The violin is called the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius, for previous owners (and virtuosos) George Alfred Gibson and Bronislaw Huberman. Someday, it will surely bear Bell’s name, too.
Among violins, this is no second fiddle. Legendary Italian violin-maker Antonio Stradivari built it in 1713, during what is called his “golden period.” Bell bought it—the third Stradivarius he has owned—in 2001 for nearly $4 million. Now he estimates it’s worth as much as $12 million.
Understandably, Bell keeps the Strad close. It spends most of its off time in Indy at Bell’s sister’s house, where he catches up with family when he’s in town.
In the wrong conditions, the instrument occasionally sounds mediocre. “These violins are so sensitive to weather,” Bell says. “There are days when it makes me feel like an amateur. It’s like a living thing in that way.”
Bell fell in love with Strads as a child in Bloomington, when he took lessons at Indiana University with the great Josef Gingold. “Occasionally Gingold would say, ‘Here, here, take my violin and play,’” Bell says. “I’ll never forget the sweet sound coming out of that instrument.”
Happy @SharkWeek! #BTS recording #JRalph’s #Theodora as part of #SharksRescored for @DiscoveryChannel, which creates a different, gentler soundtrack for these #glorious animals. It was a pleasure recording this with the #LondonSymphonyOrchestra and #LondonVoicesChoir at @abbeyroadstudios. View the whole piece at SharksRescored.com. #SharkWeek #SharkWeek2015 #Discovery #AbbeyRoad A video posted by Joshua Bell (@joshuabellmusic) on
The 302-year-old Stradivarius is immaculate, thanks to luthiers in New York and London. But it hasn’t always been in such great shape. Back in 1936, a thief stole the violin from Huberman’s dressing room at Carnegie Hall. The Strad resurfaced in 1985, when a cafe musician revealed on his deathbed that he had been playing it for 50 years, its identity buried beneath shoe polish. Restoring the instrument to its original condition took nine months.
Only a select few have been allowed to play Bell’s Strad, including friend and fellow aficionado Zach De Pue, the ISO’s concertmaster. “I got two glorious minutes of taking that thing out for a spin,” De Pue says. “It sings. It’s unbelievable.”
This article appeared in our September 2015 issue.