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.
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
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
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!