Mystery violin makers and trade/import names

June 17, 2016 at 04:24 PM · I found a thread similar to this in Maestronet from a decade ago, but it was incomplete in certain regards which could be helpful for consumers and players.

In the violin market there are more facsimiles and trade names from companies that didn't make, but rather imported violins, than there are true luthier crafted instruments. This is a fact of life and even though it would be great to own a master instrument, many of these innumerable non-master instruments form a large part of who we are as players: for one they're affordable, and they often play very nicely and are well made by the hands of skilled, albeit anonymous, craftsmen.

I don't think I'm alone in wanting to be more resourceful in obtaining information regarding origins; and this would add a level of appreciation to mid-market, semi-professional quality violins, rather than having our necks stuck upward gazing at the price tags of wooden boxes which exceed most annual salaries.

Obtaining specific information about unlabeled, facsimile or trade-named instruments is a long shot, and the violin I just purchased which has prompted this will probably fall into this category, but for those who know and have expertise (professional, or relative to the majority of us), this forum seems like a welcome place to share knowledge and resources-- not just the trade names, but what import companies were out there employing makers from Europe, and is it possible to know who was making what? And, at that, where could we find information related to this so we could go down this rabbithole ourselves?

Because I expect that the violin I personally have questions about will be of very limited concern to the general public, I wanted to make this very open ended. However, if anyone can provide information regarding the following, I would VERY much appreciate that, and perhaps the subsequent line of thinking could help other owners and prospective buyers regarding the origin of their violins.

This violin is beautiful, which I could go on about, the purfling, the rich, dark varnish (not a shiny fiddle) the well executed arching and one piece back and distinctive bouts and thin neck... on and on, and it's a joy to play--true character, volume, and responsiveness all the way up and down.

That being said, the label is basic, and isn't consistent with the pride most luthiers would put into their work- it has nothing besides the name, place and date, which seems odd. The name is August Kniezel instrumentmacher saiten in Vienna 1906 (I probably misspelled and misplaced something there I'm not looking at the instrument). Not much information (almost none) is available about this "maker", so obviously this isn't a copy.

I've found a cpl listings which don't match up to my instrument, and an online appraisal recommending, in name alone, that a violin by this maker be sold for between $300-500, referencing an online auction for a violin by this name. This inconsistency is a very curious thing. Notwithstanding how poor that appraisal was, in spirit and professionalism, it doesn't match up to what I own. The spruce was carefully selected, the f-holes cut precisely and elegantly, the purfling inlaid and close to the edges, a vague tool mark appears here and there on the scroll and the edge of the purfling along the lower bouts, such that the instrument does not feel mass produced. I also found a picture of an instrument bearing a Kniezel label which looked nothing like mine-- it was basic, decent wood, but nothing elegant.

I expect there never to have been an August Kniezel, but whoever made this violin crafted a charming instrument and if I can find anything out about this name and the corresponding operations it would only deepen my appreciation, and maybe the method of discovering a mystery maker would assist others. Thanks for any help refining this topic, and more specifically regarding my violin!

Replies (26)

June 17, 2016 at 04:50 PM · Kniezel was probably a dealer that put his label in instruments bought from the Markneukirchen/ Schoenbach violin production centres, hence no real possibility of finding the names of the actual makers, however you could do some reading on the topic "Markneukirchen/Schoenbach violin trade" and you will learn a lot and how one dealer sold violins of different quality levels seemingly having nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

June 17, 2016 at 07:18 PM · This brings up something I've long wondered about...

How does one take off / replace the label on a violin?

Isn't the stuff glued down good, and the only access to it is by the tiny gaps of the F holes? Do they take out the whole back to scrape the label off?? Seems barbaric!

June 17, 2016 at 07:35 PM · When I was young my father spent a lot of time with his precious stamp collection and I do remember watching him steam some of them off of envelopes and it did not seem that difficult to do looking back.

I am sure the charlatans on eBay who consistently label German instruments with fakeCremona labels are pretty good at doing this with out being easily detectible. There are threads on this practice quite often on Maestronet.

June 21, 2016 at 02:42 PM · Warm water on a cloth and some gentle rubbing, I imagine. I have a fiddle with a removed label. It looks intentional. I've taken many fiddles apart (I'm not trained I've only done this with junk violins).

Yes, barbaric indeed. The violins are designed to come apart in order to be worked on...this is also an effect of the glue that's used in order to not mute the resonance of the instruments.

June 21, 2016 at 04:52 PM · What really bothers me that once in a while, one can stumble upon one of those instruments and get really surprised by the quality of their sound. Not comparable with great violins, but the basics, plus some perks are there for you to have fun. A violin to carry on vacation or to busk with no regrets.

