A few months ago a remarkable man named Herbert Axelrod donated two Stradivari violins, a Stradivari viola and a Stradivari cello to the Smithsonian, creating what is now known as the Axelrod Quartet.
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The gift was accompanied by a $1 million endowment to support performances by the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. The instruments have been appraised at $50 million, though Axelrod has turned down offers as high as $55 million.
A self-taught ichthyologist, Axelrod made a fortune publishing handbooks on pets, especially tropical fish. Recently he sold the business for a reported nine figures. Since then he has given money away to various music institutions and museums, including a $1.5 million endowment to the National Museum of Natural History's Division of Fishes.
The Strads came to him in the 1980s, and he promptly loaned them to the National Museum of American History. Late last year he turned the loan into a gift, one of the largest ever for the Smithsonian.
All right. These fiddles are around 300 years old. If you are serious about violin playing, you can pay from $20,000 to $250,000 for an instrument. It probably will be old, and likely will be Italian, but chances are it won't be anywhere near a Stradivarius for glamour, not to mention tone.
So what is it that makes a Strad so valuable, exactly?
I talked to Gary Sturm, who more than anybody else is the person who made the gift happen. It was Sturm who drove up to New Jersey any number of times just to talk about violins with Axelrod. "I spent a lot of time deciding where to put them," Axelrod told one reporter, "and decided on the Smithsonian. Gary impressed me with his knowledge and his caring."
Sturm almost didn't make it to the Institution. A graduate of Beloit College with a degree in mathematics, he had been bitten by the violin bug — "I got onto this thing about violins, I can't explain why, maybe because I wanted a craft" — and worked for two years as an apprentice to Washington, D.C. violin maker Willis Gault.
"I didn't get paid anything, but it was a side-by-side working experience," he told me. "Finally, I knew I needed to move on, and I came to the Museum of American History."
After a spell of volunteer work in the conservation lab, he was offered a paying job at last — a typing job. It took him 12 tries to pass the test, but he was where he wanted to be, the Division of Musical Instruments. That was 20 years ago. He's now assistant chairman for special projects at the Division of Cultural History, where those instruments reside.