Finally, we have come to the end of the tales of my mother’s violin, and all the follies surrounding its place in our family’s lore. Over the years we admittedly rolled our eyes but also tried to sympathize with the mythic status it held for her (she always referred to it as “the Guarnerius” even though my father would chide her as he knew there was a virtual certainty that the label inside it was a fake and that it was no Guarnerius, but rather something else entirely, though no one knew quite WHAT it actually was. The sad thing is that he, with a doctorate in musicology, would have so enjoyed the process of figuring out the mystery of its true provenance, but even he couldn’t handle the idea of separating mother from her beloved fiddle and the family legends that surrounded it, even years after she was no longer capable of playing it. So there it sat for a decade, and like their enormous house, the whole issue fell to us to resolve. Once the decision had been made to sell it, the process of determining what it in fact was, and doing what we needed to do to get it out of our rather sad clutches and off to a new life somewhere, took on a life of its own.
Finally, after having been flown hither and yon, cleaned and examined, scrutinized and evaluated by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London, and lastly Ingles and Hayday, the new firm started by the former stringed instrument experts at Sotheby’s, the violin was accepted for auction in London on October 29. “Let’s go”, said Arnold, always eager for a travel adventure and thinking it would be appropriate for him, me and Wendy to all be present for the final step in our family’s caring for this iconic heirloom. Kind of like those Piaget watch ads where the mother is wearing the Piaget watch in a domestic scene with her little girl, and the ad says “you don’t own this, you just take care of it for the next generation”. The wood in the violin was dated to 1681 and thus that violin has been around a long, long time. So maybe close to a hundred years in our family and then, on to its next stop.
Wendy was dying to go to London anyway, and we all agreed it would be fun to jump on the Eurostar and include Paris in the visit (why not…it is SO close….we all said). So we cashed in a bunch of miles so we could go Business Class as a treat and respite from all the dust and chaos of remodeling, and off we went. The timing was perfect because Arquitecto Roberto suggested that as the guys were going to be taking out the massive (beautiful but leaky, dangerous, and damaged) skylight in our living room and replacing it with far safer and more practical glass block, the next couple of weeks would be a really convenient time for us to be GONE. How could we resist? We knew the removal of the skylight was going to be a nightmare of noise, falling glass, possibly perilous for us and the pets, and Rosa insisted that she was happy to stay in the house, and take care of everything while we were away.
So on October 16 we got on a plane for Atlanta, thence nonstop to Paris where we spent a delightful ten days or so. We all just loved it, had some wonderful food and shopping, spent hours in various museums, saw my young cousin Katie who lives there with her family. We all drank in the civilization, the quality of everything – and yes, the expense. The elegance of the Parisian women, the interesting way London has become a truly global metropolis. It was interesting to sit in restaurants next to Muslim women with headscarves and contrary to our perception of them as oppressed and miserable, they were chatting, laughing, and at least outwardly seeming to be having a great time out and about in the city. We saw great art, wonderful shops, and admired the smoothly functioning and readily accessible public transport in both cities. I prowled around Westminster Abbey for old times’ sake (back in the day, it was a major grantee of the Skaggs Foundation and part of my honeymoon in England was spent on a memorable site visit there). We took tour buses and gaped at Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, saw the Crown Jewels, had fish and chips in pubs, ate all the Poilâne bread we could cram into ourselves, and walked both cities for hours on end.
However, shortly before it was time for us to head for London, I knew I was coming down with some awful cold thing. Horribly sore throat, fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, the whole nine yards. I knew that the stress of the last few days at home getting ready to leave, combined with the noise and dust and chaos of the house, had gotten to me at last. I had a big list of things I wanted to do in both cities but I just felt too awful to press on after awhile, with fever and chills and aches and all that. I soldiered on as best I could but by the time we got to London I was too sick to even contemplate getting out of bed, so I thought I’d just take a couple of days off and try to lick the bloody bug.
It helped, but sadly, I was just too sick to go to the violin auction itself. Wendy and Arnold went, off on the red double-decker bus down to Oxford Circus and Sotheby’s, where the auction was held and I stayed back in our rented flat trying to get some rest. When they came back later that day, they reported that it had all been rather perfunctory and that in fact I hadn’t really missed much, though they were very glad they had gone. My mother’s violin was Violin #8 in their beautiful printed catalog. The theory of the Sotheby’s folks was that rather than having been a Guarnerius it was a Venetian maker, late 18th century, and that was pretty much that. A dealer had expressed an interest in it when the violins (and there were some in the auction that sold for six figures) were available for inspection and playing, and he ended up purchasing it for the reserve price of £11,000, about $17,000 USD. There were no other bidders. We were both relieved that it had sold relatively painlessly but of course, our secret hopes for a last-minute Antiques Roadshow moment where we found ourselves in possession of a half a million bucks were forever dashed.
We would have liked to have met the buyer and told him all about the violin’s history with our family, sentimental types that we are. We thought for sure someone would be interested in its coming to the U.S. from Hungary close to a century ago with my grandfather, its having been a wedding gift to my mom, its life with our very musical family, the hours it played chamber music in my parents’ living room, and so forth. But, apparently not. He picked up the fiddle and the two bows that were sold with it, wrote out a check, paid for it and was gone. The funds are to be wired to our bank account, after they deduct the auction house’s costs – commissions, the back and forth to London for study, cleaning and so forth. We split it with my sister and that was to be the end of that.
Well, sort of. For many years when my niece Saida was a young girl and later an art student, my mother promised her a trip to Venice when she graduated from college. Saida of course took this promise seriously but when she did graduate years later my mother had become too sick and frail to go, aside from which we honestly think she had forgotten all about it. So we decided to hit the reset button on that one and both in honor of my mom and to make good on her old promise- especially since my mother loved Venice more than anything in the world and the violin is now thought to have been Venetian – the three of us decided that if the violin sold for anything reasonable at all, we would use some of the proceeds to take Saida and her husband to Venice finally after all these years. Now, a couple of weeks after our return, a very thrilled and excited Saida and Eric are now figuring out child care and such for next year and we are planning yet another European jaunt with them. It will be a lot of fun and we can only hope that if Mamá is looking down from that Great Saks Fifth Avenue in the Sky, that she would approve.
Meanwhile we are still slogging through the construction here, though we actually are contemplating the end of it, or at least the end of the worst of it. My office is done and I have moved what I can into it, with an odd assemblage of boards-and-bricks, folding card tables and baskets, and cartons still unpacked serving as tables to set things down on. Soon we will bring over some real furniture from the other house, which of course still hasn’t sold, and it will be a little more civilized in here. But I love the space…it is everything I wanted, light, bright and airy with a filtered view of the lake and a spectacular view of the mountains behind Ajijic. All mine to enjoy through enormous glass pane windows until the lot next door gets sold off for a condo complex or something equally dreadful and the wonderful, open vista toward the cerro (hill) is blocked.
But at least right now there is no sign of that happening and it is really beautiful to see the mist and sun alternating on the tops of the hills as we move into the winter here. The snowbirds are back; it is impossible to park in town, but it’s all part of the great circle of life, I guess. I am pretty much over the horrid bronchitis and sinus infection my cold had become, thanks to some killer antibiotics and cough medicine from the doctor. I gave it to Arnold and Wendy for which I feel very guilty but they seem to be surviving, though coughing, hacking and dripping along with me, as well. With any luck in a couple of weeks we will all be over this wretched thing and we can carry on without having to have boxes of Kleenex at our sides.