an attic find, that's actually worth finding

January 31, 2011 at 07:27 PM ·

 In Australia, most of the trade instruments that arrived during latter 1800's/1900's were not terribly good quality.  So when my good friend asked me to have a look at an old violin found as part of her elderly family member's estate, I didn't expect that it would be much.

the contents of the estate otherwise are really interesting: the gavel used in the final trial of Ivan Milat (backpacker murderer); a shepherds crook that was known to have been handed down to her GREAT grandmother by HER grandmother (the patina on that stick has to be felt to be believed), a rocking chair on a mechanical spring.  all sorts of stuff.

Anyhow, the violin was in a typical old shaped hard ply case, complete with its still intact set of pure gut strings, and accompanied by a full set of pure gut strings still in packaging, and a very shrivelled G string off the instrument.  And three bridges, none on the instrument.

What struck me about it was its finess: a gracile instrument, longer body than I expected when I held it to playing position, and tiny narrow waist.  Narrow bouts, the whole thing kind of looks womanly (I don't get into naming or genderising my violins, but this one looks like a woman).  the neck seemed odd / little, but it has a beautifully carved gargoyle type head on the scroll - I have seen others where the head carving is somehow out of proportion, but this one was as delicate as the rest of the isntrument.  Varnish appeared in goodish condition, aa one piece back, nothing too drastic in flaming, and a dark colouring.

So i had an appointment with my luthier today anyway, and took it down, expecting it to be a turn of the century trade violin with nothing particular about it, may be worth restoring to play especially if Chris has nephews or nieces who want to learn...that sort of thing.

Big surprise - yes it is turn of the century, but that is 1800, not 1900.  It is a baroque 7/8 or ladies violin, made before 1800.  the fingerboard is maple with an overlay, the neck is baroque, and there is some damage that has been glued (and glued and glued) so that it stays in position - but nothing to stabilise it from inside. that appears to be the most severe problem it has.  Otherwise its in good nick, apparently well made (will know more when the neck is redone).  Made in Austria or Germany, a 'cottage' industry instrument, and of upper level quality for that type.  No original peg (there were 4 different pegs to choose from), a non fitting tailpiece 9full size), one of those cute little crescent chin rests.

it raises many questions for Chris - no one has ever played violin in her family, and no one knows the providence of this instrument.  it was found in her uncles flat initially, he definitely didn't ever play.  The family has been in Australia for a number of generations, in UK prior to that, so likely that the violin has come with one of them, but acquired how?  

But wasn't that a nice find?

Replies (22)

February 1, 2011 at 02:03 PM ·

What a lovely find!  How can one resist dreaming of the violin's story - which is, of course, why the red violin movie was so compelling.  Each violin has such a tale and feel - even mine which is brand new (2010) you look at it and wonder where it will go after you ..

Thanks for sharing the story.  Love to hear if you find anything more.

February 1, 2011 at 05:58 PM ·

 What a great story. I love the word "gracile"-- is it commonly used to refer to stringed instruments or did you use it as a general descriptor? 

February 1, 2011 at 09:21 PM ·

 @ John, yes, its actually a really nice place to live.  Just after Christmas, we went for a walk to view a new recreation precinct that has been developed near that cricket ground (a cricket ground surrounded by football fields, wrapped in a tennis court) and it was such a funny moment - children playing, no yobbos, families having dinner by the beach, then at the beach itself - for once there was a proper surf coming in in sets, no dumpers, perfect water quality, the sand had been bulldozed and cleaned....the the sun setting and casting this great glow.  I'm not that into the poetry of places, but it was really really nice.  Some visit some time.

@ elise - that's exactly it, what is the story! I haven't been able to contact Chris since I got back from luthier, she's back teaching this week.  DEfinitely more to come on this instrument.

@ E - I think I applied the term from my archaelogy studies.  Never thought if it was applied to instruments.  but it should be.  I'll take photos, maybe tonight if the temp can drop below 40 degrees (that's 104 farenheit - when Iw as at school and before Aust introduced metric, there was this urban myth that school had to close when the temp reached 102, no 104, no 100!, everyone was sure that the prinicpal was breaking the law by not closing school when it went over 100), and you'll see the femininity.

