C. from Santa Barbara has an old violin bearing a paper label in the interior of the waist behind one of the F holes. I am not a violin expert, but my research should start C. on her journey in the right direction. Her next stop will be one of the large auction houses. Sotheby's, for example, refers musical instrument inquiries to its consultants Ingles & Hayday, a specialist auction house for only musical instruments. There is no charge for the experts to look at a photograph or two, since C. might eventually be interested in selling.
The label reads "Joseph Guarnerius fecit Cremonae." Yes, THAT Guarnerius (1698-1740), called "del Gesu" (for the Christian cross after his name on his labels). All Italian names of great violin makers used Latin versions. Some of the world's best violins come from del Gesu's workshop, 1730-40, and critics note how asymmetric, artistic and acoustically astounding these beauties are. A favorite del Gesu violin is Paganini's "Cannon," made in 1742 and owned by the people of Genoa, Italy, who loan it out to worthy violinists. An average Guarnerius original violin can set you back $1 million.
Most violins labeled Guarnerius are not original to the Master del Gesu in the 17th century and are, instead, simply trade instruments. That means they are factory or assembly line instruments made for export between 1870-1930 from Germany, Czechoslovakia or France. The vast majority of trade instruments featured a facsimile label of the very best violin makers of the 17th century. I have seen numerous labels for Stradivarius, Amati and Guarnerius. These labels often make people very excited. I cannot tell you how many calls I receive letting me know that someone has just found a Stradivarius.
C.'s violin has an engraved name on the peg box below the scroll, "Imperial Conservatory," with the initials MB (or in Cyrillic MV) below. This is the mark of the Moscow Conservatory, co-founded in 1866 as the Moscow Imperial Conservatory by Nikolai Rubinstein and Prince Nikolai Troubetzkoy. Tchaikovsky was appointed professor of theory and harmony at its opening; his name is now adopted into the official name of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. This violin was made for the students of the conservatory.
Wait, C. might say, the label gives a date of 1726! Again, these trade violins bear facsimile labels. Reverb, an online seller of violins, sold an Imperial Conservatory violin bearing a paper label with a date of 1729. C.'s violin is similar. Reverb sold its Imperial Conservatory Guarnerius for $1,000 with bow and case. Moreover, it was made for the Conservatory after its opening in 1866.
Connoisseurs, however, need to hear C.'s violin's sound, which depends on the shape, the wood of its construction, the thickness of this wood, and the depth of the varnish. It is said that wood and varnish improve the sound with age. I notice that C.'s violin has a two-piece back, which some people actually favor over the more beautiful one-piece back. This is because a single cut of wood is more apt to "bow" over the years. The sound of the instrument is what matters to the market, as well as condition.
C. asks about violins that purport to be "handmade." A label stating "handmade" is perhaps a misnomer. If a violin maker crafts a violin by hand, there is no need for a label, because that is how the finest violins continue to be made — by hand!
C., just because your violin is old does not make it a great violin. Many of the old instruments have shrinkage cracks at the neck or, worse, at the bottom of the violin around the saddle, which has an anchor button (the tail pin) that takes the tension of the "pull" of the strings. A crack on the back can destroy the sound as well.
Many people do not realize that, in many cases, the bow can be even more valuable than the violin. Usually bow makers stamped their name on the frog of the bow. A C. Thomassin — Paris violin bow of Pernambuco, 1910, will run you $12,000. Look for these names: Adam, Bausch, Bazin, Bultitude, John Dalley or Fetique. These masters knew how to make a bow — and the bow is often overlooked when families find an old violin in the closet.
Although I am not a violin expert, check with Ingles & Hayday auctioneers and see if I am correct in my estimate of $1,000 for your violin.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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