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HOW TO IDENTIFY A VIOLIN


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#1 GlennYorkPA

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Posted 20 December 2004 - 11:56 PM

Bernard Berenson, the great connoisseur and authenticator of Italian renaissance paintings, was able to give an interesting insight into his method of identification. He said that when he observed a painting, his eyes would involuntarily travel over the work in patterns defined by, and characteristic of, the artist. There is always a focal point but after that, the eye is either led along horizontals or diagonals which tend to be diagnostic for each artist.

So I am curious to know how real experts operate when they begin to identify a violin.

We have heard, in another thread, that there is no one 'thing' (like outline or f holes) that is indicative of a maker. Indeed, I have asked a few experts how they do it and they usually say it is the entire instrument that makes the greatest impact and then they look for details that confirm their original suspicion. They need to take a holistic approach.

For me, this would suggest the impossibility of any meaningful authentication based on photographs (although I guess there are a few eBayers who reckon they can tell fairly accurately from pictures alone).

I think I can tell fairly accurately the age of a violin but then to go further and narrow it down to country and even an individual pair of hands I find utterly astonishing and am full of admiration for those (few) who can do it with any degree of certainty.

#2 Jacob

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 12:28 AM

Perhaps identifying violins has a greater intuitive component than identifying art, I don't know. One thing I do know, and it has been mentioned on this forum several times - the best way of identifying a violin is if you've seen a few by that maker before. I think it was in a post on Maestronet itself that somebody mentioned that Charles Beare wouldn't authenticate a Carcassi cello, because he hadn't seen one "in the flesh" before.

#3 insearchofcremona

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 01:22 AM

Quote:



Perhaps identifying violins has a greater intuitive component than identifying art, I don't know. One thing I do know, and it has been mentioned on this forum several times - the best way of identifying a violin is if you've seen a few by that maker before. I think it was in a post on Maestronet itself that somebody mentioned that Charles Beare wouldn't authenticate a Carcassi cello, because he hadn't seen one "in the flesh" before.




[image][/image]

Let's see now...Hmmmmm... Where would we start in order to identify the approximate age of a violin??

Got it!!! Richard F. Perras is a mighty smart electro-mechanical engineer turned violin maker. He specializes in making very nice reproductions of Jakob Stainer, and drew this diagram, which is fairly accurate, and most helpful.

The set and length of the neck is a good starting point. The wear on the belly where the bridge was first set on baroque instruments is another. Originally, the ff hole notches were cut for ornamentation. Modern wiseacres, decided that they were where the bridge was supposed to be set. If one will notice, dramatic signs are often visible where the bridge was originally set on baroque period violins. These wear marks can be up to 20mm below the center notches of the ff holes. Neck length was not such a problem as the fingerboard length needed to be increased as the dynamics of musical styles and abilities changed.

Information on the positioning of the bridge can be found here.


http://violadabraccio.com/violin_research/bridge.shtml


The grafting of new necks on old violins began as a "fashion prevailing in Paris", around the first quarter of the 19th century. It is also quite evident, that even the Cremonese figured out a better way to set the neck in a fiddle, as not all of the necks were set on the ribs, and held by nails driven through the head block. They actually used a through the body neck heel. I could add other pictures but, I'll wait for a while.



#4 GlennYorkPA

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 12:47 PM

Jacob, I'm not sure that between violins and paintings one is more intuitive than the other but I'm quite sure good reference material is the key.

Your comment about Charles Beare is very revealing and I'm convinced that is how it works. One needs to handled a number of examples of a particular maker's work to develop a degree of familiarity and this is where good reference material comes into play.

It's no good being mislead by good copies of a maker or photographs of the genuine article. And this goes to the heart of the difficulty. There was a time when the great dealers of London and Paris had valuable instruments passing through their doors on a daily basis.

Probably only the auction houses are today exposed to such quantities of instruments and they do not all constitute reliable reference material by any means.

With most fine (and genuine) instruments being removed from the gene pool by being locked in museums, private collections and the hands of recording artists, the golden age of the Hills, Beares, Sacconi and D'Atilli may have gone forever.

#5 Fellow

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 12:58 PM

Presumably, you don't read the label or it has none. WOW.

I know you guys are forensic scientists, can false labels
help too ? ( I know it is silly to ask)
Here is an example: How come a label can be so torn inside a violin? (all edges worn out). It must be a true "fake
label"....

It is an interesting paradox. A real "fake label" means
"Don't believe what I said " then what did you really say?
Read my label.

#6 andrew weinstein

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 06:05 PM

Labels are extremely important, as long as you're not relying solely on the text of it. In other words, much of our knowledge is based on seeing instruments with untouched original labels. If it is torn, and / or there is a clear indication the label has been moved, the value is greatly decreased, as it could come from another instrument. There is also the possibility of an original label being placed into a disciple's instruments, either by the master or the disciple. (Shocking, but money seems to matter). There are types of instruments which almost always were originally labeled misleadingly, e.g., you can expect a Pistucci to bear a Gagliano label, and this type of instrument regulatly appears at auction as a Gagliano. In other words, an original Pistucci label would likely say Raffaele and Antonio Gagliano. It should be part of your examination of an instrument ( but not the first thing you do) to look carefully at the label, it's printing as well as the handwritten parts, and see how natural it all looks, and develop this knowledge along with other violin details.

#7 skiingfiddler

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 06:20 PM

At the last VSA meeting a month ago in Portland, OR, Charles Beare gave a lecture on violin identification.

Beare noted that he starts his identification process with the back because it's one of the more robust parts of the fiddle and thus likely to be the original. The back also offers a good way to gauge age.

