Bella Davidovich

Inside the Art Market: Strings Attached

For most of my youth I knew little about music. I took clarinet lessons in school, then recorder lessons, and finally realized that while I loved music I could neither read it nor play it. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and living in Brussels for a year that, with time on my hands, I suddenly discovered a serious interest in listening to music. This was satisfied by attending concerts weekly at the Palais des Beaux Arts, a stately hall where the major orchestras of the world appeared often on European tour, and where one could hear the greatest soloists of violin and piano in recital. The tickets were cheap, even for hearing Alfred Brendel, the Guarnari Quartet or the Vienna Symphony conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

This was in the 1970s, during the Soviet era.

I mention that because it was the height not only of the Cold War but of Soviet domination in the classical music world. It was the era of thundering pianists like Vladimir Ashkenasy, Emil Gilels and Sviastoslav Richter, towering icons of a state-sponsored musical system unrivaled for discovering, nurturing and training musical prodigies. But these artists were not free to roam the world: they either defected to the West to pursue careers and a better lifestyle or remained tethered at home, with meager income prospects. Thus the appearance in the West of one of the great gods of Soviet music, like Richter, always caused a sensation and sold out halls. But there were many others like him back home, most of them unknown, biding their time for travel abroad rarely to come.

Such was the case with pianist Lazar Berman, who had begun concertizing in public at the age of three. In Moscow he lived in a tiny apartment, his only luxury a grand piano that filled one of the rooms. Like other leading soloists he was allowed only to play the vast Soviet circuit, in military camps and remote halls in places like Latvia and Kazakhstan—and not on Steinways or Bösendorfers but on whatever was available, including uprights. Many years passed, until in 1975 he received permission to travel to New York and the 92nd Street Y, where at last he made his American debut.

It was an electrifying performance, one that stunned the audience and left critics gasping for superlatives. Soon Lazar Berman was playing the world’s most fabled halls and recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under the legendary Herbert von Karajan on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. Overnight he’d become a superstar. But his KGB watchdogs, who accompanied him everywhere, would pounce if he misbehaved. When he did he was “black-flagged,” with no more travel allowed. This happened once when Berman was found to be hiding pro-Western literature in his suitcase.

This was also a time when the Soviet Union dispatched teams of younger pianists and violinists to the West to take on all comers in the most elite music competitions. It was a bold and effective means of Soviet diplomacy and brinksmanship, where musical domination was the goal. It reminded one, in a much friendlier fashion, of Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bizarre threat of 1956 that “we will bury you!”

One of the most elite of these international musical competitions, the Queen Elisabeth in Brussels, took place in alternate years featuring violin, piano and composition. Through the 50s and 60s dozens of Soviet musicians had made their first, lightning-like appearance in the West this way.

And they always came very well prepared. They were there not just to win all the top prizes, for that was assumed. They were there to annihilate the competition.

As it happened, the Queen Elisabeth piano event was to take place the very year I was teaching in Brussels, in 1975. I attended it throughout, from the grueling two preliminary rounds through the finals, three weeks in all. It was an exhilarating experience, like no other I had ever known—except for perhaps watching the Olympics on television. All the Soviet pianists had been performing in public for years, all over Russia, and each had a vast repertoire of heart-stopping bravura pieces for just such competitions. They had nerves of steel, polish and poise, big technique and showmanship galore. No one else in the world could match their artistry and flamboyance, and they knew it.

Easily they swept first, second and third place that year. The winner, Mikhael Faerman, was only twenty years old but more than ready for a major career. All he needed was some freedom. I was so hooked by this dramatic spectacle that I returned to Brussels the very next year for the violin competition.

This time I delved much deeper, not just attending the event but covering it for a magazine and meeting more people behind the scenes. These included past winners like the American Berl Senovksy, who had won first place in 1955. He had been launched like a rocket but soon fizzled, a brilliant talent but lean on the sort of playing experience the Soviets had in depth. He had thus pursued a teaching career and long had been a beloved professor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

Senovsky was a joy. He was bearish and congenial to all, clearly proud of his win at the Queen Elisabeth, where he had bested a Russian! It had been the high point of his playing career. Now he served on the Queen Elisabeth jury and had enormous regard for the Russian contestants. Thanks to Senovsky I enjoyed back-stage access during the performances and was invited to the awards reception hosted by Queen Fabiola at her country residence. The first prizewinner was a sleepy-eyed virtuoso named Mikhail Bezverkhny. He returned to Moscow and was rarely seen again.

