A Rare 1709 Stradivari Found In A Soho Bookshop
A wise man once said, ‘In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women’. Truer words have never been spoken, although in this particular story, perhaps the final ambition might be a Golden Period Stradivari. Last Friday night, a 1709 Stradivari violin was rediscovered in a bookshop in Soho, London. This astonishing discovery, however, seems to be merely the tip of the sugar cone, as the violin came with a positive avalanche of documentation which paints a colourful history stretching far and beyond London’s raucous nightlife. It’s a story that sees the fiddle associated with some of the greatest minds and precocious talents, as well as some hidden scandals, of the twentieth century. It all began, however, with the notorious sugar-refining tycoons known as the Havemeyer family.
The year was 1887. The stage was New York City. The players in question were a motley collection of dreamers, thieves, opportunists, capitalists, immigrants, and, of course, a couple of no good flea-bitten do-gooders. Basically, Americans. By then the head of the clandestine family, Mr Henry Osborne Havemeyer, had already dipped his toe in the fiddle-collecting world, having acquired a 1708 Stradivari that still bears his name. But this expensive acquisition wasn’t enough, oh no, not nearly enough. He had been bitten by the fiddle-bug (a curious little creature with six limbs and a bow tie), and was desperate to get his hands on at least one more by the end of the decade. But for that lofty ambition, the business needed to expand.
Building on the family’s sugar refining business, Henry established The Sugar Trust, which soon amassed nearly three quarters of the refineries in the US, and this provided just the sugar-rush he needed for his new-found taste for Stradivaris. By the end of the year, Henry had acquired two more, the first being the better known 1716 Booth, while the second was this secret jewel of 1709. Thought lost forever, it became a mere phantom in the annals of Stradivari folklore, before it was discovered nestling behind an original copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a unique, though slightly battered, copy of the 2011 erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey, signed by Jamie Dornan.
But how did this 1709 fiddle escape the grasp of one of the most powerful businessmen of the nineteenth century? Well, for that we must rewind to Henry Osborne’s marriage to Louise Edler, a prominent feminist, philanthropist, and philanderer. In that order. When Henry married her in 1883, he could hardly have suspected this to be the first step of a plan to steal one of the most treasured violins in history. However, extracts from Miss Edler’s diaries reveal the whole incredible story of her adulterous betrayal and the fiddle’s unlikely disappearance.
Fast forward four years, and the game was well and truly afoot. Louise had already birthed two of Henry’s children, Adeline and Horace, in what can only be described as the deepest of deep covers. The American suffrage movement had a sugar tycoon wrapped around the finger of one of their most ardent supporters. They only lacked the funding, and that’s where Mr Havemeyer’s Stradivari collection came into the picture. The plan was to seize all three and smuggle them across the Atlantic, where they’d find a home in the hands of Ethel Smyth, a fabulous composer and fellow feminist and philanderer.
You see, as the feminist movements took off in both the UK and the US, Miss Smyth and Mrs Havemeyer became embroiled in an affair that, had it been known at the time, would’ve rocked America to its core, perhaps rivalling such scandals as the Hamilton-Reynolds affair, or later the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of the 90s. And it wasn't like the Havemeyer family were short on scandal either. Mrs Havemeyer had fallen for Miss Smyth hard, and although the British composer had eyes for more prominent women (namely, Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf), she still saw the value in Louise’s daring plan.
And so, as 1887 came to a close, the heist was set into motion, as recounted verbatim from Miss Edler’s diary. Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The kids were in bed and Henry was out, down at the boozer drinking nine pints of stout. Basically he was out of action till the morrow, and no-one else would be in the room when it happened. So, in the dead of night, Louise tiptoed down to the vault where the three glistening Stradivaris lay resplendent in the middle. Without a moment to lose, she set about carefully placing the 1709 violin with its original case into her sack, but as she moved onto the 1716 fiddle, she suddenly heard a noise from behind her. She turned.
There, framed in the vault door, illuminated by the moonlight, was little Horace Havemeyer, rubbing his eyes sleepily. A do-gooder in the making. In a split-second decision, Louise made a break for it, covering her face and knocking the toddler out cold with the bag. Within the hour had found Miss Smyth in the harbour, and soon the Stradivarius was boarding a ship to the UK. With the task completed, Louise returned to poor Horace, and nursed him back to health with a bucket of water and a gin and tonic. He never remembered the thief’s identity, but from that day forth he vowed to make amends for his father’s loss, amassing an sizable Stradivari collection himself, including the celebrated 1711 Duport and 1714 Batta cellos.
So, with the 1709 Stradivari being sold anonymously, it fell out of the public eye, but its journey was far from over. Only once over the following hundred years did it resurface, when in the hands of Mrs Archibald Mitchell, co-chairwoman of the MSAB (Mitchell Society for Arch-Baldness), a charitable organisation dedicated to the plight of men dealing with male-pattern baldness. Yet how it reached Mrs Mitchell, and what happened to it after it passed through her society, was a mystery until today.
According to documents in its case, the instrument was previously in London over a hundred years ago. A certificate dated 1888 by the London dealership W.E. Hill & Sons was given to a man called ‘Lirpa’. While this name does not appear in any census, a ‘Lirpa’ of Baker Street appears several times in the notes of Alfred Hill, albeit with a mysterious gap between 1891 and 1894, and it is now thought to be a pseudonym for one of their most trusted clients. This violin was purchased for a measly fifty-five shillings, with the transaction taking place a mile away from the Hills’ premises in Bond Street, on Tottenham Court Road.
