How are old unlabled violins appraised?

August 9, 2005 at 04:51 PM · Recently I purchased an old violin which has no label or markings & am curious on how the experts can tell the quality of an instrument as well as where, when & maybe who made it?

Replies (30)

August 10, 2005 at 07:40 AM · Hi Jasmine,

It is usually a case of the expert having years of contact with similar sorts of instruments in which the origin is actually known. That is why all experts (at least the ones I have been fortunate enough to know) tended to learn their trade under the guidance of an already established expert.

I am by no means any sort of expert myself, although I have had sufficient contact with them over many years to have basic knowledge regarding the sorts of things they look at (and do) in order to determine origin. Some of the knowledge too, would probably be better classified under the guise of "black art". By that I mean there are many intangibles they look for that are much easier to visualise in one's mind than put into express words. A picture is worth at least 1000 words. The more authentic violins someone has access to, the more they can visualise in their own minds the physical characteristics that identify them.

To be honest, the label on a violin is the last thing a professional appraiser is going to look at during an evaluation in any case. Or at least it should be. The presence of a label does help to confirm the opinion of an expert, certainly. But an accomplished appraiser does not look for a label and then try to find things about the instrument that are consistent with the information depicted on the label. They look for identifying features in the instrument and then would look to the label as a means of confirmation. Of course, so many violins have false labels, so that in itself is a reason why the label (or even many markings) does not mean much in terms of an official appraisal.

There are many physical features an appraiser will look at. Assuming for example, that the head is authentic, it becomes a good guide in the case of handmade instruments since it can betray the individual style of the maker particularly well. The specific wood (appearance, quality), etc can also an indicator, although one has to be careful with that. For example, even Stradivari used varying qualities of wood depending on the period in which the instrument was made and indeed in response to the cajoling of a rich client (for example the magnificent "Duport" cello). Then again, we find some Stradivari violins that even have wood knots in them. But experts can often tell through scientific means whether the same log was used in a number of different instruments which, prima facie, were made by the same maker. Such a determination would help in authenticating these instruments.

The general standard of workmanship and modelling is always a very strong guide for the expert too. For example, the quality of the finish (ie tool marks, etc), the inlaying of the purfling, the position of the purfling relative to the edge, thickness of the purfling, treatment of the edges, the "fluting", arching, outline, etc. These are all indicators to an expert.

The varnish used is also an indicator (and it is not hard for an expert to see varnish repairs or new layers of varnish added to the original). Different schools used different varnishes and had different methods of application and usually showed a predisposition to using certain colour combinations. Additionally, particular finishes will age in a specific way. Certain maker's finishes, for example, might be very dry and fragile looking, others might be softer and acquire a beautiful, broken up patina simply through years of exposure and shrinkage.

Other means used by experts include looking for markings which might not be visible via external inspection, but are visible via internal inspection. If you look through the dictionaries of violin makers, for example, there will often be mention made of particular internal markings that distinguish one maker (or even one firm) from another.

Although most of what I have mentioned above relates to the authentication of higher quality handmade instruments, the process is quite similar for workshop grade instruments, although it is not as exhaustive. Often the process is much easier, because workshop instruments are made in much greater numbers and therefore an appraiser is likely to have seen far more examples. Additionally, workshop instruments tend to be quite consistent in terms of the identifying features (good and bad) I have mentioned previously. A firm might also, for example, have a particular range of instruments in which certain price points are reflected in the actual model used (i.e Strad or Del Gesu) and even the original date of the "master" violin used to copy from. The best example of this type of practice is probably the Roth firm from Germany.

At the lowest end of the scale, a cheap, factory made instrument is going to be immediately obvious to the expert. There is little dedication shown in terms of the carving, thicknesses, quality or overall finish compared to good handmade instruments. Additionally (and getting back to my "black art" comment), the whole thing just lacks any sort of inspiration or sufficent attention to aesthetics. Often, the more modern of these mass produced instruments are sprayed with a polyurethane type of finish that, whilst extremely durable (you could almost finish your stairs with it) is worlds away from the quality of a good spirit varnish, let alone a high quality oil-based varnish.

I am sorry this has been brief and lacking in specifics, but the process of appraising instruments is something you could fill volumes and volumes of books with. Getting back to what I said earlier though, the more violins a person looks at (assuming there is someone there to "guide" them), the easier it becomes to indentify the physical characteristics that define a particular school or firm and as a result the geographical origin and approximate period. One thing is certain about the experts - they have personally handled huge numbers of instruments.

