and are disconnected from their owners, merely growing in value. Mimi Durand Kurihara, who looks after client relations for Beare’s, explains: “Almost all of our investors allow world-class players to use the instruments they buy. They simply need to be played.”
And the very act of playing by, say, a top soloist such as Joshua Bell, Nicola Benedetti, Julia Fischer, Henning Kraggerud or Nigel Kennedy greatly adds to the instrument’s provenance – and no doubt its value. Morris even handled the sale of an exceptional Pietro Guarneri of Venice cello to the late maestro Mstislav Rostropovich – indubitably one of the world’s greatest ever cellists.
Says Kurihara: “The trust we share and the community we build with our clients and musicians is key to our business. Nearly all investors choose to become patrons.”
Morris agrees: “Owners enjoy this extra dimension of having contact with a player. You can invite the player to come to your house and play your instrument or hear it played in concert. If you were to just sponsor a concert your investment’s gone when it’s over. But ownership opens a door forever. The vast majority of instruments are still played. I would estimate 80 percent.”
Speaking to the Guardian newspaper recently, Morris declared: “Often, an investor with an interest in the arts will buy an instrument and lend it to them [the players]. It’s a very satisfying symbiotic relationship. As well as the financial investment, they benefit from a personal relationship with the player, from the satisfaction of asking them to play private concerts for their friends.” Loans are brokered through philanthropic organisations such as the Chicago based Stradivari Society, and through introduction forums including Beare’s own International Violin Society. “This market is driven by need. Players will be extremely persuasive in trying to find and convince an investor to fund their instrument.”
Trading in fine stringed instruments is only part of what Beare’s does. Its restoration and making skill shave similarly brought the firm international recognition. “The reputation of our workshops,” says Morris, “is both in our craftsmanship and in the vast archives of restoration notes we have kept.”
One of the six restores at Beare’s is Frenchman Alexandre Valois, who describes himself as a Luthier and Archetier, the correct terms for a violin and bow maker. Valois studied violin making at Sherwood college in Nottingham and then spent a further six years learning his craft, studying with a master and then working on his own. He became involved in the trade and joined the small team at Beare’s two years ago.
“We see the instruments as art objects,” he says, “but coupled with that are the very important tactile aspects, the physical connection with the instrument we have through touch and feel. In addition, there are different smells and varnishes associated with each instrument. Ultimately, of course, there’s the sound. I’m an amateur player but I do need to prepare instruments for players and know what feels and sounds right.”
Valois, and the other specialist Luthier’s at Beare’s, are part of that long line of makers and restores reaching back 300 or more years to the Cremona days when Stradivari, Guarneri, and Bergonzi were making their instruments just a few streets away from one another. “We are working to keep alive old instruments which is really gratifying. We have to assess each instrument and decide if it is fit for a particular player.”
When an instrument arrives – and some of them can be in a fairly poor state – the Luthiers dismantle it, clean all the cracks, secure them and correct the arching below the bridge, consider the varnish and examine numerous other aspects of it. In addition, a plaster cast is made of any part of the instrument that might be distorted and needs correcting. The cast is then scraped to the correct shape and then the relevant part of the instrument is pressed back within the cast to the same shape.
“When musicians come in,” explains Valois, “some will say the instrument has a ‘cough’ or isn’t singing well. We can resolve these discrepancies or for them. I see the instrument as patients and we have to look after them.”
So skilled is Valois at his work that he claims, with disarming modesty, that “95 percent of the time I can tell what’s original and what’s been repaired.” Such expertise comes from years of working, repairing, listening, playing and understanding the subtle nuances involved in these incredible instruments.
Next time you are fortunate enough to see and hear a leading soloist play one of the great concertos, the chances are they will be playing a Stradivari, Guarneri or Bergonzi. And it may just be that the patron / owner of that instrument acquired it from J & A Beare. It is, as Morris says, a symbiotic relationship. And for that, we should all be very grateful.