By the time he's done with the back, he has, as I recall, a maker in mind, and a look at the front becames either a confirmation or creates a dissonance with his original judgement. Resolving the dissonance might mean deciding that the top is not the original one for the instrument.
Caveat lector!

#8 Michael Darnton

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 06:33 PM

Try this thread.
http://darntonhersh.com
http://darntonviolins.com
http://flickr.com/photos/mdarnton
http://mdarnton.tumblr.com/

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#9 Jimbow

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 06:46 PM

"...Beare noted that he starts his identification process with the back because it's one of the more robust parts of the fiddle and thus likely to be the original. The back also offers a good way to gauge age...."
skiingfiddler


This could be very interesting and enlightening!

Beginning with this comment regarding the back, what are the
specific features to examine on the back to determine:
1) Age
2) Country of origin (or school)
3) Maker
4) Original vs. copy determination?
5) Purfling, channeling, varnish, button distinctions?

C'mon experts, give us your secrets! It could help you all
in the long run if the vagueness of terms and descriptions
could be more specific and/or quantified.
Jimbow

#10 skiingfiddler

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 06:55 PM

Quote:




With most fine (and genuine) instruments being removed from the gene pool by being locked in museums, private collections and the hands of recording artists, the golden age of the Hills, Beares, Sacconi and D'Atilli may have gone forever.




Charles Beare was asked the question at the last VSA meeting of what is the current state of expert violin authentication. The questioner implied that he expected an answer to be what you've suggested, namely that the best guys are dead or close to it.

Beare's response was pretty upbeat, and he actually named names of people whose opinions he thought were really in the expert category. The first of those names was Robert Bein.

I'm always surpised to hear that someone with Mr. Bein's background -- no family history in violin making or dealing, no training as a maker, no back room bench time (or front counter time, for that matter) at a big violin firm before starting his own -- can become an expert, but, in fact, taking Beare at his word, Mr. Bein has become one of the foremost experts.

So, the torch gets passed without going out.
Caveat lector!

#11 Jimbow

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 07:05 PM

"Try this thread." Michael

Thanks, Michael!
While I was writing my last (one finger) message, you
had already provided an answer with the thread you recommended.
I browsed thru it quickly and it appears to have most of what
I was looking for.
You are way ahead of me again, not surprisingly.
Jimbow

#12 GlennYorkPA

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 01:03 AM

I wish I had been at that VSA but while he was in the US Charles identified a violin for me. He did exactly as you describe - firstly looked at the back, then the front, then the scroll.

The whole process took less than 30 seconds before he pronounced the maker. (He had the age of it before it left my hands!). I was deeply impressed.

#13 Michael Darnton

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 01:34 AM

I saw Bob Bein do something similar once when I worked in the B&F shop. A friend who worked there had brought in a Betts violin his sister had just bought. Bob walked in the shop, and immediately, from about 15 feet away, said "Whose Betts is that?"

But on the other hand, I also saw Charles Beare spend five minutes very carefully looking over the violin of an elderly couple who'd come a long way to see him at a public event, before he politely said "It doesn't seem to be much, does it?" and then carefully explain what it was to them. He also knew what that violin was in the first two seconds, but gave it his full attention, for them.
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#14 GlennYorkPA

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 11:30 AM

Given this astonishing ability to recognize violins as if they were old friends (and I now believe it is true), why is there still a debate rumbling on after Sacconi walked in to the Ashmolean and declared that the Messiah was a copy by Vuillaume. Coming from a respected authority who had worked on 500 Strads, we must surely take this judgement as definitive.

Is it time that the mantle for 'best preserved Strad' passed to La Pucelle' owned by David Fulton?

I have never seen it but the name suggests it is in pretty good condition and I have heard of no doubts regarding its authenticity.

#15 Michael Darnton

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 12:51 PM

I'm not aware that Sacconi or any prominent expert has ever said such a thing--at the VSA convention where this issue was taken up, Charles Beare said Sacconi believed the Messiah was a Strad. If Sacconi thought that walking in, I bet he didn't still think it walking out. However, even if he did believe that, that would be one expert against a legion of others: by what logic would you choose to accept the lonely voice and reject the rest, many of whom were even more qualified than Sacconi?
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#16 fiddlecollector

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 01:02 PM

Michael, out of sheer curiousity is there any other person who has worked on 500 Strads,(though in regard to the total i`m not sure it was just Strads but other fine violins as well)

#17 Michael Darnton

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 01:10 PM

Alfred Hill would be the obvious person, probably J. B. Vuillaume as well as some other 19th century figures, too. These days it's hard to get that many in one spot over any time period, whereas on one day at Wurlitzers they had 72 Stradivari violin in the shop. Today such a thing would be a colossal insurance event. However I bet that Charles Beare's seen 500 or more--probably more. I'm purposely avoiding the "worked on" issue--I suspect Sacconi included changing a string in that category for himself--that much meaningful work would have been impossible for him to have done in the time allotted.
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#18 GlennYorkPA

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 02:15 PM

Michael, I didn't want to stir up the Messiah controversy again because I don't think there is anything fresh to say about it. My intention was more to draw your fire on La Pucelle about which I know very little.
Is it's condition close to pristine?

#19 Michael Darnton

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 03:31 PM

I've only seen photos of it. The photos I've seen don't communicate the reputation I've heard of it.
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#20 apartmentluthier

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Posted 22 December 2004 - 03:37 PM

Kind of off topic, Vuillaume made copies of the Messiah didn't he? Where did those copies end up? Have any surfaced?




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