By the way Mitchell, there is a special place in hell for those who remove violin labels!

June 22, 2016 at 11:03 PM · I remember in middle school, I had a violin that the label fell out of. I kept in the case for awhile but it got loss. I now have one of those German Trade Violins with a label that I cannot see because over it there is a label that reads Merson etc...

I considered removing that label to see what was under it but have not done so yet. I likely never will.

June 23, 2016 at 12:14 AM · You might be disappointed as often the dealers label is on top of a reproduction Strad label or the like.

June 23, 2016 at 11:42 AM · This is an interesting topic since probably the majority of users are not at the stage of affording instruments from name makers.

For the violin my daughter bought, the luthier was up front in explaining the Italian name on the label was not actually the maker - and that in his firm view the violin was Tyrolean. I was able to do a bit of digging courtesy of Google and found that "Andrea Fiorini" was a brand name used by the London violin shop Beare and Son (and in fact on a second look there was a symbol on the label incorporating the letters B, S, & and L). Such violins are listed on auction/violin shop websites as variously originating from Mirecourt (France) or Germany. My guess is that Beare's had a buyer who travelled to all the major violin-making centres in search of good instruments, and the Austrian (Tyrol) connection came from a maker who made violins of a higher quality than people were likely to buy locally in Tyrol and instead sold his instruments via the German violin centre of Mittenwald which is only a few miles from the Austrian border.

Like the OP's, our instrument shows all the signs of being made by a skilled craftsman with real pride in his or her work. The business of Beare & Son still exists, though these days no longer in London and without involvement of the Beare family. However their current violin specialist very kindly responded to my query with information from an old catalogue. The Andrea Fiorini label was the most expensive to be marketed as a brand name, originally costing over four times one of the workshop made violins "modelled on old masters", though slightly less than those from name makers of the time. What is confusing though is that they also sometimes used "Paolo Fiorini" as a label (and if there was a difference it is lost to history) and there was at the time a real and well-regarded violin maker called Guiseppe Fiorini.

Our experience overall is similar to the OP, after trying many instruments we were able to find one we really liked in terms of playing quality and which quite clearly showed excellent craftsmanship. We have been a little more successful in finding more about it, though it would still be interesting to find out more about the actual maker. Perhaps he also sold within Austria to the August Kniezel company!

June 23, 2016 at 12:26 PM · As has been pointed out on Maestronet, the idea that production violins were made in Tyrolia has been exposed as somewhat of a myth, very few actual makers lived in Tyrolia, its pretty much Markneukirchen/Schoenbach or Mittenwald for violins of the type you are describing, the good news is the Fiorini label was sometime used by the high quality Markneukirchen firm E H Roth, and if genuine can be worth several thousand dollars. I had a nice violin with Fiorini penciled under a missing label that was appraised as an EH Roth worth $3500.

June 23, 2016 at 01:48 PM · Someone ought to write a guide to older instruments in the sub-$5k range, together with YouTube samples. :-)

June 23, 2016 at 03:08 PM · Thanks Lyndon. I have previously wondered about the "Tyrolean" attribution and discovered people on Maestronet were sceptical. But as I said the experienced local luthier seemed positive, and when I questioned him he talked about aspects of the build and varnish that gave him that belief ... way beyond my competence to challenge.

But in my daughter's hands the violin was clearly of a musical quality significantly above others tried at its price point, and the information from present day Beare and Son pointed the same way. In the UK reasonable 100-year old workshop violins are usually priced in the £800-1200 range, and we didn't pay £3000+. Interestingly, when it occurred to me to reply to this thread I did a Fiorini search and found a recent advert for one described as Roth School and correspondingly priced. (Ours, though younger, actually looks very similar to that advert, with even fine-grained spruce on the front and a one-piece back).

And Lydia, I like the idea of that guide. It would need someone who has luthier knowledge as well as a pragmatic approach to do it. Because ultimately we are talking of the range where labels provide little guidance, and as a buyer without that expertise one needs pointers to judge the quality of workmanship and sound production. Those YouTube samples would be great to give an exact guide to the sort of music to try playing, and the qualities to look for.

We worked on something of a trial-and-error technique. My daughter used two pieces she could play well from memory, one baroque and the other romantic, and scales. After trying as many in the violin shop as our brains could manage we took the best two home to use more and get teacher feedback, and in that way developed a clearer idea of what qualities were important to us. The process continued week after week (often keeping hold of a possible from the week before) and by the time we got to the Fiorini we could confidently recognise that it had something special over others in the price range.