August 11, 2005 at 11:56 PM · Thanks Jonathan,

Your answer was in depth and very helpful.

It was a thought of mine that the label could be a secondary thing for in reality don't we buy violins primarily for the sound they produce?

August 12, 2005 at 02:56 AM · Hi Jasmine,

Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't :) Although I am no longer in the market for an instrument, if I were, I would like to concern myself with both the sound as well as the desirability of the instrument from a collector's perspective. The thing is that the condition, origin and provenance of an instrument is important to collectors, as well as musicians who consider things other than sound to be important. It is important in terms of the purchase being a quality investment and important in terms of the instrument's valuation.

When an appraiser values an instrument, the main factors taken into account are the maker, period and condition. Sound does not come into it, since sound is subjective. In any case, a given maker would already have earned a reputation (good or bad) through prolonged use of his or her instruments by large numbers of musicians over a very long period of time. That is basically how Del Gesus and even Strads got their reputation. Del Gesus at the time they were built were almost considered the "poor man's" alternative, whereas nowadays if they come up for sale they often surpass the prices of Strads. Around the same time, instruments like Amatis and Stainers were considered more desirable than Strads on account of the exceptionally easy-speaking qualities of the tone.

So in valuing an instrument, the appraiser can't consider sound, because he or she might not like it, but then someone will walk right on into the shop and love it.

In the low price ranges, however, I agree that sound should be the primary consideration, along with condition. At the low end of the price scale, things like resale and investment value are quite secondary. In other words, if you pay a premium for "your" sound then you have trouble selling the violin later on (perhaps because hardly anyone else likes the sound, the workmanship is dubious and / or the state of preservation poor) then it isn't necessarily going to be a huge loss. In a lot of cases like that, players just end up keeping those sorts of instruments as their spare.

The question gets tricky when we try to define the monetary value beyond which we feel compelled to factor in the maker, period and condition when we purchase a violin. There is no answer for everyone - I guess it depends upon how desperate we are to acquire an instrument, what level we play at, what we expect the instrument to do for us and how much money we have.

August 12, 2005 at 09:52 PM · I'm not sure that 'del Gesù's' violins were necessarily considered the "poor man's alternative." While he did not serve the most illustrious clientele that the Casa Guarneri (or Stradivari) could boast, his work was nonetheless Cremonese and commanded its own price.

The cheapjacks of Milan usually served to the practical musicians of lesser means.

Eric

August 12, 2005 at 10:02 PM · Hi Eric,

I stand by my statement. To quote Hill:

"...he (Del Gesu) was working for the peasant rather than the noble, the itinerant musician rather than the wealthy dilettante, and the price received when his violin was finished and sent forth on its career was represented by a modest number of lire imperiali. If we were asked to hazard a figure we should answer about half the remuneration paid to his greater contemporary..."

from The "Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family" by Hills 1931.

I agree of course that there were far lesser makers around than commanded lower prices, but the instruments of those makers have not appreciated in value to anywhere remotely near the same extent of Del Gesu's work. Del Gesu violins when new were considered a budget alternative for people of little financial means, yet now they are arguably the most expensive and coveted instruments of all.

August 12, 2005 at 10:57 PM · Jonathan,

I do, also recall the exact Hill text to which you refer--and it's always given me pause. I suppose my point was that the cheapest Italian fiddles were not to be found in Cremona.

Given the Hill's "hazard" at Giuseppe's price, half of Stradivari's fee, even on a modest commission, would have been considerable. To read the Hill redaction one might believe that penurious violinists (still a rather debased lot in society) came willy-nilly to Giuseppe's shop to trade.

While Stradivari did without doubt charge more, the average "peasant" in Lombardy was most likely not capable of playing on any violin procured in Cremona.

Eric

August 12, 2005 at 11:22 PM · Eric,

I understand what you are saying, but the original context of my remark related to the comparison of Del Gesu violins and Stradivari violins when new. I was not comparing those instruments to others when I made the "poor man's alternative" remark. In the culture I come from, the expression "poor man's alternative" is understood to mean the availability of goods or services of ostensibly comparable quality and utility for significantly less financial outlay. If I bought a Mazda luxury sedan tomorrow, my workmates would not stop telling me that I had bought a poor man's BMW. The expression is meant as a comparative measure, not one of absolutes.

