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Friday, May 23, 2014

Are Stradivarius Violins Really That Good?

A 1731 Stradivarius violin, known as "The Kreutzer," which is named after the French concert violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer who once owned it, could sell for as much as $10 million in an auction next month ("Stradivarius violin owned by reclusive U.S. heiress could sell for $10 million"). The violin is one of the items on sale from the estate of Huguette Clark, who died in 2011 at the age of 104. After she died, the violin was found in a closet where it evidently had been stored for the previous 25 years. To date, the highest price paid for a Stradivarius violin is $16 million, so if "The Kreutzer" sells for $10 million, it won't break a record. However, another Stradivarius (this time, a viola) made in 1719 will be auctioned by Sotheby's in June, and it's valued at $45 million, which if it isn't a record, it's gotta be pretty close.

But are Stradivarius's really worth that much? Are they really that good? If you ask a professional violinist, most will say yes. However, several "blind" tests dating as far back to the 19th century suggest that it just isn't so, which makes one wonder how much of the Stradivarius appeal is about how they sound and how much it's about the brand. Put differently, are our brains priming us to believe that the sound is beautiful simply because it's a Stradivarius?

In 2010, a group of researchers decided to find out. They gathered a group of musicians in a hotel room and had them play a mix of new and old violins, including two made by Stradivari. The musicians played the violins while wearing welding goggles, so they couldn't tell which instrument they were holding. And when the researchers totaled up the results, there was no evidence the players could reliably pick which ones were made by Stradivari and which ones weren't. Moreover, when they were asked to pick their favorite, the winner wasn't a Stradivarius. It was a recently made violin.

Needless to say, this study's results were extremely controversial. One violinist reportedly remarked that the test was like comparing a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot. So the researchers repeated the experiment with more violins, better players, and in a concert hall, and the results were essentially the same. The players could not tell old from new or the Stradivarius violins from the new ones.

Unsurprisingly, many professional violinists, at least those who own or would like to own a Stradivarius, were unconvinced by the results. But studies of other "fine" goods, such as wine ("Do Expensive Wines Really Taste Better?"), have uncovered similar results, suggesting that we often (probably more often than we'd like to admit) think something's wonderful simply because we expect it to be wonderful.

All this is the subject of a recent NPR Planet Money podcast ("Is A Stradivarius Just A Violin?"), which you can download from iTunes or listen to at the Planet Money website. Just click on the link above.

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