The World’s Most Valuable Musical Instruments
Drum roll, please. You can amp up your portfolio with rare and antique musical instruments. Violins, cellos, guitars, pianos and other devices made to create melodies can make you rich — if you know what to look for.
Kerry Keane, musical instrument consultant at Christie’s auctions in New York, told Forbes six factors establish an instrument’s worth: You must know who crafted it, its quality, its condition, who owned it in the past, its freshness in the market (like it hasn’t been available for 200 years) and whether it’s fashionable.
You won’t be able to recoup your earnings right away. Instead, wait it out until the instrument has gone up-tempo in the value department. If you bought a Guarneri or Stradivari violin in 1990, the Stradivari Society says its value has now tripled, 30 years later.
We’ve gathered info on some of the most prized musical treasures, starting with the lowest in value to the highest.
Gennaro Gagliano’s Violoncello
Year sold: 2009
Price: $362,500 (auction)
Gagliano, an Italian violin-making family, is often overlooked. It made this instrument in Naples, circa 1765. Don’t let the name fool you. A violoncello has morphed into the cello of modern day. This is considered to be one of the best made instruments in the world.
Verne Q. Powell No. 365 Flute
Year sold: 1987
Price: $414,000 (auction)
On a quest to create the world’s finest French flutes, Verne Powell first used whatever silver he could get his hands on — silver dollars, watch casings and spoons. In 1928 he turned to gold and made the first 14K gold flute. An innovator throughout his career, he then crafted a platinum flute ahead for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Flutist William Kincaid (pictured) bought the instrument after the end of the fair.
In 1987 art collector Stuart Pivar bought the flute at auction. He attended the event with his friend, Andy Warhol.
Marilyn Monroe’s Baby Grand Piano
Year sold: 1999
Price: $662,500 (auction)
The piano was originally owned by Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys. After she was institutionalized or died (both have been reported), someone else took ownership. After years of searching, Marilyn managed to track down the owner and buy it back.
Although well-worn, the sentimental value boosted the price of this Baby Grand. The buyer and current owner: Mariah Carey.
Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ Stratocaster Guitar
Year sold: 2004
Price: $959,500 (auction)
This may be Clapton’s most famous guitar, though much wear and tear is evident including chips, scratches and burns. Debuting in 1950, the Fender Stratocaster quickly became a favorite of many rock musicians, including Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
This black Strat was customized for Clapton from three of his own guitars. With one he favored the neck, another had pickups he liked and the third’s scratchplate was the best. Nashville luthier Ted Newman Jones fashioned the new instrument, creating the hybrid Clapton wanted.
‘Ex-Havemeyer’ Guadagnini Cello
Year sold: 2016
Price: $1.5 million (auction)
Giovanni Baptista Guadagnini handcrafted approximately 40 cellos during his career, creating 10 in each of the four Italian cities where he worked: Milan, and Parma, Piacenza and Turin. Soloists like his instruments because of their compactness and their rich, focused sound and clarity. The “ex-Havemeyer" made its debut circa 1743.
This cello runs a little smaller than its present-day relatives, but still sounds the same. One reason this cello procured such a high price is such cellos rarely appear at auction.
Ringo Starr’s Ludwig Drum Kit
Year sold: 2015
Price: $2.1 million (auction)
Starr bought the drum kit in 1962 and played it in at least 200 appearances. Jim Irsay, owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and an avid collector of anything Beatles, bought the drum set at auction. He already had Lennon-owned guitars and other instruments the Beatles played. Decked out in oyster black pearl, the set includes three pieces — a tom tom, a floor tom and a bass drum.
These drums made melodies with famed Beatles hits like “All My Loving,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” “Hippy Hippy Shake,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
John Lennon’s Steinway Model Z
Year sold: 2000
Price: $2.37 million
This piano isn’t glitzy or glamorous. There’s no filigree, sparkles or gold. Instead, it’s brown, plain and simple. The value lies in the previous ownership. John Lennon, who co-founded the Beatles, bought the Steinway in 1970. It was on these ivories that he wrote the song “Imagine,”
In 2000 another famed singer, George Michael, bought it at auction. He composed his “Patience” album on this plain-wrapper piano, and donated the piano to the Beatles Story museum in Liverpool.
The 'Reach Out to Asia' Fender Stratocaster
Year sold: 2005
Price: $2.7 million (auction)
In this case, the value wasn’t defined by who owned it nor the notes it played, but by the autographs that cover the exterior. Famous musicians like Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Bryan Adams, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and 14 others signed the instrument.
