Telling an Angel from a Wolf: Evaluating Antique Violins
First created in Italy in 1555, the modern four-string bowed violin is arguably the world’s oldest continuously used musical instrument. It’s been played in every musical tradition from Baroque to Bluegrass. In the past 457 years, there have been thousands of violin makers in dozens of countries. The instruments are pervasive; chances are good that you or someone in your family has an old violin, stashed— unplayed—away in a closet or under a bed. These sequestered violins are moving from the closet to the auction floor with increasing frequency.
A Christie’s employee holds a 1729 Stradivari violin, referred to as “Solomon, Ex-Lambert,” which sold for $2.728 million in 2007. Will you ever come across such an instrument? Probably not, but by learning a few ways to determine a good violin from the run of the mill, you may find a great buy.
To the untrained eye, all these violins look alike. They are all the same general shape, size and color. And, many of them (especially the worst ones) have a label on the inside that references Stradivarius. How can you tell if a found violin is a gem? Usually by playing it; but many of these violins have been stored for so long that they are in no condition to be played. Even if the violins are set up and ready to be played, few people have the skill to do so. Without being played, there is no way to tell whether a particular violin sings like an angel or howls like a wolf.
While quality violins share many of the same features, when you learn what the “quality clues” are, you will be able to make an educated guess as to a violin’s desirability without actually playing it.
The public’s lack of knowledge about violins can work to your advantage. You may discover that the violin sequestered under your bed is worth thousands (but probably not millions) of dollars. Or, you may find an instrument at auction that is worth thousands but sells for a few hundred or less. As with all collectibles, the key to buying low and selling high comes down to knowing how to evaluate an item. That’s what we’re going to do in this article: give you a few basic violin evaluation tools that you can use to separate the angels from the wolves. This discussion is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis; if you suspect that you may have something truly valuable, I suggest you take the violin to a violin shop or university for a closer look.
The primary considerations when evaluating a violin are authenticity, craftsmanship, cosmetic appearance and sound quality. Unless you’re a violinist, you won’t be able to determine sound quality. But, chances are good that you already have the “eye” to discern the other three attributes. You just need to know where to look and what to look for.
A Discussion of Authenticity
Authenticity rule number one: don’t assume that the information listed on the label is correct. Mislabeling violins for export to America was commonplace in the 19th century. Importers, aware of the popularity of Italian violins, would sometimes place an order with a German violin manufacturer and request that the name, location and occasionally the dates on the label be falsified. At the time, there was no law against this. Common misrepresentations were:
• Locations were changed to read “Made in Italy” or “Made in Cremona” or some other famous Italian violin-making town;
• Names of well-known violin makers might be changed to sound familiar (for example, Pietro Grulli was changed to Eduardo Pietro Grulli);
• Violins were labeled in Latin, with a few well-known words thrown in such as “Stradivarius” and “Cremona.”
Generally, the first clue that a violin was not made in Italy is that the words on the label were written in English. Only violins intended for America were written in English (the English had plenty of their own violin makers). Typically, authentic Italian violins were labeled in Italian.
Common labeling terms are:
• Manufactured in: faciebat, fece, fecit or me fecit;
• Year: anno (followed by year, as in “anno 1703”;
• Maker: often preceded by “student of” (alumnus), “descendant of” (nepos), “brother of” (frater) or “son of” (filius or figlio)
• Copy of, or imitation of: nach; a German word (as in nach Guarneri or nach Stradivari or nach Stradivarius). Regardless of how much Latin you see or where the violin was allegedly made, if you see the word “nach” you can be pretty certain that the violin was made in Germany.
Of course, labels aren’t written in just English, Italian, Latin and German; they are written in a half-dozen other languages as well. If you don’t recognize the language, my advice is to type the information on the label into Google’s translation tool. Set the parameters on auto-detect. The results you get back will be close enough for you to make a determination.
A sample label (above) reads in Italian: “Carlo Antonio Teflore figlio maggiore del fu Carlo guisseppe in Contrada largada al fegno del l’aquila milano 1741.” It roughly translates to (giving us the maker, the city, and the date): Carlo Antonio Teflore eldest son of the late Giuseppe Carlo Contrada of Milan 1741.
A sample label (above) reads in Italian: Carlo Antonio Teflore figlio maggiore del fu Carlo guisseppe in Contrada largada al fegno del l’aquila milano 1741 and roughly translates to (giving us the maker, the city, and the date): Carlo Antonio Teflore eldest son of the late Giuseppe Carlo Contrada of Milan 1741.
How do you know if your label is real or fake? If the violin was made before 1891, you’ll have to look it up on the Internet. Type in the makers name and city that you find on the label and you will likely get useable results on the first few pages of Google. Other resources include the Smithsonian Institution, WorthPoint’s Worthopedia and the Open Directory Project. If you’re buying at an auction, there’s nothing better for instant research than an iPad and a good mobile research application. The cost of a research subscription will pay for itself many times over.
