I am not an expert in violins. I know a lot about them and most other musical instruments in general, but when it comes to any specific instrument, I can't tell you much about it with any authority. Since I often get questions about the authenticity and value of violins and similar instruments, I thought it would be useful to put together the standard resources I usually recommend. While geared towards the violin family, much of this advice can be applied to other instruments as well.
As a matter of legal and ethical policy, I do not appraise musical instruments. If you wish to obtain a formal, written appraisal of your instrument, for which you may be charged a fee, consult the resources at the bottom of this page.
Is this a real Stradivari (Guarneri, Amati, Stainer, etc.) my Uncle Frank left me?
Probably not. Antonio Stradivari's designs and labels, as well as those of many other famous makers, have been copied more than just about any art objects in history except possibly the Mona Lisa. Virtually all genuine Strad's and Guarneri del Jesu's that are known to still exist are accounted for. The odds that you are going to find a genuine old Italian masterwork in your uncle's closet or in that old attic are slim to none.
HOWEVER! Just like the millions of people who play the lottery, occasionally someone will hit the jackpot. While your odds are similar, there is always that slim possibility that your instrument is actually worth something. Even if it's not a Strad, it could be, for example, a fine instrument made by one of many other important makers in Italy, Germany and France. An anonymous Italian instrument that is over 200 years old and a is fine work of art may still be worth several thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Note also that there were roughly 20,000 violin makers over more than 250 years making instruments in the Italian tradition in the vity of Cremona, Italy alone (the home of Stradivari). In the Victorian era, it was a common marketing technique to attach fake, or even authentic, Stradivari labels to mass produced instruments made in Germany and France. This practice was not considered deceptive at the time, since it was common knowledge that these were cheap replicas. Some of these were actually reasonably well made and are worth keeping, while many others are inevitably second-rate or worse.
If you look inside almost any violin through the f-hole, you should see a paper label glued to the inside back of the instrument. For practical purposes this can be ignored unless it clearly says something in English like "Made in Germany," "Made in Bohemia" or "Made in China". Such a mark is an indicator that it was factory made for the American market and you need go no further. If the label appears to be very old and in similar condition to the rest of the violin, it may be authentic, but no reputable appraiser would ever consider the label as more than one of many factors in authenticating an instrument.
Labels may be printed or hand written. Stradivari normally used a printed label that said: "Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonenfis; Faciebat Anno 17__" and has a circular logo device with a cross and the initials AS. The text on this label is in Latin which means "Antonio Stradivari, Cremona (the city he worked in), Made in the Year 17__." The last two digits of the year were written by hand in pencil or ink. This is the most commonly copied label of all, appearing on untold thousands of shoddy to fair-quality instruments.
|faciebat, fece, fecit or me fecit||made||me fecit="made me" or "made by"|
|anno||in the year||Faciebat Anno 1723 = "Made in the year 1723."|
|in or a||in or of (referring to a place name)||a Brescia, in Brescia, in Mittenwald|
|nach (German)||after, i.e., copy of, or in imitation of|
|sub titulo||patron saint||sub titulo S.Teresie, or sub tit: Sanctae Teresiae = "under the patronage of Saint Theresa"|
|Fr. or frater||brother of|
||Common Place Names:
Made in Germany (or Hungary, Italy, Czechoslovakia, etc.)
The McKinley Tariff Act of 1891 required that items imported to the U.S. be marked with their country of origin. In 1914 the act was revised to require the words "Made in" to also be used. Finally, in 1921 the act was revised yet again to require that all country names occurred in English. Thus an object labeled simply "Bavaria" of "Nippon" would likely (but not absolutely) be from some time between 1891 and 1914. "Made in Italia" might be before 1921.
It seems likely that any item marked "Made in Japan" was probably made or imported after 1921. Prior to 1921, they might have been labeled "Made in Nippon." We also know that after WWII and during the US occupation of Japan, items that were made for export were marked "Made in Occupied Japan" or perhaps "Occupied Japan."
Similarly, items labeled "Made in Germany" are likely manufactured between 1921 and WWII. After partition the designations became "Made in West (or East) Germany" and remained so until the reunification in the 1990's.
The essential point of all this is that such designations on a violin label, for example, clearly indicate an instrument manufactured for export to the U.S. If you have a violin with a label nearly identical to the Stradivari or other labels shown above, but it says "Made in Germany," it is de facto NOT an authentic Stradivari, but a factory made copy. You don't need an appraiser to tell you this.
You can tell a lot about the quality of a violin by looking at the varnish. Fine old violins use an oil-based varnish that technically never really dries. In modern and cheaper finishes may be sprayed on and use a more volatile lacquer or spirit varnish whose aromatic chemical evaporate quickly, leaving a hard surface. While these finishes can be durable and resistant to moisture, they often do not penetrate the wood surface deeply. The result is that the varnish will flake or chip off in spots. On a good oil varnish the finish may wear down, but you will rarely see it actually chip.
Another problem you see on lesser violins and other instruments is "alligatoring." This happens when a lacquer or spirit varnish sits on top of a shellac or other subfinish. When exposed to extremes of heat (as many instruments were before the advent of air conditioning) the layers expand at different rates. A well-applied oil varnish retains a certain elasticity that generally prevents this kind of crazing.
