It is well known that some antique stringed instruments can be worth a lot of money, and you might guess that cellos, as the second largest in the string family, tend to be worth the most. But have you ever wondered just how valuable they are, who played them, what makes them unique, and what cello legends surround them?
What follows is a current top 11 list of the most expensive cellos of all time in the world, from highest to lowest value, based on the last publicly stated sale price or estimated value.
Not only will the price make your jaw drop, but so will the incredible stories of theft, violence, forgetfulness, accidents, and near misses, not to mention descriptions of their beautiful sounds. Let’s get started!
1. Barjansky Stradivarius
Up first, we have the Barjansky Stradivarius. Florian Leonhard, fine instrument dealers, have recently uncovered an approximate sale price for the Barjansky. This cello was sold for over 24 million dollars, making it the most expensive cello ever!
Previous owners of our first cello, the Barjansky Stradivarius, include Serge Alexandre Barjansky and British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who performed on it all over the world.
It was probably traumatic for Lloyd Webber to be parted from his “best friend” after health reasons forced him to retire from performance in 2014. He expressed the wish that the cello should go to a good home to be played and not be stored away in a museum somewhere.
He also noted that in spite of all advances in modern technology and the superb cellos being made, nothing quite equals the power of a Stradivarius—an instrument made by Antonio Stradivari, the most famous Italian cello and violin maker (or luthier), circa 1690.
2. Duport Stradivarius
Our next cello, the Duport Stradivarius, is another made by Antonio Stradivari in 1711. It is said to have been kicked by Napoleon Bonaparte! To this day, the instrument has a dent in it, although obviously not one which affects the sound.
The story goes that Napoleon attended a concert at which Jean-Louis Duport, the father of modern cello playing, performed. Impressed and intrigued, Napoleon persuaded Duport to allow him to have a go at playing. Finding how difficult it was to make a good sound, Napoleon became frustrated and expressed his feelings by booting the instrument!
Fanciful this may be, the Napoleon connection remains. The cello was later played by famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, then bought by the Nippon Foundation in 2008 for $20 million—putting the Duport into joint second place with the Decorado (see below).
3. “The Spanish” Stradivarius
Known for beautifully decorated purfling along the front edges, the 1684 Decorado forms part of a set of five Stradivarius instruments belonging to the Royal Court of Spain.
In 2012, the cello was unlucky enough to have been knocked off a table during a photo shoot in Spain, which caused a broken neck! Fortunately, the damage was reparable, but imagine the panic and horrified faces when the crash was heard and the cello lay in pieces!
Not surprisingly, no exact details about how this happened have been made public, as the estimated value at the time of the accident was over $20 million dollars.
4. General Kyd Stradivarius
Crafted in 1684, the General Kyd is named after British army officer Robert Kyd, who initially owned it. Now owned by Los Angeles Philharmonic, it had been stolen from the front porch of the orchestra’s principal cellist!
Wheels were obviously not the getaway vehicle of choice, as the cello was later found beside a waste bin by a nurse. She’d planned to get her boyfriend to add a hinge and convert it into a designer CD rack but luckily heard that a Stradivarius had been stolen from the cellist.
After a restoration lasting over 18 months, the General Kyd was back and as good as new. Luckily too, as the most recent valuation for this cello was $9.5 million.
5. Chevillard, King Of Portugal Stradivarius
The King of Portugal cello only travels with a full police escort! Stored in the Museum of Instruments in Lisbon, Portugal, since 1937, it was only allowed out in 2016 after Russian cellist Pavel Gomziakov arranged for its restoration in 2016 for a series of Haydn recordings.
Previous owners include Belgian cellist Pierre Chevillard and King Dom Luis I of Portugal—but there is just a chance that it is a fake! Thought to date from 1725, the golden era for Antonio Stradivari, it is not certified, and some believe it is a brilliant early 19th-century imitation.
Nevertheless, the instrument’s value seems unaffected, as the last estimated worth was $7 million.
