A violin from Hollywood's golden age aims at an auction record

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A violin from Hollywood's golden age aims at an auction record
Jason Price, director of Tarisio auction company, holds the “da Vinci" Stradivarius violin in Berlin, Germany, April 30, 2022. Crafted in 1714 and played in “The Wizard of Oz” and other classic films, Toscha Seidel’s Stradivarius could sell for almost $20 million at an online auction running from May 18 through June 9, 2022. Andrew White/The New York Times.

by James B. Stewart

NEW YORK, NY.- Rare violins once owned by famed virtuosos like Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin have sold privately in recent years for up to $20 million. The instruments they played typically bear their names, like the “Earl of Plymouth” Stradivarius, which to burnish its reputation, mystique and market value is now also referred to as the “ex-Kreisler.”

Can Toscha Seidel work the same marketing magic — even though his fame came mostly from Hollywood rather than the concert hall?

Musicians and collectors will know soon. After a global tour currently underway, the violin Seidel owned and played, the “da Vinci” Stradivarius from 1714, will be sold by online auction house Tarisio, from May 18 through June 9. It 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, like “the Sleeping Beauty.” Famed virtuoso Niccolò Paganini called his “Il Canone.” The “da Vinci” has no connection to 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 the “da Vinci,” the “Titian” and the “Michaelangelo.”

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 commanding the highest prices. Condition is another crucial consideration. But so, too, is the identity of its prior owners — its provenance.

Few may recognize Seidel’s name today. But he was so successful by the 1920s that he was able to buy the “da Vinci” for $25,000 (more than $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 wouldn’t trade the violin “for a million dollars” and considered it his most treasured possession, adding, “The tone is of outstanding power and beauty.”

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.”) Seidel and Heifetz were both born in Ukraine, both studied in St. Petersburg with eminent teacher Leopold Auer, and both emigrated to the United States after the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. They made their concert debuts at Carnegie Hall within months of each other, to critical acclaim.

Albert Einstein took violin lessons from Seidel, and together they performed Bach’s Double Concerto for a fundraiser. They sported thick shocks of unruly hair that reinforced the caricature of the long-haired musician, like Franz Liszt.

Both Seidel and Heifetz settled in Los Angeles, where the burgeoning movie industry paved the way for Seidel’s success. By the 1930s, he was surrounded there by a crowd of mostly Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany and war-torn Europe. Among them were composers Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Seidel played the principal violin part in many of Korngold’s celebrated film scores, which included “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.

Music directors and composers sought out Seidel’s warm, rich tone. He was the concertmaster for the Paramount Studio Orchestra and played the violin solos for MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” and David Selznick’s “Intermezzo,” in which a famed violinist (played by Leslie Howard) falls in love with his accompanist (Ingrid Bergman).

“That we largely associate love scenes or depictions of the less fortunate in films — or any scene evoking tears or strong emotions — with the sound of the violin is largely due to Seidel,” Adam Baer, a violinist and journalist, wrote in a 2017 article for The American Scholar. (Baer’s violin teacher studied with Seidel and insisted that his pupils listen to recordings of Seidel performances.)

Although best known for his movie work, Seidel also played standard classical repertoire, soloing with orchestras and touring in recital. In the 1930s, he was heard by millions of radio listeners as the musical director and a frequent soloist with CBS’ symphony orchestra. In 1934 he had his own weekly broadcast on the network, “The Toscha Seidel Program.” (Several recordings showcasing his lush sound are on YouTube, including a 1945 recording of Ernest Chausson’s “Poème” with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski.)

“He was a singing violinist, influenced by the cantorial tradition,” Baer said. “He played with as much depth of tone and emotional intensity as anyone I’ve heard on disk.”

But Seidel never achieved Heifetz’s enduring international fame. In Los Angeles, Heifetz often called on Seidel to play with him in string quartets, literally assuming the role of second fiddle.

As the golden age of Hollywood faded, the studios abandoned their in-house orchestras, relying instead on freelancers. And as he aged, Seidel developed a neurological condition that gradually diminished his playing. This once-eminent violinist ended up in a pit orchestra in Las Vegas before retiring to an avocado farm in California. He died in 1962, at 62, with his violin by far his most valuable possession.

That violin last sold at auction in London in 1974 for 34,000 pounds (more than $3 million today). It is currently owned by Japanese restaurant chain magnate Tokuji Munetsugu, who has amassed a collection of rare string instruments and sponsors an international violin competition in Japan. (Munetsugu, 73, has not said why he is selling it.)

Film music has been making its way into concert halls, and “Star Wars” and “Jaws” composer John Williams is arguably the most popular living American composer. But movie scores and their mostly anonymous players 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 the granddaughter of Lord Byron, 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 owned by the British Museum, the “Lady Blunt” was hardly ever played and remains in pristine condition.

Carlos Tome, a violinist and a co-owner of Tarisio, said the auction house has not published an estimate for the “da Vinci.” Citing its rarity — a Stradivarius from the golden period — its fine condition and its “unique Hollywood provenance,” he said he expects it to sell in the $15 million to $20 million range.

“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 multiple private sales at prices more than $20 million.)

Baer dismissed the notion that the Hollywood pedigree of the “da Vinci” might curb its value at auction. While he conceded Seidel did not record the most intellectually rigorous music, he added that “the fact he was a Hollywood performer shouldn’t diminish the value at all.”

“He was a great classical musician before he came to Hollywood,” Baer added. “And ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a pretty big deal.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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