Another clear indication of a poor finish is seen on the back of the neck where it joins with the head. The neck on a violin is ALMOST NEVER varnished, though it may be sealed with a light shallac. This is because the skin of the player's left hand will normally interact with the oil varnish, resulting in a stickiness that would interfere with the smooth movement of the hand. While having varnish on the neck is an indication of a poor instrument (or at least a poor finish), the clearer indication is how the transition looks between the varnished head and the unvarnished neck. A good finish will transition alomost imperceptibly, while a poor finish will have a stark edge.
Ask a professional
There are levels of expertise in the appraisal of musical instruments. If you are simply curious about your instrument, or you suspect it may be a cheap knock-off, but want to check to be sure, you probably don't need the full benefits of hiring a specialist appraiser. If there is a professional symphony orchestra in your area, find out the name of the concertmaster (the first violinist). S/he will likely be the most knowledgeable person in your community about who to trust for repairs and appraisals. Similarly, if you have a nearby university with a reputable school of music (i.e., one that offers a doctoral degree in performance), you might contact someone on their string faculty for references. If you are completely in the dark about what you have, these people may also be able to give you an unofficial opinion as to whether your instrument is worth examining further. They should be able to tell if it is obviously a cheap factory built violin.
If you are serious about learning more, you should have your instrument authenticated by a reputable appraiser near you. Your local music store is not the place to go for a professional appraisal. Dealers of fine violins will often have an appraiser on staff, but you should be wary of a dealer who offers to buy your instrument based on their own appraisals. You don't want some guy to look at your violin and tell you what he thinks. You want a written appraisal with references that show how the appraiser came to his determination. The cost of an appraisal is not great compared to its potential value. It is essential with rare old instruments to get a professional opinion, and possibly more than one. If you have any documentation to show provenance (i.e., who owned it before you), that could be very helpful.
Once you have determined that your violin is valuable, you may consider having your instrument repaired or restored. You should be very careful to find a luthier (violin maker/restorer) with good references and a reputation specifically in dealing with fine violins. The local workman who fixes all the school violins is not the one you want working on your instrument. The appraiser or other professionals described above should be able to refer you to someone qualified to work on your instrument.
Ethics in the Fine Musical Instrument Business
There have been a number of scandals in recent years involving fine violin dealers, appraisers and auction houses. Serious charges of price manipulation, incompetence and fraud were pressed against certain important members of this rather arcane fellowship. The rule is: Caveat emptor - Let the buyer beware. A highly informative synopsis of news items relating to expensive instruments is available from ArtsJournal.
About Factory-Made Violins
Around the turn of the (20th) century, musical instrument manufacturing experienced an explosion of popularity, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Processes were developed that allowed old-world craftsmen, with the assistance of many lesser-skilled tradesmen, to turn out large numbers of instruments at a low cost. While many mass-produced instruments are decidedly inferior, some, especially those manufactured in the traditional centers of instrument making, such as Markneukirchen in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Boston and Philadelphia in the U.S., produced perfectly serviceable instruments of decent quality. These do not have the value or prestige of a fine old hand-made violin, but they can have a reasonably good tone and be perfectly adequate for the advanced student.
On the other hand, the old Sears Roebuck catalogs advertised inexpensive violin outfits that included a bow, case and instruction booklet for a dollar or two. If you find one of these intact, it is fairly rare, since most have long since fallen to pieces and were not worth repairing. These are truly worthless - the kind of instrument used to break over someone's head in a theatrical skit.
One of the most commonly overlooked items when evaluating a violin is the bow that may be with it. Since it is just a simple curved stick, it doesn't seem like it would be very valuable, but people often find that their bows are actually worth more than their violins. Bows will often look ratty, with shredded hair and even broken or missing parts. But as long as the stick itself is in good condition, it could be restored and retains its value. A fine W.E. Hill bow can be worth $5,000 or more. Be sure when getting an appraisal to have the bow appraised as well.
Violin Cases and Storing Instruments
You may have an old violin in an old case. In nearly all instances, an old case should be thrown away and a new case purchased. Old cases rarely have any value as antiques. (The only exception I am aware of is a case covered in genuine alligator. These are sometimes restored with new compartments and sold as portable mini-bars.) Even the cheapest new cases provide much greater protection against climate, damage from impact, and potential infestation by mites than all but the best older cases.
If you have a bow that has no hair, odds are it has been eaten by invisible mites. They also eat the silk velvet or wool felt case linings and the glue that holds everything together. There is no good way to eliminate mites from an old case. Do not use mothballs or insecticidal chemicals as these can react with the varnish on your violin and cause irreparable damage.
Instruments should be stored in a climate-controlled place with good air circulation. The worst places to put them include:
There are a number of extensive reference indexes of violin makers, but they are generally rare and expensive books and likely to be found only in scholarly libraries or in the possession of dealers in fine instruments. If you are near a university with an extensive music library, there is a good chance they would have some of these books (most universities have online catalogs).
For your information:
Illustrations on this page from Sandra of the Girl Orchestra, by R.L. Radford, 1946. illustrations by Lise Fromenko.