Authenticating Old Instruments

November 20, 2010 at 02:17 AM ·

I just started reading "Violin, an Owners Manual".  The first chapter is on authentication and fraudulant identification.  It got me to wondering if there has been any advances in this?  Can they DNA wood?  Has there been a microchip developed?  I would think that with todays technology there would be a better way to track stringed instruments.  After all, that Strad may have made it this far but it can still be open to fraud at any point.  Just curious. 

Replies (29)

November 20, 2010 at 02:32 AM ·

Good point about hiding a microchip inside a valuable violin (whether old or modern).  The chips today can be so small that they could be inserted somewhere within the violin in a manner invisible to the eye, even if the violin is disassembled.   

November 20, 2010 at 05:52 AM ·

All microchips are easy to find! Just ping them...

November 20, 2010 at 11:43 AM ·

Microchips were marketed for this purpose for a while. Not sure why they disappeared. Maybe they were too easy to reproduce to serve as a reliable ID.

November 20, 2010 at 11:45 AM ·

I know someone who, when he had the chip on his fiddle read at the airport, found that it bached ... (Only joking, for those who can't see it).

November 20, 2010 at 01:14 PM ·

There is very little DNA wood, making it difficult to use as an ID (the DNA is in the bark and leaves).  HOwever, its is possible to use distance between the 'rings' (grain) in the wood, an analysis method called dendrochronology, to at least age the wood.  Trouble is you need to know where the wood came from to do that!

November 20, 2010 at 03:30 PM ·

November 20, 2010 at 04:19 PM ·


Del Gesu, yes, I'm no expert but you are probably right.

And I know of someone with a Strad who can't sell it for its value because none of the dealers want to recognise it as such. Then when eventually it gets sold the dealer will authenticate it and sell it for 2 or 3 times what he paid. This is what I understand anyway.

November 20, 2010 at 07:00 PM ·

There is no way that someone with a real Strad couldn't find a dealer to recognize it as such and sell it for him. 

As Marc says, it is still down to expertise, which means the hard-won knowledge of what various makers' characteristics are, and the skill to see the differences.  This kind of expertise includes an ability to differentiate shapes and mentally compare them that would make a really skilled realist artist sweat.

...and yes, this fact leaves a lot of room for the dark side of human nature, both on the side of claimed 'experts', and on the side of those who are highly mistrustful of all expertise--i.e. all instances of having to depend on the specialized knowledge of someone whose knowledge they can't recreate or understand, and whom they don't know whether they can trust.

November 20, 2010 at 08:54 PM ·

Marc:  "Elise: I do not believe in dendrology... "

A little overstated perhaps?  Dendrochronology is a well substantiated method for tree dating in biology and was, for example, one of the main ways for the calibration of carbon dating.  I assume you meant with respect to violin dating and there I know very little.  However, just because someone misused it does not invalidate the method itself, just the people who applied it.  On the other hand, it may just be impractical for the reasons alluded to before (amongst others - for example the wood may be used many many years after it was harvested).

Each technique for aging is flawed by itself but they can be used to complement each other...


November 20, 2010 at 10:31 PM ·

My classical guitar teacher told me that the best guitar luthiers in Spain use wood that was laid down by their grandfathers. 

November 20, 2010 at 10:49 PM ·

Trevor:  hopefull not the wood with their granfathers still in them ....

November 21, 2010 at 12:01 AM ·

 Janos (my violin) said it doesn't matter to long as I love him, he is happy.  I am his whole world, god bless the little bugger, and if I lost him, I'm not sure I could carry on (sniffle).

November 21, 2010 at 12:08 AM ·

"My classical guitar teacher told me that the best guitar luthiers in Spain use wood that was laid down by their grandfathers."

What? Guitar makers lie as much as violin makers?

November 21, 2010 at 07:23 PM ·

November 21, 2010 at 08:30 PM ·

Marc, as far as I know, the dendrochronology of the Messiah Strad is no longer disputed. The earlier dissenting findings, taken from photos and not from the actual instrument, have been withdrawn.

With early descriptions from Salabue, we don't always know what he meant. What is meant by a "patch", for instance? Does it refer to an inlaid soundpost patch, or reinforcing cleats on the inside surface, or could it be the piece inserted to fill a pitch pocket on the violin we currently know as the Messiah? I haven't heard a good explanation for the letters on the neck though....

When one is only exposed to worn instruments, it can be a challenge to believe, or even imagine what they looked like when they were new.

What's this about the insertion of pieces on the top being an indicator of authenticity?

Or about the heads of Del Gesus always being a new creation?

I understand what you're saying about attributions having a kinetic component. New things are learned, and opinions can change as a result. I don't know of any high-level expert though who disputes the Messiah Strad.

November 22, 2010 at 05:04 AM ·

Marc Villeneuve wrote:

"You have also to aknowledge that the Hills have tampered some inscriptions about the model (PG PS)"

The facts regarding the letter in the pegbox issue are:  The Hills said that the Messiah did not "appear to be so marked" in their book on Stradivari.  Pollens saw a G there in 1997 and, based on not being able to see the mark in a photograph taken in 1980, stated in various contexts including The Strad magazine of August, 2001 that someone must have put it there since.  However Roger Hargrave stated in a letter to The Strad (now also published on his web site) that when he studied the instrument repeatedly in 1978-1980 the G was there.

Yes the Hills were off in their conjecture (their word) that the PG that appears in some Strad pegboxes was a PS, and they seem to have missed the G, but this is not evidence of foul play.