I maintain once again that my remarks are valid when taken in the context in which I made them, rather than the direction into which you have now chosen to steer the argument. Certainly in the absense of Stradivari's and Guarneri's original income, balance sheets and profit and loss statements and receipt books, I would rather bow to the expertise of the Hill family in this case. So with that said, we will have to agree to differ.

August 12, 2005 at 11:47 PM · In the short period where they overlap, del Gesu was using much, much better wood than the Stradivari shop, equal to the best that Stradivari ever used. This is leading modern experts to a reassessment of the Hills' statement: someone who's making trash violins doesn't have either the resources or the reason to buy and use the very best wood being used in town.

August 13, 2005 at 12:02 AM · I certainly never implied Guarneri made trash violins and nor did the Hills. People seem to be putting words into my mouth today. Prices for new instruments today vary buy hundreds of percent, even when the materials used are of comparable quality, so why not in earlier times too?

August 13, 2005 at 12:01 AM · "Del Gesu violins when new were considered a budget alternative for people of little financial means."

Regardless of the "trash" issue, this statement doesn't wash, either.

August 13, 2005 at 12:58 AM · Michael,

As I am sure you know, the Hills state that they never recorded a levelling of Strad and Guarneri prices until the mid 1800s - more than a century after the last productions of Stradivari and Del Gesu. The records of prices paid prior to that all reflect much lower prices for Del Gesu instruments than paid for Stradivari instruments. I realise that people nowadays dispute some of the things said by the Hill firm, but at least in making their statements they took care to provide some sort of justification and to make frequent references to their sources of information. You may say my point does not wash, but your point about materials does not wash with me either, for the reason I stated above.

Assuming for one moment that the Hills are incorrect - i.e Del Gesu instruments and Strad instruments were comparatively priced (or the Del Gesus even more expensive) then I think it is neccessary to discredit the Hills actual source information, since I think the conclusions they have drawn from it are quite reasonable.

August 13, 2005 at 12:26 AM · I certainly did not mean to put words into anyone's mouth, and apologize if I seemed to do so. I was simply stating that I don't believe all of the Hills' statements to be gospel; you happened to bring up one.

I myself love the Hill volumes, and have read them so many times over they are practically memorized. But inasmuch as the Hills' work is of incalculable worth to lovers of the violin, it is not without its inaccuracies and obsolete theories.

After all, these are the same gentlemen who believed Giacomo Stradivari truly possessed his ancestor's varnish recipe ;-)

I don't see that we disagree about the original point.

Eric

August 13, 2005 at 12:56 AM · Yes, I agree that speculation is true regarding the Hills, as I agreed earlier. And personally I would love to have a definitive knowledge of where Del Gesu stood in terms of the relative appreciation of his instruments at the time they were made, as well as the specifics of his remuneration.

If either you or Michael know of the location of the specific research that challenges the Hill findings in this particular regard, I am certainly interested.

Anyway, when I don't want to concern myself with accuracy, I prefer to get out my "Violins and Violinists" book :)

August 13, 2005 at 12:50 AM · Regarding fine wood:

Material of quality was not as readily available in the 18th Century as it is today. Importing was a costly venture for a small town just outside Milan. One must also consider that Cremona had been thrown into war for a number of years, had recently recovered from the scourge of plague, and was coping with a decimated population. Also, it strained under the economical clout of Venice, and struggled with Napolean standards for art and culture.

Maples of fine figure were not local to Lombardy; they likely emanated from modern-day Croatia. Local trees exhibited much finer curl, such as in that of Stradivari's early work. The plainest of maples accounted for the majority of the Testores' stock.

Eric

August 13, 2005 at 02:57 AM · Actually, Jonathan, the Hills don't say it quite the way you say. They say that in the early 1800s Strads were twice as costly as del Gesus, but they have nothing at all to say about original prices. They do have quite a few disparaging comments about everything to do with del Gesu, much of which, as I said, doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Incidentally, I think it's hardly fair that the Hills, who made many mistakes and speculated wildly and often inaccurately, get to say whatever they wish without documentation, but to disagree with them, I have to come up with documentary evidence.

August 13, 2005 at 04:43 AM · Michael said "...but they have nothing at all to say about original prices..."

