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NOVEMBER 26, 2014    

INEXPENSIVE DOESN'T MEAN CHEAP
By James N. McKean

Copyright held by author; all rights reserved.

 Part 1

A series of articles originally running in Strings Magazine that take a look at the antique instrument market from a different perspective -- that of the performing musician.

It happens to everyone sooner or later -- you reach a point where the instrument you started out on just isn’t good enough. It isn’t as easy to play as it should be, and the sound, no matter how hard you try, doesn’t have the richness of tone you know is there in other violins. You’ve outgrown it, and the time has come to find something better. The question is, what? Violinmaking has been going on, essentially unchanged, for over four hundred years, and since fiddles are remarkably durable, there is a whole history to choose from (leaving aside contemporary instruments, which are an entirely separate subject to explore). But that’s in itself a problem -- the selection is almost bewilderingly large. You know enough about Stradivari, and perhaps Amati and Guarneri, to know that it would cost a king’s ransom to get one. So you talk to your teacher and fellow students, visit a few dealers, perhaps even check the auction results -- and very quickly get stopped cold by sticker shock. Violins can get very expensive very fast, and it begins to sound as though something even halfway decent is going to run you as much as a European luxury sports car. What started out as the prospect of spending a few thousand can easily take on the proportions of a college education. But do you really need to spend this much? Must you take on a lifetime of debt to get a decent violin, or else resign yourself to a serious compromise in quality?

Not at all. The trick is to establish your priorities before you begin looking. That might sound rather obvious, but it is seldom the case. Most people, in searching for a new instrument, think in terms of price: what they have spent, what they can afford to spend, what they’ve been told they will have to come up with. It makes perfect sense, because it’s the way most markets are organized -- the more you spend, the more you get. So it’s only natural to expect that with violins, too; but the fiddle world is not that straightforward. While unlimited funds can get you a great fiddle (although that is far from guaranteed) the truth is that you can find everything you need to satisfy your musical needs in the antique violin market without spending a fortune. In fact, true excellence can be found for less money than you might expect to spend for a Hyundai. How so? The answer is simple: the price of a violin has very little to do with the way it sounds.

Incredible? At first it might seem that way, but there is a certain logic to it. Sound can’t be quantified. While aspects of it, like the range of overtones, can be measured, judgments as to what is good or bad are in the end personal and subjective. While they might be generally agreed on, it’s far from enough to be used in setting a market. When you add the consideration of age (and it’s a commonly held belief that older is better, when it comes to fiddles), then it’s only natural that the violin market follows the rules of any other trade in antiques. And in an antique market, the value of any individual object is governed by its place in the larger context -- the relative value ascribed to Italian work, say, compared to German or French. Provenance (which means authenticity) and condition -- the purity of the work -- are the criteria that matter most.

While this makes a certain kind of sense, it overlooks the fact that violins are first and foremost tools to make music. The instruments of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù are universally conceded to be the ne plus ultra; with their elevation to the ranks of works of art, it is easy to forget that they were originally accorded this position solely due to the sound they could produce. It is also easy to lose sight of how radical they were in their own time. Other makers – even in Cremona – were using the patterns of Amati and Stainer to meet the needs of their customers, who wanted a sound that emphasized sweetness and ease of response. These patterns were evidently successful, for until the end of the 18th century – 50 years after Stradivari’s death – the works of Stainer and Amati still commanded much higher prices than those of Stradivari (those of Guarneri were apparently not even valuable enough to have been recorded).

However, musical tastes do change – gradually. Stradivari did not unlock the door of his shop one day, look around, and then walk into his Golden Period. Nor did musicians suddenly put down their Stainers and pick up Stradivaris. However, if ever an event can be said to be both bellwether and catalyst, it would have been the concert on the evening of March 17, 1782, in Paris, when the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti made his long- anticipated debut. The audience was carried away by his dramatic, forceful performance. Although his French colleagues considered the effort to be raw and unrefined, their opinions went unheeded, and the Viotti style became the new standard.