As a result of watching these back-to-back competitions I began to think that some sort of baseball card might be a suitable means of commemorating all these fabulous soloists from the Soviet years. Each card might have a lush concert photograph on the front showing the pianist, say, in tie and tails hammering away on a concert grand; and on the back there would be vital performance and medal-winning statistics—along with personal details, colorful quotations and anecdotes. They’d be great for collecting and trading!

A few years after these adventures I was living in New York, where I came to know the pianist Bella Davidovich. She, too, was the product of the Soviet musical factory system. She’d won the Chopin competition in 1949 and become a legend in Russia and Eastern Europe, touring throughout for decades while remaining largely unknown in the West. In 1978 she finally left Russia with her family and settled in New York, where she commenced a punishing schedule of recording and touring all over the world. Bella’s late husband, the violinist Julian Sitkovitsy, had competed in the 1955 Queen Elisabeth Competition, finishing second to Berl Senovsky in a controversial ruling by the jury. He went back to Moscow but never toured much, dying of lung cancer in 1958 at age 32. Bella was left to raise their son and pursue her career largely behind the Iron Curtain, until now.

She was a woman of sparkling charm and grace, petite and winsome; but on stage she had that steely Russian presence perfected so long ago back in the Soviet Union: the subtlety and elegance, the big sound and the ravishing technique. A grainy old black-and-white video of her on YouTube shows her playing Chopin’s Grande valse brillante. She seems to be in her 20s and is wearing a strapless ball gown and shell-like necklace, looking like a film ingénue. But your attention is riveted on her fingers as they flash like pistons over the keys of her Estonia grand piano.

Here she was now in New York in the 1970s, with decades of quiet, faraway stardom behind her, living in an apartment in Queens and just starting over.

Recalling these experiences and acquaintances made me think recently of how remote musical performance often seems from musical instruments. Does anyone ever think of the art market when attending a concert at Carnegie Hall or the Concertgebouw? You watch the performers, but do you think of the instruments they are playing that much? Concerts are a form of entertainment, after all, and so your eyes are riveted on the entertainer, the instrument seeming almost like a prop. It is thus hard to imagine a musical instrument being part of the art market.

Pianos are perhaps only marginally a part of this market, and they are a terrible investment. For despite their great cost when bought new, pianos seem never to command a resale price anywhere near their retail cost. In that regard, curiously, grand pianos—arguably the king of musical instruments and perhaps the ultimate centerpiece in anyone’s living room—seem akin to luxury yachts and motorboats in losing their value the moment they leave the showroom.

But violins, violas and cellos? That’s another matter. They are avidly collected and very much a category of the art market. And a few years ago I had occasion to learn firsthand about the often murky transactions that take place in that very specialized market.

This happened when I was asked about helping sell an old and valuable viola. The owner’s father had for some forty years played it as the principal violist for The New York Philharmonic, taking it on tours throughout the world, recording and giving solo recitals. He continued playing the viola well into his retirement in Florida. After he died, his family entrusted the instrument to a dealer and restorer their father had long known. The dealer gave assurances that he knew all the right potential buyers; that the viola was worth a fortune; and that he could sell it quickly.

But there was a sticking point.

The viola was reputed to be a masterpiece by the 16th century maker Gasparo da Salò of Brescia, Italy. But that was more of an anecdotal than a factual authentication. The dealer proposed to resolve the matter by having an authority provide a certificate of authenticity. The cost would be $100,000. The family demurred, perhaps reeling in shock from the presumption that they would pay such an exorbitant fee for a piece of paper.

And so time dragged on. After five years in limbo the viola was brought to my attention by the family’s investment advisor, who knew little about the art market and needed help in finding an effective means of selling this valuable family asset.

