Musical string instruments, also called stringed instruments or chordophones, are instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when played by the performer. From harpsichords to violins, to cellos, guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and bouzoukis, the strings of these instruments are played in many ways. Techniques include plucking strings with one’s fingers, hitting them with a light wooden hammer, rubbing them with a bow, and touching them with the edges of a wheel (as with a hurdy-gurdy), among others.
Used thousands of years ago, stringed instruments are believed to date back to around 13,000 BC. A cave painting from this time discovered in the Trois Freres cave in France arguably depicts a musical bow, from which scholars believe many other stringed instruments eventually emerged, like bow harps, lyres, dyads, and chords.
Admired for their beautiful sounds, fine craftsmanship and materials, and world-famous owners who struck chords for massive audiences, some musical string instruments like guitars and violins have fetched record prices at auction and in private sales. Here, we’ve compiled a list of 11 of the most extraordinary, exceptional famous guitars and valuable violins ever sold. Here are the ones to know.
Top 5 most valuable guitars
Some of the most legendary guitarists, from Bob Dylan to Dave Gilmour, were the stars of the golden era of rock music from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s – and even into the ‘90s. Masters at their craft, they left millions starstruck and many vintage guitar enthusiasts eager to get their hands on their collectible electric, acoustic, and bass instruments like the ones listed below.
5. Bob Marley’s Washburn 22-Series Hawk, $1.2- $2,000,000 million
The custom-made 22-Series Washburn acoustic guitar once owned by reggae icon Bob Marley holds the record for the most expensive acoustic guitar ever sold. This guitar, one of 7 that Marley had over his lifetime, was first given to Marley’s guitar tech, Gary Clausen, then later purchased by the Jamaican government to be kept as a national treasure. While the details of the transaction are unknown, the final price is rumored to have been between $1.2-2 million.
4. Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 Fender Stratocaster; Peter Green & Gary Moore’s 1959 Les Paul, $2,000,000
The 1968 Fender Stratocaster owned by Jimi Hendrix and the 1959 Les Paul owned by Peter Green (and later Gary Moore) each sold for a price of $2 million.
Hendrix, who’s believed by many to be the best guitarist that ever existed, used his Olympic white-finished Strat for recordings and during the Woodstock Festival of 1969, where he played his famous live rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was this performance that helped this particular guitar rise to fame (and a hefty price tag). Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased this treasure in 1998.
The 1959 Les Paul that also sold for $2 million was owned by Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, and later by Gary Moore, a North Irish musician known for hits like “Still Got the Blues” and “Parisienne Walkways.” Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett snatched this one from Richard Henry Guitars, and it became the most expensive Gibson Les Paul ever sold.
3. Fender’s “Reach Out to Asia” Stratocaster, $2,700,000
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Bryan Adams’ Reach Out To Asia Project funded this special edition Fender Strat, which cost between $15-25k to make. It was signed by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Sting, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and David Gilmour, among other musical masters, and sold for a whopping $2.7 million in a 2005 auction.
2. David Gilmour’s black Stratocaster, $3,900,000
During a 2019 David Gilmour auction in New York, this famous black Stratocaster sold for $3.9 million to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. At the time, this put the guitar on record for the most expensive ever sold, and overall, Gilmour earned about $21.4 million from the auction. He donated proceeds to Client Earth, a charity that fights for climate action.
Known as the “Black Strat,” Gilmour used this iconic instrument in some of the most famous Pink Floyd albums.
1. Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E, $6,010,000
Currently setting a Guinness World Record for most expensive guitar ever sold at auction is Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E, which sold for just over $6 million at a June 2020 Julien’s auction in LA. Originally expected to sell at around $1 million, it came complete with its original hard-shell case decorated with Cobain’s mementos.
This was Cobain’s guitar used for Nirvana’s world-renowned “MTV Unplugged” performance in November 1993. It was purchased by Peter Freedman in Australia.
Top 5 most valuable violins (and a stunning bonus)
Violins, the most modern embodiments of musical string instruments, likely evolved from mid-16th-century Northern Italy. This next impressive list compiles the 5 most expensive antique violins ever sold (plus one extra valuable museum treasure), dating back to the 1700s and crafted by the most well-known violin makers of all time.
5. The Hammer Stradivarius, $3,540,000
Italian string instrument maker Antonio Stadivari made about 1,116 instruments in his time (1644-1737), and 960 of them were violins. An estimated 450-512 violins of his survived the test of time, among them the Hammer Stradivarius.
This antique violin was made in 1707, during what was said to be Stradivari’s “golden period.” It was named after Christian Hammer, a 19th-century Swedish collector who was its first known owner. In 1911, violinist Bernard Sinsheimer first brought it to the US, and in 1992 it was purchased in an estate sale by a Japanese oil company. After it was put on 12-year loan to Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa, the Hammer sold at a Christie’s auction in 2006 for $3.54 million.
4. The Molitor Stradivarius, $3,600,000
Also crafted by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari, this valuable violin was made in 1697, and was thought to have been once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. 19th-century Parisian socialite Juliette Recamier possessed it until 1804, when it then was taken by Count Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor of Napoleon’s army. The violin remained with the Molitor family until World War I, when it was sold by several Parisian businesses.
It later became part of the collection at the Curtis Institute of Music, then was sold again in 1936, 1957, 1988, 1989, and finally in 2010, when it was sold by Tarisio Auctions for $3.6 million, then the highest auction price ever paid for a musical instrument. It remains with its current owner, American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.
3. The Lord Wilton & the Ex-Szigeti Stradivari, $6,000,000
The Lord Wilton violin, also called the ex-Yehudi Menuhin, was made in 1742 by the distinguished family of luthiers, Guarneri. It’s named after 19th-century musician Seymour Egerton, 4th Earl of Wilton. The violin was later owned by Yehudi Menuhin from 1978-1999, and when he died, it sold for $6 million to a private collector.
The Ex-Szigeti Stradivari also holds an impressive $6 million price tag. It was made by Stradivarius in 1724 and is known for its beauty. It’s been in the possession of several famous violinists but was most recently bought in 1989 by Landeskreditbank Baden Württemberg and remains there today.
2. The Mary Portman, $10,000,000
Guarneri Del Gesu crafted this fine violin in 1735, which was named after Mary Isabel Portman, builder of the Kranzbach Castle. Violinists Adele Anthony and Fritz Kreisler played the Mary Portman model, and it’s currently owned by Susanne Hou. It’s been priced at about $10 million.
1. The Vieuxtemps Guarneri & Lady Blunt, $16,000,0000
One of the most expensive violins ever to exist, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri sold at auction for over $16 million (the exact amount is unknown). This violin is named after 19th-century violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Its current owner loaned it to Anne Akiko Meyers to play for the rest of her life.
The Lady Blunt, made in 1721, is one of the best-preserved violins as it is in nearly perfect condition. It also holds a price tag of about $16 million, making it one of the most expensive violins. Named after Lady Anne Blunt, the first owner of this model, its long been held in collections but its current owner is not known.
Bonus: Messiah Stradivarius, $20,000,000
Valued at over $20 million, the 1716 Messiah Stradivarius is the most expensive violin to ever have been made by Stradivari. Well-crafted and well-known, this model was created during the violinmaker’s golden period and never left his shop until his death 21 years later.
This violin has not been played as much as other antique violins we’ve named above, so it is in great condition, which has boosted its value. It’s considered the best-preserved Stradivarius. Many notable violinists, however, have tried it.
Once sold in the 1700s and 1800s to various owners, this seemingly invaluable item has not been put up for auction or sold in a recent private sale. Rather, it’s being displayed at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, England, where it’s remained since 1939.
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