Determining a violin’s authenticity is easier for instruments made after 1891. In 1891, the McKinley Tariff Act was enacted. The act required that all items imported into the U.S. be marked with their actual country of origin. The words “Made in” were added to the requirement in 1914 and in 1921, the act was again modified to require that all country names be written in English. So, a violin labeled simply “Italia” could have been made some time between 1891 and 1914. A violin marked “Made in Italia” might have been made between 1914 and 1921. After 1921, labels on violins imported into America might read “Made in Italy” and the information was generally (but not always) reliable.
A label that clearly states “Made in Germany” and that the violin is a copy of a Stradivarius. Even without a date, this label tells us that the violin was manufactured after 1921, because it’s labeled according the requirements of the McKinley Act.
Indicators of Quality Craftsmanship
Experts have speculated for centuries as to what gave the violins of Stradivari such a remarkable sound; some say the secret was in the varnish, others say that it was the wood he used. Since the argument has centered on wood and varnish, it’s clear that these two attributes are considered important. In my opinion, the secret was in the skill of Stradivari. Top-notch wood and varnish in the hands of a novice still won’t produce a good violin. A highly skilled artisan, however, can get remarkably good sound even from mediocre materials. True craftsmanship is a combination of skill and raw materials.
In evaluating a violin, you’ll want to evaluate both the materials and the workmanship. Look first at the wood and the way that it was assembled. Is the wood grain on the top close and straight? The most prized wood in musical instrument making is close, straight-grained spruce, and a quick glance at a violin’s top can tell you if quality woods were used in making the violin; no maker will waste top-quality spruce on a cheap instrument.
The figuring of the flamed Maple lines up almost perfectly across the back’s center seam. This is called “book matching” and is a good indicator of quality.
Next, flip the violin over and look at the wood grain of the back. Most violin backs and sides are made of maple because it is hard and reflects the violin’s sound well. You may also notice a dark line that follows the outline of the violin’s edge; this is called purfling. Purfling is an inlay of one or two strips of very narrow hardwood; its purpose is to give the violins back some resistance to cracking along the edge. Purfling is also found on the violins top. In inferior instruments, purfling is painted on rather that inlaid and provides no resistance to cracking.
The last quality indicator that is easy for you to see is the violin’s varnish. Older violins were finished with a hand-applied varnish. Old varnish is oil-based, and oil never completely hardens. It does, however, sink into the wood and provide some protection from moisture and dryness which would crack the wood. Newer violins are finished in an evaporative finish like lacquer, which is sprayed on and hardens to a dry film. Here’s how you tell what finish is on a violin: oil varnish is never applied to the neck of a violin, because in warm weather it gets slightly sticky and creates friction between a violinist’s hands and the violin neck, slowing down the performer’s speed. If you look at the neck of the violin, in older violins you will see that the neck is unfinished (they always are).
The unfinished area of the neck tapers off at both ends, something you will not see on mass-produced violins, because the neck is masked off with tape before the instrument is lacquered. Such masking creates a straight line between the finished and unfinished portions where the masking tape was removed. Another way to tell if a violin was finished in lacquer is if the finish is chipped; oil finishes don’t chip; it wears away. If a violin has chips in the finish, it is almost certainly a lacquer finish.
The top of a 1941 Plinio Michetti violin with nice straight grain.
Evaluating Cosmetic Appearance
You’ve heard that the three rules of real estate are location, location, location, right? The three rules of collectibles are condition, condition, condition. Fortunately, discerning the condition of a violin is easy.
Examine the instrument for separations in the glue joints connecting the top, back and sides. Look for cracks everywhere. Does there appear to be any long, thin strips of discolored wood in the top or back? If so, a crack was likely repaired. Are there chips in the finish, or is it simply worn? Pick up the violin and shake it; does it rattle? It probably has a loose sound post. The violin should have four strings connected to a tailpiece that cross over a curved bridge and attach at the top to the tuning pegs. You should feel solid friction in the tuning pegs when you turn them. It’s not unusual for older violins to have strings missing; if they are, the bridge and tailpiece will likely be laying in the case. Don’t be too concerned if these items are missing; they are easily replaced and don’t significantly affect a violin’s value.
For purposes of valuation, I divide violins made prior to 1900 into six primary groups:
• Exceptional, handmade by famous maker, with established provenance: typically mid-five figures to no limit on value;
• Handmade better quality with provenance: $40,000 and up;
• Handmade better quality instruments with no provenance: $10,000 and up;
• Good quality handmade instruments with provenance: $4,000 and up
• Good quality mass-produced instruments with no provenance $800 and up;
• Instruments of poor quality with no provenance $75 and up.
• Exceptional: investment quality by original maker; not a “copy of.”
• Better: handmade by reputable maker; suitable for top-ranked professional orchestral soloist use.
• Good: well-made instruments with good tone suitable for student use.
• Poor: wall decoration.
This should be enough information to get you started with evaluating a violin. Whenever you see a violin at an auction, pick it up and do a quick evaluation. As you evaluate more and more violins, your skill will improve. Now, go get that violin from under your bed and get started.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.
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