Have you ever wondered what the most expensive cello in the world is, and what its story might be? Today we’re taking a look at the history of the Duport Stradivarius…and why we don’t even know for sure where it is today!
Duport Cello Construction
In 1711, a French doctor named François Chicoyneau ordered a cello from maker Antonio Stradivari. François Chicoyneau was no ordinary doctor: he’d eventually become First Physician to King Louis XV.
Stradivari had many wealthy and powerful clients, but his workshop took special care with this particular instrument. Accordingly, he charged Chicoyneau twice the going rate for a cello.
The instrument apparently remained in the doctor’s possession until his death at Versailles in 1752.
Duport Buys the Duport Cello
The instrument then found its way to dealers in Paris, where it remained unsold for years until it was finally put up for public auction. A young cellist named Jean-Louis Duport had the chance to test it out, and he fell in love. Unfortunately, in a conundrum all too familiar to musicians throughout the ages, he simply couldn’t afford it, and it remained unsold for a while longer. But eventually, happily, Duport scraped together the money and bought it.
Duport was an interesting figure in cello history in that his older brother was also a famous cellist! Apparently, both of them would play the instrument at their various concerts across Europe.
Jean-Louis Duport: Etude No. 7
The most famous moment of the cello’s entire long life happened in 1812. Apparently, Napoleon, after watching a performance at the Tuileries, attempted to play the instrument…without Duport’s permission. As the legend goes, Napoleon sat down and asked, “How the devil do you hold this thing, Monsieur Duport?” while Duport panicked. Duport looked so horror-stricken that the emperor quickly handed the cello back. But Napoleon’s spurs left permanent marks on the instrument, still visible two centuries later.
More congenial encounters occurred during other musical partnerships, such as performances with Beethoven.
Nineteenth-Century Owners of the Duport Cello
After Duport died, the cello eventually passed to nineteenth-century instrument dealer and maker J.B. Vuillaume, who was so impressed by it, he used its pattern when building cellos of his own.
In the early 1840s, the cello was sold to cellist and composer Auguste Franchomme, who was friends with Mendelssohn and Chopin, and one of the leading lights of Parisian music. It’s astonishing to imagine all of the great Romantic Era composers and performers who must have seen this particular instrument at this time.
Auguste Franchomme: Caprice No. 9 in B minor “Larghetto con dolore”
After Franchomme’s death, the cello ping-ponged between various European collectors for roughly a hundred years. The man who owned it in the 1960s observed that it should only be sold to Rostropovich…which, in 1974, it was! According to Rostropovich’s obituary in The Guardian, although Rostropovich played a number of cellos, by the end of his life, the Duport had become his favorite.
Mstislav Rostropovich Plays Popper’s Dance of the Elves
So what happened to the Duport after Rostropovich’s death in 2007? As unbelievable as it may be…music lovers aren’t sure!
How can we not know? Well, a New York Sun article from August 2008 reported that the Duport Strad had sold to the Nippon Music Foundation for an eye-popping $20 million…which would make it the most expensive cello in the world!
However, that claim was ultimately retracted, and the Rostropovich family indicated that it was still in their possession.
Today, if you go to the Tarisio.com listing about this instrument, which includes a list of the cello’s owners, the timeline merely indicates “2007-: Current owner.”
Until more public information comes to light about what happened to this famous cello, and how much it has been sold for, we can’t know for sure what the “most expensive cello in the world” is. But the Duport is as good a guess as any. Presumably, it is being stored securely in a vault somewhere, waiting to be played again…hopefully by nobody wearing spurs.
For more of the best in classical music, sign up to our E-Newsletter