We are fortunate to have a very patient and understanding local violin shop (not to mention teacher). We borrowed a total of eight violins, and must have tried several times that number in the shop. And then when we were done, we repeated the process to find a bow to go with it!

June 23, 2016 at 03:28 PM · @Jonathan

Hi - if you are in London it's possible I know the shop you are talking about. In fact about 7 years ago I bought a similar - probably German - fiddle which had by far the best sound in the shop. I think they were selling it for someone and it was cheap, although it had not been well set up. (I used it for a couple of years before buying a modern Italian violin from Cremona). The German fiddle has a carved date of 1841 which is probably correct. The label says "Gaspar da Salo 1586"

It's not a bad violin and if I could be bothered to have it set up properly it would be quite nice, although it would not project as well as my good fiddle. But that does not matter for casual use and for young students who aren't going to be playing in the R Festival Hall for a while at least!

Another violin dealer in West London who I would respect has good violins for students as well as quite expensive ones, (and very expensive ones), and he is pretty expert at repairs and setting up.

June 23, 2016 at 03:46 PM · Not that shop, we live in East Yorkshire.

I take your projection point, much of the advice about tone on the internet seems to be aimed at potential soloists looking for much more expensive violins, talking about the ability to be heard over an orchestra from the back of a concert hall. Not the first need of a student.

However during our journey I did come to the conclusion that projection was one of the key features we wanted in a violin. I think of it more as the music a violin produces having a much bigger presence than the physical box the sound comes out of. It is actually quite difficult to put in words, you get the feeling the sound soars from the violin and fills the room in a way that a listener has to respond to.

June 23, 2016 at 03:57 PM · Buy violins, not labels.

In this price range you are not purchasing "investments", and I really hate it when consumers/musicians consider their instruments and bows to be investments, because they aren't.

In this price range, you are purchasing a tool-of-the-trade and what it is labeled as really doesn't matter.

Ultimately what you need is to find someone who you trust to help you find the instrument. I am firmly of the belief that anyone who puts their mind and energy toward learning to identify instruments can do so, but you have many years of study ahead of you.

Also, to remind all-tone is not what determines the price.

Johnathan, 8 violins and a few trips to the shop isn't much. I wish that I had more customers like yourself!

June 29, 2016 at 03:03 PM · True, and among the investment class of violins I've read a lot of criticism of the tone of some modern Italians who crafted beautiful and expensive instruments which don't possess soloist tone-- soloist tone, I believe, being the standard expectation for such a hefty price tag. And why not?

June 29, 2016 at 06:27 PM · You should read elsewhere - that is total rubbish!

June 29, 2016 at 06:39 PM · The "Solist Tone" resides with the Soloist, not the violin.

June 29, 2016 at 06:40 PM · Duane - absolutely right.

June 29, 2016 at 09:07 PM · I'm guessing "soloist tone" refers more to the raw ability to punch through a heavy orchestral texture in a concerto solo, without having to expend a lot of energy and effort. Projection and power in a particular set of circumstances.

Not all instruments facilitate that, whether new or old. But it doesn't make much sense for most people to search for that as one of the primary qualities that they're searching for in an instrument. It's not most people's ordinary playing circumstances.

June 30, 2016 at 09:29 PM · Well said, Lydia. Peter, I think you missed the point. A lot of what drives the market value of instruments is a combination of visual aesthetic and history/genealogy, and not the playability or character or tone of the instrument. To dismiss what I said as rubbish, notwithstanding how polite a comment it was, is also to miss the intent of the comment in the context of a discussion about mid-market violins. I've heard $20k+ instruments without character, without charm, but which look absolutely stunning. Soloist tone, in this context, refers to a sound which in itself justifies the expense; not the scroll, not the family tree of the maker, not a laundry list of investment features. To your point, no, someone who isn't a soloist will not perform like Andrei Korsakov; the instruments do not play themselves.

June 30, 2016 at 10:28 PM · A friend here in town has been engaging in the trade in the form of CAS (Cello Acquisition Syndrome). Having played many fine instruments that he thought were underpriced compared to some very expensive ones that he had auditioned, he was "lectured" to by a prominent dealer/expert in Chicago. He informed him that in the trade we sell provenance and condition, not tone.

I am working on a friend's Gagliano this week Very nice, very ugly violin. I can make it sound like any other fiddle in the shop. The owner can make it sound like nothing that I have available for sale.

July 1, 2016 at 12:24 PM · Alex in effect reinforces Lydia's earlier comment about needing a guide to choosing a moderately priced violin. Assuming the violin shop knows its business, putting an instrument in that price range will mean it comes from a workshop, or an unknown individual maker who sold violins for shops to label themselves, or from a maker who doesn't have a "name" which justifies a higher price. They are quite likely to come from the prolific violin-making period around a hundred years ago although they may not (our shop had a few made by contemporary students of violin making). The challenge for a buyer is how to choose among them.