This was back in 2010, when both Sotheby’s and Christie’s still held regular auctions of musical instruments in New York and London. Heading the Christie’s department in New York at the time was Kerry Keane. Seeing the viola firsthand with a practiced eye he believed it was indeed by da Salò. He proposed taking the viola to London where, for a modest fee, it could be given a dendrochronology analysis to determine its age, which might unravel the mystery of its maker’s identity.

The results from the London lab were astonishing. They revealed that the “youngest rings” present in the wood dated to around 1572, well within the time that Gasparo da Salò was active. But the mind-blower was this: running the results through the lab’s database showed a stunning match with another instrument, a cello known to be made by da Salò, drawing this poetic conclusion from the lab: . . .the similarities can almost suggest the pieces came from the same tree.

Armed with this DNA-like authentication, which was recounted in the sale catalogue for all to see, Kerry Keane presented the viola in an auction of Fine Musical Instruments. Amidst spirited bidding, included from a major European orchestra, the viola exceeded its estimate in bringing a price of $530,000, a record for Gasparo da Salò. As is often the philanthropic custom in the collecting of rare musical instruments, the new owner intended to lend the viola out to an aspiring young musician just starting a career.

I caught up recently with Kerry Keane, now an independent appraiser and consultant, to ask about the current state of the musical instrument field.

He replied gloomily: “It is a very murky one, with a flourishing trade at the high end of the market among the handful of wealthy collectors who are most active. But they are highly selective about what they wish to acquire.” And while Asian buyers have made their presence felt, he added, there are very few new buyers. Fields once popular, like medieval instruments and harpsichords, were all but dead. Hence the musical instruments market overall, Keane concluded, was not a “vibrant” one.

He went on to say that the older and more traditional collectors were most excited by learning about instruments as part of the search for the finest examples. But this seems not to be a tradition for the new buyers. “The market is now driven by money,” he said, an assessment one might cast widely across the vast landscape of the art market today, where connoisseurship seems an almost quaint virtue from the past.

Flipping recently through the pages of an old catalogue for a sale of musical instruments I came across a dreamy old publicity photograph of a young lady playing a violin, with the inscription “Souvenir of my American debut in Pittsburgh, November 15-1939 Viola Mitchell.” It made me think about all those talented Soviet musicians of years past, so brilliantly trained for victory in competitions abroad, but traveling always—unlike Miss Mitchell—with strings attached. An American debut for them was but a mirage.

And so it was for Bella Davidovich until 1978, when she finally settled in America and became a naturalized citizen. She now had a personal manager, a recording contract with the Philips label, interviews to give, classes at Juilliard to teach, even an invitation to be a judge at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. Above all she also had a busy schedule of lucrative bookings here and abroad, both in recital and with the most prestigious orchestras in the world. Thus, in her sixties she had truly, finally become a superstar.

One afternoon in November 1980 I visited her for lunch at the apartment of her sister and mother in Kew Gardens. Bella lived in her own apartment downstairs, where she could practice alone. Her mother prepared lunch but said little and seemed unhappy, for adjusting to life in America had not be easy for her. We all chatted and laughed, and in a while it was time for Bella to leave. A limousine was waiting downstairs to take her to the airport for a concert in Minneapolis. Before leaving, though, we all gathered in the living room and sat quietly for a moment, in the Russian tradition, before saying goodbye and seeing Bella out the door.

The next evening I heard her on the radio. She was playing the Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1 with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. How thrilling it was to visualize her there on stage, playing on a majestic Steinway grand piano before an adoring, rapturous audience.

How thrilling as well to think of how far she had traveled since her days back in the Soviet Union, during the dark 50s and 60s when she and other great artists performed on pianos of far-lesser quality for soldiers and politicians and other comrades within the vast, dreary quarantine of Eastern Europe.

In that grainy YouTube video of her from decades ago, in her enchanting ball gown and shell necklace, Bella Davidovich is playing Chopin with an almost hypnotic, thundering lyricism.  She is dreamy and dazzling all at once, and—like so many of her fellow Soviet musicians in those days, even the greatest soloists—she would remain, for a while longer, all but hidden from the West.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: The pianist Bella Davidovich performing Mozart’s ‘Fantasie in D Minor’ at Frick Collection on Sunday afternoon, January 11, 2004. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images.)