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Helen Harvey

The Last Violin & the question of the day

December 30, 2010 at 6:52 AM

The verdict is in-- he is  The Last Violin made by Knute Reindahl.

The violin I call Ole Freyr, July 18, 1935, has been an obsession of mine from the moment I 'discovered' him a brief 6.5 weeks ago.   I feel a deep sense of responsibility to be his latest guardian- a quite unexpected state of mind. He also heaps upon me feelings of chagrin, a sense of awe, a dose of anger, sorrow, and bemusement that I find myself so wrapped up in his story.  He is an enigma. He is a charity case.  His date, his varnish, his crack-- little about him was clear 5 weeks ago when I first laid eyes upon him.  Was he to be a monetary black hole?  Was he a prince in the guise of a frog? Was he varnished in China? 

Knute Reindahl turned 78 one month after affixing his label to this instrument. For 41 years, he had been following his obsession- he built instruments as long as he was physically and mentally able.  Just a few months after creating this violin, he passed away. 

35 years later, Knute's youngest daughter sold the violin to a fiddler/repairman.  It was this repairman, whom I curse, who led us to the history of this violin.  The repair guy bought the instrument 40 years ago, sold it, then had an opportunity, just 6 years ago, to do more work on the violin.  He claims he did nothing to the violin that might have reduced its value, but also said he may have put on a clear top coat of varnish because the existing varnish was quite soft and easily marred.  Because of his efforts (and Ole's unrepaired but well varnished cracks), I sent the violin to yet another fiddler/repairman/restorer.   When the top came off, a few more questions were raised, and a few more answered. 

It turns out that Knute had not been able to completely finish the violin.  It sat for 11 years until his daughter sent it to Milwaukee to be varnished.  A handwritten note inside the violin  says it was reassembled and varnished by another Norweigian-American violin maker, Olav Breivik, in 1946.  So most of the multiple coats of varnish are not original. If the varnish is not original, does that mean it does not add any value to the instrument?  If that is the case, then removing it would not detract any value from the instrument. (?)

So the question of the day-- heck-- the question of the year:  What is the most appropriate fate for Ole Freyr?    To remain coated in his heavy, unauthentic coats of varnish?  To have his coats stripped off and left as close to unfinished as possible? To strip him, restore/renovate him using similar varnishes and replicating the style of antiqueing so characteristic of Knute's violins?  or  _____  ?    What would you do?

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 30, 2010 at 6:31 PM

One of luthiers on this site, or your own luthier, should weigh in on this one.  I surely have nothing to contribute.  The real question might be whether it is actually worth doing anything.  I do not know anything about this maker.

Happy New Year!

From Helen Harvey
Posted on December 30, 2010 at 10:44 PM

Hello Tom- I know a bit about the maker, as I have a 1907 violin of his that is a wonderful professional quality instrument.  There is a team of us that will make this decision- myself, the repairman who has the violin's best interest in mind, and a biographer- who knows more about the maker & his instruments than anyone else alive.  But yes, I agree, it would be great if readers would weigh in on this question-- I'd love to hear their opinions!  

From Julian Stokes
Posted on December 31, 2010 at 9:24 AM

I have a feeling that you've already made up your mind. This isn't just any old collection of abused wood and strings.

From John Cadd
Posted on December 31, 2010 at 5:25 PM

Helen , make sure you get some photos of it open .You may get your name in his book one day. It`s very exciting for you. Which is more precious , the first or the last?

From marjory lange
Posted on December 31, 2010 at 11:28 PM

 Helen, I think your language makes your intentions clear.  Some people "own" instruments.  You speak of being Old Freyr's "latest guardian."  

If you have the resources, and if your studies of the maker give you some confidence that his last start on a violin isn't rather like Casals' last public performances, (in both cases, compared to their earlier work--since your other violin was made 28 years earlier, in his middle years)  then go for it with the love you have for this violin. 

I hope you keep posted--it's been a fascinating introduction to this site for me, your saga.

From Helen Harvey
Posted on January 1, 2011 at 2:48 AM

Hello Julian & Marjorie- it has been a fascinating saga -- I can't believe I am considering stripping and refinishing an antique violin.   sacrilege!  ? 

Marjorie-  this saga has enlightened me in a number of ways-  one member told us about a Reindahl in her friends family, passed down from generation to generation.  It wasn't purchased, it was bartered for-  a taylor made a suit for Knute in exchange for a violin.  The suit has decomposed by now, but the violin lives on.  It really made me reevaluate "ownership" of a fine instrument.

John- there are a few photos of the inside- they generate the gamut of emotions ....

Ole Freyr at his worst:


From bill platt
Posted on January 1, 2011 at 4:46 AM

I say strip it. The varnish never was the original builder's anyway.

How much did you pay for this fiddle? IF it is less than $25000 then it is less than the best modern fiddles.

How much are intact fiddles by the same maker worth?

Assuming they go for less than $25k, I see no reason not to get a real top restorer (that is a short list by the way) to strip it, repair the crack, put it all back together, and give it a real, proper finish, finally, after all these years.

IF you bought it for less than $5000 or so, all that work will never be recovered in value...unless somehow the Midas Touch of the restorer is worth gold in the future..."Started by Knute, Finished by Dave" etc.

I assume you have documented what you found inside--the note--in such a way that its veracity can be established in the future. Those facts put this fiddle in a unique place. There is only one fiddle by this maker with that history--presumably.

From John Cadd
Posted on January 1, 2011 at 2:14 PM

Fascinating stuff.  Any new maker will always find the back join easy to clean up as the violin is still open when clamps are removed.Whoever glued it together was not familiar with animal glue. If the glue dribbled that far the repairer has not worked out his routine.The top has been very neatly removed. That was the important step. That all points to a possible extra improvement in sound.Luthiers must love handwritten messages inside violins.Is there a book about that? It`s not likely that the plates were unfinished .Purfling has already been done.The luthier would have told you otherwise. I am on the optimistic side of this one. Call it his Golden Period.

From Helen Harvey
Posted on January 1, 2011 at 6:43 AM

Hi Bill-  the person who has the instrument now, estimates a range of value for the instrument that includes the repair estimate from a top-notch restoration shop.  But, how can someone put a value on this instrument without knowing how it plays and sounds?  The historical aspect is intriguing, but of value to very few people.   I'll answer your other questions in the Strangled violin thread.

One more vote for "strip it" logged.  Thanks for checking in!

John -- I LOVE it  "his golden period"   :-)   I don't know what the last thing built on a violin is, but the neck, scroll, f-holes, multiple ebony inlays, they all scream " by Knute". 

From elise stanley
Posted on January 3, 2011 at 10:22 PM

Where did Knute learn his trade?  Perhaps there is a luthier that was trained in the same tradition - in which it is quite likely that his varnish and that of Knite are at least related.  Might be a way to get something that is close to what the maker intended.

Just a thought..

Oh, I'd definitely strip it and revarnish - but try to keep any authentic aging possible...  But I that is totally a sentimental perspective (I'm hopelessly ignorant in the way of the Luthies...


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