Michael, the Hills did actually speak about prices (both original and subsequent) the way I stated, since in essence I quoted them verbatim. It was in my earlier post in this thread, but I will repeat the quotation here:

"...If we were asked to hazard a figure we should answer about half the remuneration paid to his greater contemporary..."

To me, that seems to be a statement about the original prices. Hills further state that this "half price" scenario continued from the time the instruments were born until the first half of the 19th century, so they commented about prices from the time the instruments were made right up until the latest records they could procure. So in my opinion my citation of the Hills point of view (whether people consider the Hills point of view to be correct or incorrect) is sound.

You and others might dispute the actual remuneration paid. Certainly whilst it has to be conceded that the Hills were unable to dig up any original receipts of sale of brand new Del Gesu instruments, it doesn't look like anyone else has either. Have they?

Unless someone has, we will have to differ in our views as to whether Hill's speculation about the original prices was reasonable or not. Personally I have more difficulty finding any sense in the argument that Del Gesu did in fact charge prices comparative to Stradivari, only for the values to subsequently fall to fully half that level - than I do the argument that Del Gesus instruments were simply cheaper from the start - and remained so until they were further popularised by way of the greatest players of the 19th century. I have trouble accepting that because the popularity of the Del Gesu instruments did not appear to wax and wane perhaps in they way Amati or Stainer instruments did. The popularity appears to have steadily increased from the late 18th century onwards. I can only think that increasing popularity of a finite resource means that prices should - relatively speaking - continue to increase rather than fall behind. That, and the fact that there is such a small pool of Del Gesu instruments to begin with suggests to me continued upward pressures on pricing. I cannot see any economic factors that would cause the instruments to lose such a huge amount of value.

I agree in one respect that we all have to speculate to some degree, since it appears there is no solid documentary evidence in terms of bills of sale from Del Gesu's workshop. Be that as it may, I personally prefer to sit with the point of view that - to my way of thinking - is more logical.

August 13, 2005 at 04:44 AM · We will, I guess, remain stuck on the level of accuracy of a statement by someone who qualifies his comment this way: "hazard a guess", vs the evidence presented by the instruments themselves.

August 13, 2005 at 05:04 AM · Well no, not really. If it's OK with you, I'd just prefer to differ on the aspects of the pricing. I would rather leave well alone your particularly enterprising and self-indulgent interpretion of the Hill's use of early 20th English, since they never, ever said: "hazard a guess".

August 13, 2005 at 01:07 PM ·

Let's capture the ad hominem aspect of your criticism first, then move on:

"I would rather leave well alone your particularly enterprising and self-indulgent interpretion of the Hill's use of early 20th English, since they never, ever said: "hazard a guess"."

......

Sorry--it's " If we were asked to hazard a figure"--virtually the same thing, so just replace my previous "hazard a guess" with that. Same thing--they really didn't know, did they, and they, at least, are able to admit it.

I think this line of discussion has run its course.

August 13, 2005 at 09:01 PM · I agree Michael.

Is anyone playing on a fiddle that is without its label? How was it appraised? Anyone to relate to this subject?

Several years ago I saw a very handsome, but unlabelled, violin in a shop in Pennsylvania. At the time it was still on the bench for restoration; when it was finished it was added to their available collection. There it remained unlabelled and unsold. Their asking price was $6K (US).

About a year later I moved from Pennsylvania, and it was another two before I was again in the area. I stopped by the shop and came across the same violin, only this time it was bearing an obscure Italian label from the late 19th Century.

The price had increased to $15,000.

When I hesitated upon seeing it, one of the owners suddenly became extremely skittish and diffident. Initially my judgment (and theirs two years prior) classed it undoubtedly as a turn-of-the-century French violin. I'm sure it was right about then the he remembered that I had been around when it first came into their hands.

Eric

August 13, 2005 at 11:00 PM · If you watch Ebay, you can see unlabeled violins sell for a small amount only to reappear in a week or two -with- a label and sell again for a few times the original amount. At first I thought it was me, but numerous threads at maestronet confirmed the fishiness. Guess the same thing can happen in a shop.

August 14, 2005 at 12:44 PM · In my experience in the dealing world there are two types of violin without labels. The first, everyone who's informed looks at and instantly identifies; the second, no one seems to know exactly what it is, and it collects comments like "Neapolitan, isn't it?", or "Sort of looks like a Xxxxx, don't you think?" Strangely enough, there don't seem to be many that fall in the middle between those categories. The second type will eventually collect a label and a cert, but I wouldn't buy one.

