For anyone who has a few £ million going spare, and the rest of us.... here is our guide to the world's most expensive instruments, from Charlie Parker's saxophone to Rostropovich's cello.

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Most expensive instruments ever

1. Louis XV special harp

Inspired by the rococo style of French King Louis XV’s time, this ornate harp from Lyon & Healy has been nicknamed the Rolls Royce of harps, and not just because it looks so spectacular: the sound is apparently crystal clear. A worthy addition to any palatial ballroom, it carries a price tag of $189 000 (approximately £144, 000).

2. Casablanca ‘As Time Goes By’ Piano

The most expensive piano ever sold at auction (for $3.4 million), this wooden upright with only 55 keys is a hugely symbolic part of the film Casablanca: it’s the piano that Dooley Wilson’s Sam is playing when Ingrid Bergman utters that unforgettable line ‘Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By’.

With its intricate gold and green Moroccan design - complete with chewing gum stuck under the keyboard (a souvenir from one of the actors apparently) - it looks very distinctive. Its sound, however, remains a mystery, given that the piano has never actually been played: while Dooley Wilson was a talented musician, the piano music was played by the offstage pianist Elliot Carpenter while Wilson acted out his part.

Interesting to note that another very expensive piano came up for sale in September 2023. The instrument in question was the Yamaha baby grand piano used by Queen singer and songwriter Freddie Mercury to compose a raft of the band's biggest hits including 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

Mercury's Yamaha went up for auction along with many other personal items belonging to the great man. It duly fetched an impressive £1.7 million, becoming one of the most expensive pianos of all time.

3. 'The Messiah' Stradivarius Violin

Priced at $20 million, the so-called ‘Messiah’ was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1716, when the Italian violin-maker was at the height of his powers. However, it owes its fame and expense mainly to the like-new condition in which it has survived: its varnish is almost unworn, its carving is still razor sharp and the painted edge work on the scroll is still intact, the reason being that, unlike other Strads, which were regularly played, this one has always been a collector’s piece.

4. Duport Stradivarius Cello

Named after one of its first owners, the 19th century cellist Jean-Louis Duport, this 1711 instrument has passed through some pretty illustrious hands. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte himself once had a go at holding it, and a dent - still visible on the cello - is rumoured to have resulted from his rough handling while straddling the instrument with his boots.

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Aside from Duport, its players have included the 19th century French cellist August Franchomme, who said of the instrument: ‘The more I contemplate it and the more I play it, the more prodigious I find it. What opulent wood! What magnificent varnish and what elegant, perfect workmanship! …Its tone is extremely full, pure, smooth and distinguished and it has a surprising uniformity.’

More recently, the cello, which is valued at around $20 million, was owned by Mstislav Rostropovich, who played it until his death in 2007.

5. Signed Fender Stratocaster guitar

Here’s an oddity among guitars in that this one was not owned by a famous musicians or featured on any famous recordings. It was, however, signed by an eye-watering roll call of musicians, including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck.

Auctioned off in 2005 by the charity Reach Out To Asia, an organisation founded to provide aid and support to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people, it was purchased for $2.7 million - the largest sum ever paid for a guitar.

6. Charlie Parker Grafton Alto Saxophone

This was the saxophone that jazz legend Charlie Parker (one of the greatest jazz saxophone players ever) played in a 1953 performance at Massey Hall. As the story goes, the other musicians — trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach — had not rehearsed together before their performance with Parker, who rocked up to the venue without his instrument, having recently pawned it (some say to buy heroin).

At the last minute, one of the musicians in the quintet supposedly found the plastic saxophone for Parker to play and the resulting performance went down in history as one of the greatest jazz performances ever.

Made of cream acrylic, the instrument fetched $140,000 at auction in 1994 - the highest sum ever paid for a saxophone, and is currently on exhibit at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City - Charlie Parker’s home town.

7. Macdonald Stradivarius Viola

The price tag - $45 million at the last weigh-in - is somewhat staggering. But, like the ‘Messiah’ violin, the Macdonald viola owes some of its value to its preservation: kept primarily in storage, the 1719 instrument missed out on decades’ worth of wear and tear.

Then there’s the rarity value, given that Stradivari only made about 15 violas altogether. Not only is the Macdonald one of only eleven Strad violas that still survive today, but it’s the only one in the world that isn’t owned by a museum, foundation, or government, and thus available for private purchase. Tempted?

8. Steinway & Sons ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ Piano

Carrying a $2.5 million price tag, this is the first Steinway & Sons piano inspired by a musical composition: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Designed by Paul Wyse, it is decorated with images of figures from Russian musical history and folklore, the aim being to tell the story, not only of Mussorgsky’s piano suite, ‘but of everything surrounding it,’ as Wyse put it.

9. 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius violin

Sold to Lady Anne Blunt - the daughter of Ada Lovelace and grand daughter of Lord Byron - in the late 1800s, this 1721 instrument is almost as well-preserved as the 'Messiah', given that it has seen relatively little use. Those who have actually played it include the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose performance at the instrument's 1971 auction at Sotheby's can be seen below.

At that auction, the Lady Blunt fetched a then-record-breaking $200,000 (£84,000). But that's still quite a bit less than the near-$15.9 million (£10 million) it fetched in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami to raise money for the Nippon Foundation's relief fund.

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10. Lausanne Cathedral Pipe Organ

Inaugurated in December 2003, and costing 6 million Swiss Francs (about £5 million),the Lausanne Cathedral Pipe Organ (pictured) is one of the most lavish and unique instruments of its kind in the world. For one thing, it's the first organ to have been designed by a designer: a process that took ten years. Plus, it's the first organ to contain all four of the main organ styles (classical, French symphony, baroque and German romantique), which gives it an incredible versatility.

Authors

Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.

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