Then it was auctioned by the “Reach Out to Asia” charity in Qatar to benefit the victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. It was the most expensive guitar ever sold until a few weeks ago.
Heintzman Crystal Piano
Year sold: 2008
Price: $3.22 million (auction)
Known for its crystal-clear melody, this instrument produces incredible sound and shows off via the transparency of the inner workings. Heintzman Piano Company built it for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Lang Lang performed (pictured, playing another Heintzman piano) a harmonious rendition of “Starlight” to an audience of almost one billion during the opening ceremony.
Not too long after the Olympics, this see-through piano was auctioned off to an anonymous bidder. Made entirely of crystal, the design looks very futuristic. Alas, no pictures of the piano are available.
The ‘Casablanca’ Piano
Year sold: 2014
Price: $3.4 million (auction)
Who wouldn’t want a piece of Rick’s Café in their living room? Yes, this instrument did come from the set of one of the most iconic movies ever made, “Casablanca.” Next time you watch the film, take note of the memorable “As Time Goes By” scene with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The short upright also has a key role.
It’s now faded to shades of green and gold.
Most likely made in 1927, the Casablanca has only 58 keys, 30 less than on today’s uprights.
Stradivari’s ‘The Hammer’ Violin
Year sold: 2006
Price: $3.544 million (auction)
Crafted in 1707, Swedish collector Christian Hammer became the first-recorded owner and namesake of this violin during the 19th century. Hammer also collected jewelry, fine art, books and manuscripts. In 1992, the then-current owner loaned the violin to Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa, who played the instrument for 12 years. Takezawa, a recording artist and acclaimed soloist used The Hammer as her primary instrument when she performed.
When the instrument sold at a Christie’s auction in 2006, it became one of the most expensive musical instruments in the world.
David Gilmour’s 1969 Fender Stratocaster
Year sold: 2019
Price: $3.975 million (auction)
The Pink Floyd guitarist’s black strat — he played it on the band’s iconic songs “Comfortably Numb” and “Money,” among others — recently took the mantle of most expensive guitar ever sold. Colts owner Irsay spent the big bucks on the instrument, as he did with Ringo's drums.
Gilmour recently auctioned more than 120 of his guitars, with proceeds going to ClientEarth, an organization that supports “lawyers and environmental experts who are fighting against climate change.”
The Countess of Stainlein, Ex-Paganini Cello
Year sold: 2012
Price: $6 million+ (private sale)
Famed luthier Antonio Stradivari crafted this cello in 1707. Subsequent owners Nicole Paganini and Bernard Greenhouse preserved the instrument well and after 54 years of ownership the Greenhouse family sold the cello for more than $6 million.
The unnamed buyer — a “patroness of the arts from Montreal” — lent the cello to budding progeny, Stéphane Tétreault (pictured). At the time of the sale, Tétreault was only 19 years old.
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri Violin
Year sold: 2014
Price: $16 million (private sale)
Thought to be the most expensive violin in the world, this instrument earned its name via a previous owner, Belgian musician Henri Vieuxtemps. Later Yehudi Menuhin, Pinchas Zukerman and others took turns with the strings.
Constructed by Italian instrument creator Guiseppi Guarneri circa 1741, the violin was in mint condition when it sold in 2014, even after almost 300 years of use. Purchased by an anonymous buyer, he or she loaned it to American concert violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers (pictured), to play for life.
Duport Stradivari Cello
Year sold: 2007
Alleged price: $20 million
This instrument was built in 1711 by Stradivari and played by brothers Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport circa 1800-1819. Napoleon Bonaparte favored Jean-Louis as a cellist and legend has it after one enlightening performance Bonaparte grabbed the instrument, asked how to hold it and then damaged it. The dents he made with his boots are still visible today.
From 1974-2007, Mstislav Rostropovich (pictured), a Russian cellist and conductor, owned and played the cello. After his death, some media reported the cello sold for $20 million. Other reports dispute that sale, saying Rostropovich’s family still owns the instrument.
MacDonald Stradivari Viola
Asking price: $45 million (failed to sell at auction)
Handcrafted circa 1719 by Antonio Stradivari, this viola was one of only 10 that he made. That year falls during the instrument maker’s “Golden Period” of 1700-1720. In 1964, this viola sold for $81,000 to Philips, a Dutch electronics company that also owned a record label.
Philips bought it for Amadeus Quartet violinist Peter Schidlof to play, which he did from 1964-1987. There’s no word on when this one will be on the market again.