Of course, customers never get to know which type they're being sold, or even, often, if the label is real or not. Since this is the case, you're often stuck with making your buying decision based on the reputation of the shop, instead--that is, if something goes wrong, is the shop that sold it to you going to make it right? I know shops that did, at costs of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to themselves, and ones that have told customers "Sorry. It's yours now." Be sure you know which type you're dealing with.

August 26, 2005 at 10:37 PM · I recently purchased an unlabeled 1/2 size violin for my son, too. I know being a fractional size, it won't be worth much, but my curiosity is very high to find where it came from and possibly how old and who could've played it in the past. The luthier we bought it from said he doesn't know anything about the violin's history, but he thinks it is a German and possibly 75 to 100 years old. The bridge has "Reuning and son" on it. So I contacted them and their reply was there's is no way of knowing its history without the information of who the original owner was. Besides it may not even came from them but somebody in the shop just repaired it. They only typically do certification on violins worth $30,000 and up. So my search ended there. I'm wondering if there's any place or anyone who would be able to tell me more about this violin. The luthier said when the gentleman brought in to sell this violin to him, he was very impressed with how well it was made. Its varnish is very very dark brown. It looks like black from the distance. End pin has a little chip and looks to me like mother-of-pearl circle in the middle. The length is 5-8th of an inch longer than average half size violin. It doesn't fit in a half size case. If anyone can help me where I should go from here to find more about it, please give me an info. Or should I just leave this mystery a mystery?

August 26, 2005 at 11:46 PM · I can relate to your desire to trace the history of your son’s unlabeled violin. I too have the same desire for history of the violin I own, which was the basis for this posting.

The luthier I took mine too had a brief look over it & said a similar thing, approx 100 years old & German but with that said, he also went on to say that without seeing the original varnish it makes it more difficult to estimate. I was a bit luckier that I was given some of its history from a great niece of the man who owned it before he died in 1974 but that info is a bit vague & still does not give me any of its origin.

Does anyone know of a Jack or Geoff Love from Swindon in the UK who died in 74? He apparently played it in an orchestra.

August 27, 2005 at 12:45 AM · A violin I bought has an inscription from 1982 in the upper right shoulder describing the circumstances around the discovery of the instrument.

Kinda cool...a little cheesy.

Preston

August 27, 2005 at 12:58 AM · What does it say?

September 21, 2013 at 09:40 AM · I have to bump this one - Preston never finished his story.... :D

September 21, 2013 at 09:50 AM · I don't know much about this, but Jim warren apparently can tell if a scroll is idiosyncratic to a maker. People usually examine the wood, little quirks (storioni top plates just look similar), consider other examples (gabrielli violas tend to be small- indicating the school of smaller violas to that period of Italian making, and looking at arching and other things I can't discern) and are just trained to recognize that.

A lot of mislabeled gaglianos turned out to be Pistucci or sannino, so there's no sure fire way.

A famous cellist believed he had a bergonzi until a famous identifier verified that it was not (it was something equally nice, but the best even make mistakes.)

September 23, 2013 at 12:46 PM · That was Casals, wasn't it?

[edit added 23/9/2013] According to Cozio.com, Casals's cello had a label stating is was a "Carlo Bergonzi ... 1733" (http://www.cozio.com/Instrument.aspx?id=2366), but it turns out it is actually a Matteo Grofriller c. 1700. It was owned by Casals from 1913 to 1973 (the year of his death), and played by him from 1908 to 1973 - which isn't bad going for length of sole ownership and playing of any instrument.

Fwiw, I came into ownership of my mid-19c French cello (no label) in 1950, and have been playing it ever since.

September 23, 2013 at 02:21 PM · My violin is unlabelled and described as "old German Violin". It has deteriorated, owing to an accident and then a movement of the soundpost contrary to the repairer's instructions, necessitating a major repair, and the outstanding upper G string tone it used to have is no longer there. It's still respectable, though. The last two experts who examined it reckoned it was about a 100 years newer than the ones who first examined it in the mid 1900s. Nobody identified a maker.

I read somewhere that "rich as Stradivarius" used to be a proverb. I also heard Gill Solomon say that Guarnerius only made violins when he had run out of money, whereas Stradivarius was seeking to make the best violin ever and so made them whether he needed the money or not. If the price per unit was also different for the two makers, it would increasingly explain the proverb.

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