6. Paganini, Countess Of Stanlein Stradivarius
Although one of Antonio Stradivari’s finest from 1707, the Countess almost ended up on a rubbish heap in the 19th century! It once belonged to virtuoso violinist Nicolo Paganini.
Legend has it that back in the 1820s in Milan, this cello was wheeled along the street in a wheelbarrow, headed for the city dump! Fortunately, it did not end its days there.
Previously played by American cellist Bernard Greenhouse, it is also the instrument that first brought Canadian cellist Stéphane Tétreault to international fame. An arts patron loaned it to him after buying it for more than $6 million.
7. Davidoff Stradivarius
You probably noticed that every cello listed so far was made by Antonio Stradivari. As one of many skilled luthiers at the time, he could not have guessed how significant and valuable his instruments would become.
This one from 1712 has a true celebrity pedigree and personality. The over $3.5 million cello—named after its first owner, virtuoso Russian cellist Karl Davidoff— was owned and played by the extraordinary cellist Jacqueline du Pré until she was forced to stop due to multiple sclerosis.
After she passed away, the stewardship moved to another extremely talented cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, who used the Davidoff for baroque music only.
8. Montagnana Cello
Nicknamed Petunia, this cello was made in 1733 by another Italian from Venice, Domenico Montagnana, and is played by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Thanks to him, it comes with a fantastic tale of absentmindedness.
It was 1999 in New York when tired after performing in Carnegie Hall the night before, Ma was glad to reach his hotel. He shut the door of his cab and walked toward the hotel entrance, and as the cab drove off, it suddenly struck him that he had left his cello in the boot!
Luckily he had the taxi receipt, so after hours of a police search, the cab was located, and the cello returned in time for the next evening’s concert. Ma was incredibly grateful to have his magically rich C string cello worth $2.5 million back.
9. Francesco Goffriller Cello
This 18th-century Venetian cello comes with a tale of violent robbery and a mysterious but happy ending. While the cello was being loaned to French cellist Ophélie Gaillard by a bank, she was held up at knifepoint one evening in a Parisian suburb.
The thief demanded that she hand over the cello and her phone and fled on foot! In the end, after a Facebook appeal, the cello was eventually left outside her home in a car with a smashed window.
The police commented that such instruments are not easy to sell. What a relief for this award-winning cellist because this cello—made by Matteo Goffriller, son of renowned luthier Matteo Goffriller—had a reported value of $1.6 million.
10. Ex-Havemeyer Giovanni Battista Guadagnini
Next on the list is another record-breaking cello. Made in Piacenza in 1743, this is one of only 40 instruments still in existence by Italian luthier Giovanni Battista Guadagnini. The ex-Havemeyer name is because it belonged to the family of American entrepreneur and sugar refiner Henry Havemeyer.
This cello achieved the highest price at the time of the auction for an instrument by the luthier. The record-breaking price achieved at the New York auction in May 2016 was $1.5 million, topping the record of $1.39 million for one of Guadganini’s violins.
11. The Cholmondeley
Although last on this list, when the Cholmondeley sold at auction in June 1988, it broke all records as the most expensive instrument sold at auction and made world news.
Sold to an anonymous bidder, it was made by Antonio Stradivari. The Stradivarius name almost guarantees astonishing sound and a high price.
However, this instrument was made before Stradivari’s golden era—roughly between 1700 and 1725, and is, therefore, the least expensive in our list, weighing in at a mere $1.2 million dollars, but still astonishing nonetheless.
Summing Up Our List Of The Most Expensive Cellos
With their tales, characters, and celebrity status, this concludes our list of the most expensive cellos of all time. Each of their astronomical prices is as great as their qualities, as all cellos mentioned are still played and listened to worldwide, despite their antiqueness.
It makes us wonder what their 17th- and 18th-century makers would have thought, knowing that the cellos they crafted would each be worth a fortune and still have the power to move human emotions.