Her 300-year-old instrument was in perfect condition. Had it been interred?

The Washington Post

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It’s the stuff of stories and musical legend: the buried violin, dug up and brought to sing anew. In the film “The Red Violin,” the titular instrument is at one point interred with a gifted young player, then unearthed by grave-robbing gypsies who play it for a couple of generations.


But the violinist Chee-Yun didn’t expect to have one in real life.


In 1991, at the start of her career, the Korean-born violinist began looking around for a new instrument, found one that she loved, and brought it to Dario D’Attili, a legendary violin appraiser for an evaluation.


“In my career,” D’Attili said, according to Chee-Yun, “I have never seen an instrument looking this brand-new. It’s over 300 years old, definitely Ruggieri, probably one of his finest. No wear and tear; it’s incredible. This is a great investment for you.”


Chee-Yun, now 46, didn’t care about the investment. She had fallen in love with the instrument’s sound. And thanks to a loan from a private patron, she was able to buy it.


Not until years later did she hit on a possible explanation for the instrument’s unusually good condition. After a performance in Israel, an audience member asked her about her Ruggieri. “My father often wondered about your violin,” she says he told her. “The reason he was wondering is he had heard that it had been buried with one of its owners.”


Suddenly, the instrument’s pristine condition was — possibly — explained. And Chee-Yun’s “buried violin” has become something of a calling card — sensationalized in some press accounts, which suggest that it remained hidden for most of its existence.


She doesn’t, however, have any proof. And that’s the problem with stories about buried instruments. There are plenty of stories about people who loved their violins so much that they wanted to be buried with them — like the composer Henri Vieuxtemps, whose Guarneri actually rode behind him in his funeral cortège. (The violin is currently played by Anne Akiko Meyers, and famed as the most expensive instrument in the world.) But it’s hard to pin down facts.


“I don’t personally know of an instrument that’s actually been buried and brought back,” said Dalton Potter, an experienced instrument appraiser and restorer in Takoma Park. However, “It is true that sometimes instruments go into vaults or secure places. We’ve had instruments [that] were in a sealed property container for 50 or 100 years, so generations would go by.”


Actually burying a violin in a coffin in the ground poses significant risks. “I’m not an expert on coffins,” Potter says. “From what I’ve seen, many of them actually are airtight. Aside from the disgusting idea of there being a body rotting next to it — that would be bad.” But “burying in a wooden coffin in the ground — that would be a death sentence for an instrument.”

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