When I looked for guidance on the internet, it tended to assume the buyer would already be a pretty expert violinist. In fact most of these violins will be bought by students stepping up from a cheap outfit model, or from renting. And it is most likely it is their non-expert parents wanting information to ensure that they get a good violin for their money (in terms of how good a sound their child will make with it, and whether it will continue to be adequate for a few years to come). They may be able to get further advice from a teacher, but they will be the ones making the choice from the stock in the shop.

The two main issues are build quality and playing quality. For build quality we would need advice from one of the luthiers on this site: what should a non-expert buyer look for as evidence that a violin is well made for its price bracket with no obvious likelihood of developing problems needing repair?

For playing quality there are two sides to the question, what to look for and how to test it? To my mind some of the features to look for are projection (already talked about in this thread), responsiveness to the bow, balance across strings and registers, and resonance. Tone is the other feature, but possibly something more a matter of individual taste and also somewhat elusive - it can be modified somewhat by changing the strings, and we hadn't realised until we reached that stage how much the bow was a factor in drawing out different tone qualities from the same violin. (With us violin choice was done using my daughter's old three-quarter size bow, once we had chosen the instrument we moved to matching it with a new bow).

And then advice on how to test for those features. Scales will obviously test evenness across strings, and up to as high a position as the student is confident in. My thoughts were that pieces whatever their playing level should include those with fast moving passages that need responsiveness, they won't work if the violin doesn't "speak" easily, and others that need expressive playing that tests the projection and resonance. Whatever the pieces are they need to be ones that the student knows very well, ideally from memory, so that they concentrate on the qualities of the violin rather than the challenges of the music.

I hope someone can take up the challenge and produce a guide!

July 8, 2016 at 08:21 PM · I recently, out of curiosity, stepped into a fiddle shop while away on business. Yet another fiddle shop with a bunch of step up violins which, I am pretty convinced after trying a popular line, are in the way of families just spending slightly more to obtain what I would call "real" instruments. Just wanted to share to reinforce the point that if folks know what to look for, and this is a big if with all the facsimile and import labels out there, that there are innumerable 19th and early 20th century trade instruments available which will outperform these lines/models of makers available now. The rationality offered by the very kind owner was that these are better than buying the $300 violins on ebay...I completely disagree, unless one is talking about the shellacked and overpriced toy violins available. One of my best violins is a composite with no label that I barely spent over $400 on in bidding. A charming and strange instrument that no one was looking at. But I know what to look for, generally.

Jonathan, to your point, a good way to test evenness across strings is to play the closed 5th on each string singularly and as a double stop. Move up an octave and see how the violin reacts, does the sound stay open, buzz, etc. Buzzing can be the fingerboard not being scooped, so this isn't necessarily the fault of the violin. If the sound seems to fade, this is probably a good sign to pick up the next violin. Personally, I don't have the expectation in the price range that I'm usually looking in that the tone will stay even across the strings beyond the 5th position; in fact, I prefer it to have a different character at that point for phrasing.

Violin responsiveness can be worked on and improved by a luthier. A nasal, pinched or metallic tone can be adjusted with string experimentation, but this can be expensive.

Up-bow staccato exercises are important in determining the potential an instrument has to respond. I'm saying this from experience, nothing more. If you can't get a clear staccato, it's probably not just the bow you're using, and having a violin capable in this department will save a lot of effort and stress down the road. The real issue at stake in responsiveness is playability. Some violins are more playable that others and the music seems to ooze out of them. If there's no joy in playing a particular instrument then I would encourage moving on, even if the fiddle is beautiful.

Repairs can be due to all sorts of things. Make sure the soundpost isn't cut too high, and if you're holding a heavy fiddle, unless the construction is large, the wood might not have aged sufficiently, which can cause cracks. Very good topic for a luthier to weigh in on.

July 9, 2016 at 02:03 PM · Some violins are more playable that others and the music seems to ooze out of them. If there's no joy in playing a particular instrument then I would encourage moving on, even if the fiddle is beautiful.

A lot of wonderful violins are hard to play and if you are willing to find out how to play them, then the rewards are even greater. So I would reject your advice. In the end you have to decide on the sound, and if it is superb, then learn how to play it. (But this takes time).

July 27, 2016 at 07:03 PM · How would one determine what has such potential, versus determining that one is playing on an instrument which isn't going to do much?

July 28, 2016 at 02:54 AM · Experience.

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