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THE SCOOP | For Sale: The Empress Caterina Stradivari, A Violin With A Unique History

By Anya Wassenberg on May 25, 2023

The Empress Caterina violin by Antonio Stradivari (Photos courtesy of Tarisio Fine Instruments & Bows)
The Empress Caterina violin by Antonio Stradivari (Photos courtesy of Tarisio Fine Instruments & Bows)

The Empress Caterina, a violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1708 during his so-called Golden Period, is coming up for auction on June 8, 2023. Tarisio Fine Instruments & Bows of New York will auction the rare violin online, with a provenance that can be established going back almost three centuries.

A storied provenance

The violin has a long history, some of it anecdotal, that spans a turbulent period of Russian history and crosses paths with a number of larger than life characters.

The violin first appears in official records in 1898 as property of W.E. Hill & Sons. Alfred Hill visited Russia in 1898, and catalogued the collections of Prince Youssapoff. Youssapoff, aka Felix Felixovich Yusupov, is famous for having been one of Rasputin’s assassins, as well as marrying Tsar Nicholas II’s niece, the Princess Irina Alexandrovna.

He was also extremely wealthy, and owned a massive collection of instruments. Among them, Hill was documented as having “brought back intelligence concerning the existence of 16 more instruments that were unknown to us before”. The Empress Caterina of 1708 was one of the previously unrecorded 16 violins; Hill purchased the instrument for the company and brought it back with a story.

A trip through Russian history

According to Hill’s account in the company records, the instrument had passed through the hands of the Russian ambassador to Venice, who’d bought it for Empress Elisabeth Petrovna. Empress Petrovna, who ruled Russia from 1741 until she died in 1762, was much beloved, in part for her refusal to execute a single person during her reign.

After she died, the violin was passed along to Catherine the Great, who succeeded her as empress. Catherine II supported the arts and Western ideals. Adrian Moïsevitch Gribovsky served as Cabinet Secretary during the last year of Catherine’s reign, a man who was known as a literary writer as well as a public servant. He was also a lover of music with his own orchestra. He often played the Stradivarius himself.

Gribovsky, as it turned out, was also fond of gaming, and was not afraid to use state funds to finance his hobby. After Catherine II’s death, he was dismissed in disgrace. When he died in 1834, the instrument went to his son-in-law, Vasily Yakovlevich Guberti, where it passes into obscurity for a period of time before ending up with Prince Youssapoff in the late 19th century.

From Russian royalty to musicians to collectors

Once he had it back in London, Hill’s company sold the instrument on February 16, 1899 for £650 to Mrs. Marie Douglas Stothert, a French violinist. She was noted as a virtuosic player — with a wealthy engineer for a husband. Stothert traded the Caterina back into Hills 12 years later for the 1714 “Dolphin” Stradivari. Hills sold the Caterina again a couple of months later to French violinist Henri Belville.

After a few more collectors bought and sold it, in 1982 it ended up in the possession of German-Italian industrialist Giorgio Feige. It’s his estate that is now selling the violin at auction.

Stradivari’s Golden Period

The instrument comes from Stradivari’s Golden Period, generally acknowledged as stretching from 1700 to 1720. At this point, he turned away from the Long Pattern period, and produced more standard-sized instruments.

He was successful enough to acquire premium materials such as Alpine spruce, which is often credited for its uniquely dense growth in harsh conditions. He’d honed and improved his techniques over the years by trial and error. Stradivari’s unique use of various woods and varnishes is even now being studied by scientists looking for clues to his genius.

Tiny samples from the Empress Caterina, crafted in maple and spruce, were taken and analyzed, including cross-referencing with other known instruments of the area and period, with several significant matches. The violin is reported to be in excellent playing condition, with original main parts, and the original label.

It’s the first time a Golden Period instrument has come up for sale in about 15 years, and the purchase includes several certificates of provenance.

No official estimates have been announced, however Tarisio has a reputation for acquiring top dollar for Stradivari instruments, including the Stradivari record of $15.9 million USD for the 2011 sale of the Lady Blunt violin.

Online bidding begins on June 8.


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