Interview: Robert McDuffie's New $3.5 Million Violin

Interview by Melinda Whiting

Violinist Robert McDuffie is a born advocate: a comfortable presence with a persuasive gift when it comes to the music and the beliefs he holds dear. In conversation, his opinions are couched in a casual, unhurried cadence; onstage, his relaxed demeanor gives way to a generous, singing tone and impassioned musical argument.

Much has been made of McDuffie's leisurely trip to the top. While Juilliard classmates like Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Nigel Kennedy soared to early successes, McDuffie honed his art and his intellect far from the spotlight. Over time, he emerged as the kind of player that colleagues genuinely like and admire. That's served him well in a recent quest to fund the purchase of his dream violin, a $3.5 million Guarneri del Gesú once owned by Paganini. His solution: create a limited partnership; then convince investors to buy shares in the instrument and reap the profits when the violin is sold a quarter-century hence. The venture, consummated in February, marked a marriage of high art and business notable for diluting neither.

Melinda Whiting: How much work was it to put this investment consortium [of sixteen people] together?

Robert McDuffie: It's the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm still kind of numb from it.

MW: The instrument came first. You wanted that instrument. Why that one in particular?

RM: I'd been told, and I felt, that I was a del Gesú player. The Guarneri del Gesús are actually preferred more than Stradivarius violins by soloists, because the really great ones soar over an orchestra, where Strads can be very finicky and quirky and they don't always have a huge sound. They have some nice soprano qualities, but I like to dig in. And I always felt with my other violin, even though I loved it, that many times I was running with a pulled hamstring. It was a copy of a Galliano -- a Neapolitan maker. It was loud, but it didn't have the depth and the richness and the beauty I really wanted.

When you put out word that you want to see a del Gesú, of course, every dealer who has one will call you. And so we had a little gathering, back in August of '95, [to compare violins]. There's a remarkable person in this violin business, Rene Morel. Rene is the king in the violin world: He has the best ears; he's the greatest craftsman; he's the greatest restorer of fine instruments in the world. Rene is also a dealer with his own shop. He brought a del Gesú that he wanted to sell to me, and a couple of Strads. Joshua Bell came with his Strad. And a dealer from Chicago brought two Guarneri violins in the same price range as the one I ended up with. I brought my fake Galliano, and the Dietmar Machold shop brought some, too. We must have had $20 million worth of violins there on the stage at the Ethical Culture Society on 64th Street [in New York]. Josh and I played them, and I realized, when I was playing this particular del Gesú, that it just felt right.

MW: And then you had to find the money.

RM: I actually thought it was going to be easy. I had real hubris. Well, I had several false starts [in financing the purchase], and then I started becoming a realist. It was a couple of years later that a non-musician friend mentioned the possibility of a limited partnership. Of course I didn't know what that was. It's a legal process. It's a corporation, and only accredited investors can be part of it. There's no tax break or deduction. It's locked-in money for the length of the lease, and this turned out to be the first of its kind in the world. The violin was bought for one purpose, to have me play it and to maintain the value. I realized that nearly every investor became a partner because they believed in me.

MW: But to ask for money purely on your own behalf is something to swallow at first, isn't it?

RM: But on the other hand, I wasn't about to give this violin up. There was no way I was going to give it back. So you reach, and you realize you're stronger that you thought you were.

Well, luckily, Paul Tagliabue came into the picture. He's the commissioner of the National Football League. He ended up hosting two of the three fund-raising soirées we had, and he spoke very eloquently on my behalf. Because of him we were able to invite a more diverse group of people to come. Not just "Friends of Bobby."

MW: I know it's a 25-year lease, and you have 23 years left on it.

RM: Right, we actually started the legal process in July of '98.

MW: So in 23 years, you're going to be...

RM: Sixty-five.

MW: Official retirement age. Are you going to have to retire when they take your violin away?

RM: You know, I'm a partner as well, so I went into this with two hats. I'm experiencing the artistic side, and I will probably experience the financial reward at the end. Right now, though, I'm just happy to be able to re-channel my energy from fund raising -- you know, being director of development for Robert McDuffie, Inc. -- back into real musical projects. Turn it into musical energy.

I believe the next 20 years are going to be the best years of my playing life, physically. I feel great about my playing. And I know I'm going to have one of the three or four greatest violins in the world to make music with. So I can't blame the equipment, if anything bad happens!