By Inge Kjemtrup

The dominance of instruments by Antonio Stradivari in the auction world was challenged in May 2016 with the record-breaking sale of the 1743 “ex-Havemeyer” Guadagnini cello for $1.5 million through Tarisio Auctions. Not only was it the highest price paid for a cello at auction, it was also the highest price for any instrument by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711–86).

There are many reasons the cello sold for such an impressive total, as Tarisio director Jason Price explains in an interview. Most obviously is the fact that Guadagnini cellos, of which only 40 are known, show up rarely at auction. It’s also true that the instrument itself is a gem: “The preservation and condition were immaculate,” Price says. It is a “Holy Grail–type instrument” and, according to Price, while it was in the Tarisio New York showroom, cellists had the chance to play it—and couldn’t put it down.

Perhaps most important are the playability and rich sound that Guadagnini cellos offer players. Soloists (for example, Natalie Clein and David Geringas), chamber musicians (like David Finckel), and orchestral players (such as the New York Philharmonic’s Carter Brey) play Guadagnini cellos. “There’s something appealing for cellists about Guadagnini, in part because of the body size: They are a good 3cm smaller than a Strad, making them more maneuverable,” says Price, who is himself a cellist. “There’s less work in the soloistic parts—you sit down and it’s all right there. There are no wolf notes to find your way around, and the sound is focused and compact, and cuts through the sound of an orchestra.”

The ex-Havemeyer has been dated 1743, early in Guadagnini’s career. He was working in Piacenza, the first of the four Italian cities where he was known to have been based (Milan, Parma, and Turin are the others). Guadagnini was a friend of the prominent cellist Carlos Ferrari, and his regular input no doubt accounts for some of Guadagnini’s success as a cello maker. “He was working for musicians and surrounding himself on a social level with musicians,” says Price. “We can only imagine that he was receiving feedback and fulfilling orders.”

It also didn’t hurt that very few cellos were being made in that period by Cremonese masters, such as Bergonzi and Guarneri del Gesù. “If a cellist wanted to commission an instrument in the early 1740s, they would almost certainly have had to look outside Cremona,” wrote Price in an article about the instrument. Guadagnini, in Piacenza, was not far away.

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Another Cremonese connection comes in the pattern of the instrument itself. The noticeably flat arching of the cello’s spruce top has led some to speculate that Guadagnini came to this idea after seeing a Giuseppe Guarneri “filius Andrea” cello—or the “Grossman” as it is now known. The shimmering two-piece back is of poplar that is native to northern Italy, as are the ribs.

There’s a certain roughness to this cello that doesn’t detract from its vitality in look or sound. “That’s the way he always was, working roughly to finish things,” says Price. “He was looking at the big picture; he wasn’t focused so much on details.” On this instrument, that means a treble f-hole that’s 3–4mm lower than the bass, and off-center fluting on the scroll.

Still, the ex-Havemeyer is a remarkable instrument, not least for its excellent condition and the fact that it still has so many original fittings. “The inside of the cello was unadjusted. The linings had never been refitted or cut down, and are still rectangular,” says Price. “It was interesting to see what Guadagnini had done and also to see that no one had done anything [else] in 300 years. The upper (top) block is original, too. Most of the time the original block was taken out and thrown away.” Care was also shown by whoever modernized the neck.

Little is known about the players and owners of this cello prior the early-20th century, when it turned up in the collection of the industrialist Henry Osborne Havemeyer. President of the American Sugar Refining Company, the rather ruthless Havemeyer had tastes in art. He and his wife were noted collectors of Impressionist works. He was an amateur violinist and amassed a remarkable collection of instruments, among them the 1723 “Kiesewette” Stradivari violin, the 1737 “King Joseph” Guarneri del Gesù violin, the 1711 “Duport” (ex-Rostropovich) Stradivari cello, and this Guadagnini.

Price says that in the 60 years between its purchase at Wurlitzer in the 1950s and its appearance at the Tarisio auction, the ex-Havemeyer was played by a professional musician in New York City. Though Price could not reveal the name of the purchaser, he does mention that the cello went to “a great female player,” leaving a little mystery that a keen-eared audience member may just solve on the day that great musician draws the first distinctive, rich, and clear Guadagnini sound from her cello. 

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