February 1, 2011 at 09:32 PM ·

 Ooh, great story!

February 2, 2011 at 08:57 PM ·

Are there any pictures you could share? I'd love to see this instrument.

February 2, 2011 at 08:59 PM ·

Same.  I'd love to see it.

February 2, 2011 at 09:35 PM ·

 I'll take pictures tonight and upload them, it is a fun adventure.

February 2, 2011 at 10:01 PM ·

and what about its sound ;)

February 5, 2011 at 09:49 PM ·

 @John, thankyou (on behalf of those in Qld) for the thoughts.  Its been a horror couple of months, with the floods, and now the cyclone.  and in Victoria, more floods, and in NSW - well, lets just say that having the temperature stick at 43C (109) throughout the day, and only cool to 35C (95F) is not conducive to anything that requires touching anything.  the bed felt like it had been in the sun, the water from the tap was too hot to put my hand in, the timber floor was as hot as the road outside!

So I haven't yet taken photos, but will try to do so today.

I won't be able to give any info about sound until we decide re restoration - a seam is open at the back, the neck problem, soundpost down, tailpiece, bridge ... but its something to look forward to.

February 5, 2011 at 10:48 PM ·

 sharelle,,,echo what good john said,,,hope you aussies take care!   

do buildings down there have basements or crawlspace? air conditioning?

hang in there!

i remember reading a book on strads in which there was a description of a lady violinist travelling to the tropics but her performances were affected because the hide glue could not hold her strad together due to the high temp...

February 6, 2011 at 12:18 AM ·

This is a link to my photobucket album, since nothing seems to be working real well today.  You'll need a password:

s194.photobucket.com/albums/z22/rellymailer/Old%20violin%20find/

 Password for this album is vcommie.

the photos aren't great - it s my mobile phone camera. Just don't have the energy to go looking for anything.

February 6, 2011 at 03:08 PM ·

 john, i think that is an european lion head :)  and i also wonder about the chance that this violin was originally made not far from you:)

if as much care and expertise had gone into carving the lion head as the internal construction of the body,  then roar:)

was the button played with?

February 6, 2011 at 09:44 PM ·

Looks to me like a typical lions head scroll in the mid to late 1800s in Mittenvald Germany - indeed very similar to mine.  These violins are made without internal blocks.  Whats diagnostic (so I have heard) is a small notch under the end pin (necessary because the end rib was all one piece (no block) and the notch was used to centre it during manufacture. 

I found out quite a lot researching mine!  Unfortunately most of these are not valuable - even though I love to play mine.  It has a clear sweet tone and serves as my travel violin - not afraid to leave it in the hotel room and no panic if ever I am forced to put the instrument in the hold...

February 7, 2011 at 09:02 PM ·

The carving reminds me of Chinese carvings, perhaps of a dog?

February 9, 2011 at 08:46 PM ·

Agree with Emily. Looks like a  German lion head violin from last part of 19 century to me. I am not even close to being an expert, but don't most of the late 18th century violins have higher arching ( and often more pinched in the Stayner way?)  How long is the back? 

February 10, 2011 at 07:02 PM ·

Oops, I meant  agree with Elise.

February 10, 2011 at 08:22 PM ·

You can agree with me, too, if you like.

February 11, 2011 at 09:13 AM ·

"I must say it`s not a very good lion" i agree, John.  I never think they look like lions, just fugly people.

Will get a second opinion next weekend, maybe a third after that if i can get to the guy, and let you know the story then.  My friend is more than happy for me to play if it restored, which is a bit exciting, and views from maestronet seem to be that it is well made, you know, how well made should sound good (michael darnton alluded to the same in his recent post). so, lets see. 

May 25, 2012 at 09:19 AM · Hi there John and Lyndon.

I haven't had the cash reserves to get the work done on this violin yet, hopefully before the end of the year I will.