Due to the delicate circumstances in which the violin was procured, the Hills’ clearly thought it more prudent to conduct their business away from prying eyes. Indeed one could ask why such a prestigious dealership would agree to be mediators in the sale of a stolen Stradivari. The answer, however, might be found in a diary entry at the turn of the new year: ‘Owing to the recent demise of our friend Victor Reubsaet, we feel honour bound to indulge in his widow’s request.’ Victor Reubsaet, more commonly known as the Duc de Camposelice, was a dear client, and his death in 1887 would’ve deeply affected the Hills. Furthermore the vague nature of this diary entry speaks to this ‘request’ being something of a clandestine affair. It is thought the deal was arranged by the daughter of Isabella Boyer (the Duc’s widow), Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and known lover of Ethel Smyth.
In any case, by 1891 the violin had returned to Miss Smyth, and she kept it for two decades, no doubt unimpressed by the fifty-five shillings she had received from Mr Lirpa. During this period, it is possible the violin might’ve resurfaced, but her work was so often dismissed due to the unfortunate fact of her being a woman (she was described many-a-time as the ‘lady composer’ by her peers). So instead she slaved away at her symphonies, churning out opera after opera in relative obscurity with the help of her secret Stradivari, until eventually, she decided to make her suffrage beliefs public and reignite the old plan to sell her violin for the cause.
While it’s not known precisely when the violin left her care, by 1909 it was back in American hands. Another certificate, by Parisian dealers Caressa & Français, places the instrument in possession of J.P. Morgan, founder of one of the largest US investment banks, who spent much of his later years in Europe. Famously, he was due to board the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage, but cancelled at the last minute. Had he boarded, this violin’s last act might’ve been to play on as the passengers fought to get onto the lifeboats. The fiddle lived on, however, and its journey through the great and the good was far from over. After Morgan’s death in 1913, the violin passed to his children, none of whom shared his interest in fiddles. What they did share, however, was a burning desire to avoid inheritance taxes. So they used their father’s existing relationship with Caressa, who’d kept the initial deal off the books, to find themselves a suitor.
And what suitors they found. Initially they were contacted by the cubist pioneer Pablo Picasso, who was living in the city at the time. However, after sampling his artwork, which in Caressa’s words ‘looked as though the canvas had been beaten repeatedly with a violin’, he decided to think twice about selling the priceless fiddle to such a destructive character. The next idea was to sell it at an auction for theatre and opera memorabilia at the Palais Garnier in 1919, with Caressa submitting the violin as ‘Ethel Smyth’s personal violin, lot 667’. The highest bidder, who remained anonymous, offered a reasonable amount, but owing to his purchase of an old chandelier in the previous lot, he was unable to meet Caressa’s minimum asking price.
Fortunately the suitors continued to rack up and next along came none other than American car manufacturer Henry Ford. By the mid-20s, his net worth had grown to well over $1 billion, and he used this immense wealth to buy Stradivaris. Having already acquired the 1703 Ford, the 1709 Siberian, and the 1714 Adam, he had set his eyes upon a fourth fiddle: this 1709 model, previously owned by two other American industrialists. Surely it was fate, and soon it became an obsession, as Ford rededicated a great deal of his resources into buying it. But after all that work, all that ambition, he was destined to be thwarted by one Enzo Ferrari.
You see, Albert Caressa was an avid racing fan, and from the moment Ferrari offered Caressa the chance to ride in his race car, the deal was as good as done. Enzo kept his word and kept the fiddle for the following decades, as Henry languished in bitterness and jealousy. It is theorised that he even left instructions in his will that the company would rededicate itself to creating a race car capable of defeating Ferrari, thereby beating him at his own game. But that’s just speculation. The Stradivari, however, remained with Ferrari until after the Second World War, when he finally relinquished it in 1948, the year after Henry Ford’s death.
He placed the violin in the hands of Jacques Français, grandson of both Henri Français and Albert Caressa (co-owners of Caressa & Français), and it was through him that it reached Mrs Archibald Mitchell in New York. It’s not known how long the Stradivari was in her possession, but the violin was still in the States in the 50s, when it was played by Hollywood legend, Charlie Chaplin. A note written by dealer Rembert Wurlitzer stated that, quite aptly, ‘he was given a chance to play it without a single word exchanged, with only a twitch of the moustache and a tip of the bowler hat to indicate an agreement’.
After this event, the well runs a little dry. The Stradivari disappears for several decades, and no definite information is given about its whereabouts until the late 90s, when it was purchased by Mr A.Z. Fell, as he recalled in his Soho bookshop: ‘I remember it vividly. Yes, it was early September, 1997. I decided to visit a flea market in Covent Garden, keen on a spot of haggling after a splendid lunch at the Ritz, and came across this remarkable-looking violin, just perfect for my daughter, April. The asking price was £100, which I thought a little steep, though when I went down to £50, the seller (James, I think) immediately agreed to the cut-down price! Now that wouldn’t do, I thought. I’d come for a good haggle and a good haggle I was going to get! “No, no, no!” I said, “You’re supposed to argue: £50? You must be mad!”
It’s theorised that the vendor was so desperate to get rid of the violin due to its once-more stolen identity, though eventually he gave into Mr Fell’s whims, and the price was settled at £73.35. Ever since that day, it has remained in his Soho establishment. Originally intended for his daughter, the Fool dismissed it in favour of a didgeridoo she had acquired in Australia. The only other potential note of interest comes from a memo during the Christie’s sale of the c.1712 Earl Spencer in 1977: ‘... with regards to the sale by the executors of the late John Spencer, a Stradivari of 1709 was also considered for the auction, but his daughter has expressed an ardent wish for it to remain in the family’. There is no other documentation to link this instrument to John Spencer. The fiddle is currently being photographed at J. & A. Beare in London.
April 1, 2023