November 22, 2010 at 03:09 PM ·

There have been some very good articles from time to time on this subject in the Journal of the Violin Society of America. The most recent one is, I believe, in vol xxi, no.2 fall 2007. This in turn covered the VSA convention of 2005. (Timeliness is not one of the VSA's fortes, but in-depth discussion by some very knowledgeable people is.) The article there is called "The Appraisal Process" by Jeffery Holmes, Philip Kass and Christopher Reuning.

The VSA has also recorded some heated debate over the "Messiah" Strad. I brought up the "Messiah" issue in a thread a couple of years ago here. Right now, I'l leave it to others to get into technical aspects of that debate here. But what the ----, I'll toss another grenade into the procedings: politics loom large in this area. Big business, too. I don't know Stewart Pollens, personally, but it seems to me that he had a lot of guts in questioning the authenticity of the "Messiah", and sticking to his guns. On the other hand, maybe he had an agenda that I don't know about. But the vehemence of the reaction to him by some dealers and experts suggest that he hit quite a nerve there. Big business is inexricably linked to big instruments. Vested interests don't want their conclusions questioned. I know that the "Messiah" was bequethed to the Ashmolean Museum . But who knows? It might go on sale one of these days, with a big consortium handling it. Doubts must not simply be debated, but quashed. OK, so much for my conspiricy theory on that one. I haven't had breakfast yet, and so I can believe 5 more impossible things! But I'll just bring up one more right now.

There's no doubt that in certain areas, some experts know more now than their forebears did - even some legendary ones. But I believe that politics play a role here, too. Who's hot, and who's not? It seems that so-and-so is the expert in violins or bows or something else. Yet behind closed doors, some very knowledgeable people turn to others, who's opinions they hold in greater esteem, but whose name has not been accorded the same cachet as someone else. Then, the moment so-and-so dies, this until-that-moment expert is now considered an ignoramous, and his certificates are deemed valueless. (They said as much in one of the VSA articles.) Again, certain areas of knowledge continue on apace. But instantly going from expert to ignoramous?

OK, time for breakfast. But if I'm never heard from again...



November 22, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·



November 22, 2010 at 04:38 PM ·

ALL these old instruments by Strad and Guarnari are fakes.

They were all built by one deaf, blind guy, in a cave in 1750. He only had a knife.

November 22, 2010 at 05:33 PM ·

Re dendrochronology, I believe that it's pretty much agreed-upon that the most it can do is show when a particular piece of wood of a violin was cut down. And even doing precisely that is not so easy. So if several respected 'dends' would all conclude that say the belly wood for the "Messiah" was cut down on or after 1740, then Stradivari could not have made it, since he died in 1737. Dend. can't say anything about who did make it.

November 22, 2010 at 05:34 PM ·

"The practice of piecing is just an example of a technique used by the Cremonese masters... For acoustic reasons probably, some pine tables of the finest Cremonese do display such small pieces... You find these on violins with a table in one piece usually... "


I guess most of that is news to me. Not that the Cremonese didn't occasionally insert pieces, but so do other makers, including me. In my case, this doesn't have any intended or expected acoustical effect.

November 22, 2010 at 06:01 PM ·

There may be some science applied in authenticating a violin reputed to be very valuable but instruments of lesser value will only get the "business" opinion of the appraiser. Those opinions can be all over the map and can have little to do with the actual instrument in hand. 

One notorious practice is to dispute the authenticity of the violin, buy it cheaply from an ignorant owner and then consign it to another dealer who pronounces it authentic and of the highest quality who then sells it and shares the profits with the consignor. Violin dealers can make used car salesmen look like choir boys.

November 22, 2010 at 07:29 PM ·

November 22, 2010 at 08:23 PM ·

Is there any independent corroboration for Vuillaume's story? Or do we just have his word for it? This is the violin which he kept locked in a glass case and wouldn't let anyone play, any which still can't be played? And which he made other copies of? Something about this tale just doesn't ring true or make sense. I think he may have been having a joke, and laughing for a long time.

November 22, 2010 at 08:35 PM ·

November 22, 2010 at 08:57 PM ·

Marc, I thought that I had read the Hill books.

Jeffrey Holmes or Andres Sender, help me out. Is this ringing a bell? Something about the finest Cremonese makers inserting small pieces in their tops to enhance the sound?

November 22, 2010 at 09:04 PM ·

Not to enhance the are misleading my words... when they had a piece of pine of great acoustical quality , sometimes they inserted pieces in ...maybe also to hide a knot...


Look David, I am not a twitt ok ...Just read again the passage of the Hills: title, "the practice of piecing"...

read it again... you really missed something.

November 22, 2010 at 09:08 PM ·

Then I guess you're talking about what I mentioned earlier, what I and many other makers  do sometimes... putting in a small piece to replace an area like a sap pocket.

Perhaps I misunderstood what you had written here:

"The practice of piecing is just an example of a technique used by the Cremonese masters... For acoustic reasons probably, some pine tables of the finest Cremonese do display such small pieces..."

I'm not aware of any acoustical advantage to using wood containing sap pockets. Typically, the pockets aren't exposed until quite a bit of labor has already been expended on the top, and this is a way of salvaging both the wood and the labor with no known negative consequences.

Here's an example of one inserted into a cello top, which is in the early stages of varnishing:

Below is how the unvarnished top looked before the piece was inserted:


I guess the major point I'd like to make is that such inserts are rather common in our business (present on my last two cellos), and hopefully won't be construed as an identifying feature of old Cremonese instruments.

November 22, 2010 at 09:11 PM ·

David: I am a nice guy, but my English is poor... But for sure, even If I was rich and could afford to buy the Messiah, I would rather buy one of yours... I am sure you make wonderful instruments.


Modern instruments are fantastics... I am not a cremonese freak...

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