Chris has given it to me - she explored within the family to find that no-one ever played, and no-one knew of the uncle even being interested in the violin, so there is no family sentiment, and she likes me, and thought it was best in hands that would protect and enjoy it.

I found out also, that it wasn't just found in the Uncle's home, it was actually removed by Chris from the rubbish being dumped into a skip, as her sister had deemed it worthless. To think it almost didn't make it.

John - that's a pretty sus program, are you saying that the dealers themselves didn't let on about the possible link and therefore value of the violin, so they could get it for cheaper?

Lyndon - from my recollection, the luthier felt it was indeed later 1700 or early 1800 becasue of the neck. I was sure I'd remember what he said, but I'm embarrassed to say that I only recall the gist, not the detail.

I like the idea of eventually playing Bach on a contempeorary instrument.

May 25, 2012 at 03:24 PM · >I found out also, that it wasn't just found in the Uncle's home, it was actually removed by Chris from the rubbish being dumped into a skip, as her sister had deemed it worthless. To think it almost didn't make it.

Yikes!!!

You'll have to blog about it when you do get the repairs done and can play this instrument. It's such a great story, all of it. Oh, and post photos.

April 24, 2013 at 11:18 AM · IT'S BACK

So, the little violin that could, the one that defied the odds and proved that serendipity does exist, is here and has been played for the first time in who knows how long.

and yes, it is worth the wait.

Story so far - found in the flat of reclusive hoarding uncle, thrown into garbage skip by unknowing relative, rescued by sympathetic friend and given to me, and then awaiting my savings as I'd been quoted some thousands of dollars to have it restored. but informed it was probably quite a decent instrument judging by quality of workmanship, and it was a 'ladies' violin which was something I had been looking for due to my diminutive size.

Serendipititiousness continued, when the partner of the daughter of long time ensemble members arrived on the scene, he too a violinist and son of a cabinet maker. He loves woodwork, had done woodwork at school, had been doing repairs and made a couple of violins and was only too pleased to look at this little interesting violin, and less than a week later and less than a thousand dollars later, its strung up, we've all had a play , and we've all agreed its a little beauty.

The worst things:

- the original saddle had to be reshaped a bit

- the neck had to be reglued, and that required removing the fingerboard, and a whole lot of hide glue poured in :)

- the top seam almost in its entirety had to be reglued

- all the tuning pegs had to be replaced, and very carefully tapered due to lots of wear in the peg box that is going to be a longer term problem for the A string area in particular - there isn't much material here to muck around with, but for now I couldn't go with geared pegs for some reason :)

- a new bridge had to be carved due to excessive notching in the nicest fitting of one of the three original bridges in the case.

- new strings needed, at present these are evah pirazzi which are my all time least liked but the chap's favourite and he did the work and they actually do sound good on the violin (I begrudgingly agree).

- it was dirty, it needed a polish

The good things:

- Nothing had to be forced to fit, every thing just glued back in to place other than the saddle - all the ribs, top, bottom, neck, all just went together.

- The blocks and lining are really nicely crafted.

- No crack, anywhere; no damage to any of the points, minimal damage to varnish but signs of wear from playing.

- The top is one piece, the back is one piece.

The interesting finds:

- the fingerboard is a spruce core with an overlay of ? maple or something, which has now been restained. I think I'll retain this fingerboard rather than replace it.

- The body of the violin is light and finely made, but the neck is build like the proverbial brick sh*t house and is really flat, wide and heavy. Now that we know it has a great sound, and the playability is pretty good, I am thinking I will have the neck shaved down to a smaller circumference.

I have photos, but am having some difficulty getting them on here, i will try to get them on, maybe via facebook.

I did get photos on the v.com facebook page. I am charging the battery on my video recorder, and will post to youtube tomorrow, so we can all hear how it sounds. i am making apologies in advance for any real stuff ups, since I am still bearing the impact of this anti convulsant medication, and sometimes my playing is not so predictable.

April 24, 2013 at 12:33 PM · What a lovely outcome! Sounds like the neck may not be the original. Those repairs are nothing serious--how wonderful it had no major cracks (like above soundpost or bass bar). Await pics with interest. ENJOY!

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