Attention, record collectors!
Let's start with the bad news. Most of the classical LPs that have been gathering dust in your basement since the turntable broke are now worth much less than what you paid for them. Secondhand dealers will likely give you somewhere between a dime and a quarter apiece for most of them, and many libraries long ago ceased to accept them as donations. The CD has triumphed -- at least until the next format comes along.
Still, for those of you who happen to have a pristine copy of the late Johanna Martzy playing Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin lying around, this could be your lucky day. The three-record set is currently up for auction on eBay. The starting bid was $1,000, and as of last night, 12 bids had pushed the tab up to $4,160. The auction closes tomorrow morning at 10:55 -- and who knows for what amount the records will ultimately sell? So go check your collection -- for the market can surely support another copy.
The records are offered by somebody calling himself, in eBay parlance, "guitar-pete," who lives "near Zurich." They are described as follows on the eBay Web site: "Here is a chance for the discriminating collector to acquire the original Columbia 3 LP Set 33CX 1286, 1287 and 1288 containing The Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas No. 1 to No. 6 including the famous 'Ciaccona' that gave Martzy her reputation. Records and covers are in near mint condition with no scratches and no background noise. This is an ultimately rare occasion to find the complete set in such great condition."
Rare indeed. Johanna who?
According to the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Johanna Emilia Maria Martzy was a Swiss violinist of Hungarian birth who lived from Oct. 26, 1924, until Aug. 13, 1979. She had a distinguished although limited career, playing throughout Europe from the 1940s through the 1960s, touring the United States during the 1958-59 season, visiting South America a year later and continuing to concertize until 1976. "After her death Martzy became a cult figure among record collectors and as her relatively few recordings were reissued during the 1990s, her posthumous reputation grew," according to Grove. "Her interpretations, always in impeccable taste, were unobtrusively virtuosic and stylistically aware."
To be sure, Martzy was a lovely artist: I have long cherished a Japanese CD reissue of her mid-'50s recordings (they include not only the Bach works but the Mendelssohn and Brahms violin concertos, the Schubert Sonatinas and Fantaisie, and the Beethoven Romances). Her playing is chaste, patrician and deeply soulful.
Absolutely. According to Lawrence F. Holdridge, a dealer in rare records based in Amityville, N.Y., Martzy "is pretty much in a class by herself among LP collectors -- although a set of the same pieces, played by Georges Enesco on the Remington label, sold for more than $10,000 in Japan. It's a funny thing, because all of these records have been reissued on CD -- and in better sound. But some collectors want the originals."
Or, as a friend once observed, "Owning a reissue of a rare record is like kissing your sister."
Holdridge deals mostly in 78 rpm records, which predated the LP and stopped being made in the early 1950s (although as late as 1968 the band Moby Grape put one cut that had to be played at 78 on its second LP, "Wow"). But you won't make a fortune on those old Caruso records that Grandmother stored in her attic. "It's not the big names that the collectors want," he said. "I'd say that most of Caruso's 78s would sell for anywhere from $1 to $10 apiece, in mint condition. Now, his very early records, made when he was all but unknown for the Italian Zonophone label, sell for up to $2,500, but you won't find them here."
Instead, Holdridge dreams of tracking down recordings by the Italian soprano Angelica Pandolfini (1871-1959), who created the title role in Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" in 1902. "Her records are very rare. They sell for about $8,000 or $9,000. I've never had one myself but I've heard them and they are very beautiful indeed -- once you get past the 1903 sound, that is."
According to Holdridge, the greatest rarities of all would be the two discs the celebrated tenor Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) made in 1905 for the Fonotipia company. "Those would be quite literally priceless," he said. "De Reszke made the records, but he was dissatisfied with the results and ordered the masters smashed and never made another record. Some test copies are supposed to have survived -- but who knows?"
De Reszke was perhaps the leading tenor of the late 19th century -- imagine Pavarotti and Domingo rolled into one -- and so it is not surprising that there is a great deal of interest in anything he might have recorded. But what explains the passion for Martzy? After all, there are other great violinists.
Call it one of life's imponderables. But the money that will change hands tomorrow is very real -- and tantalizing.