A major factor was his equipment: a Stradivari violin (and probably an early Tourte bow). The instrument’s flatter, fuller arching gave Viotti the ability to produce the extra sound that the audience considered so compelling. While the Stradivari model had previously been used occasionally by Parisian makers, the most commonly used was that of Stainer. In the 1780s, however, the Stradivari model became prevalent; François Pique, the outstanding maker of this period, and his successor, Nicolas Lupot, used it almost exclusively. (It is interesting to note that the accounts of Viotti’s playing stress the extra power and edge that he produced–and while that might have been characterized as an "Italian sound," it was far from being described as beautiful, round, rich, and oily – all the terms that one comes across now when the sound of an expensive instrument is described.) When Viotti made his London debut in 1793, his violin again became celebrated, and while the English makers had occasionally used the Stradivari pattern before, it now became the style.

Due to the way the market for antique instruments and bows operates, the best buys purely for sound are the instruments that have no maker’s name attached. The market might be organized around what’s on the label, but the audience can’t see it -- and wouldn’t care even if they could. True, the name Stradivari does have some marquee value, but not much; the audience is there to hear you, not look at your violin. If it sounds good, that’s all that counts. Looked at from the perspective of sound, the reason Stradivari is held in such high esteem is that his instruments gave musicians what they needed: a rich, powerful tone with a fast response. And how did he achieve this? Model, craftsmanship, wood, and varnish. And those are the criteria to use in finding a good-sounding violin: one that was made by an experienced, well-trained maker, who used the Stradivari or Guarneri model and the finest wood, with a top-quality varnish, a well-executed arch, good graduations, and a condition as close to mint as you can find. Instruments that fit all these descriptions were being made before the end of the 18th century all over Europe, so you’ll have plenty to choose from; and chances are excellent that you will find one at a price you can afford.

But you can find instruments with an excellent attribution and provenance that are still relative bargains. Many makers, and even entire schools, are seriously undervalued -- the victims, for the most part, of the common prejudice in favor of anything Italian (or French, if it’s a bow). But let others be the ones who pay for their prejudices. What follows is a brief look at the best makers of the various national schools active through the early twentieth century whose work is well worth seeking out. Of all the various factors that govern the violin market, the primary one is nationality. Italian works command a premium; then French, Dutch, or English, then German; and then barely on the radar screen, American. In general, one might argue that these categorizations have some validity, but there are enough good and bad violins in each school to mean that many instruments suffer or benefit unfairly from this preconception.

German and Bohemian

German instruments and bows have always been stigmatized as having a faint whiff of the factory about them, and it is true that Germany supplied the world with most of its entry-level instruments (and, considering what they were sold for and whom they were intended for, they were an excellent product). However, there were many makers in Germany who produced top-quality instruments, and one will rarely find them priced for much more than $30,000. They can usually be had for much less.

One of the first to adopt the Stradivari model was Franz Geissenhof. Here we run into another common prejudice, which is to lump anyone east of Alsace into a generic pile called "German." There were myriad different schools active in the territory of the German states and the Austro-Hungarian empire from the 17th century on (and even earlier; Füssen in southern Germany is now accepted as the source of many of the early luthiers, even those who later turn up in Italy). Geissenhof was in fact a Viennese maker; other notable makers of that city were Johann Martin Stoss and Gabriel Lemböck, who was reputed to have obtained his del Gesù patterns from Paganini's own violin when it was brought to him for repair.Another good maker was Andreas Carl Leeb, whose cellos are particularly fine. He employed a device which, sadly, has fallen out of use, a key like that used to wind a clock that could be inserted into the heel of the cello neck to adjust the height of the strings.

The prices are ridiculously low for the quality you can find in a violin that has no specific maker and gets called a "Bohemian violin" or "of the Czech school." Many musicians have heard of Samuel Nemessányi, usually as a copyist whose fakes can fool the experts. They can’t, but his reputation has caused a run-up in the prices for his instruments (of which there are very few – so be careful if you are offered one). One of his assistants was Béla Szepessy, whose instruments are also quite good. They turn up frequently at auction, for he eventually established himself in London. A fellow assistant to Nemessányi whose work is spoken of quite highly was Carl Hermann Voigt. Budapest had other makers whose work was very respectable, among them Thomas Zach and his assistant, J. B. Schweitzer (although one must exercise caution with the latter; his own work varied, and after he died a lot of truly cheap violins were stamped with his name). The Boston Symphony Orchestra at one point was outfitted with a complete set of instruments made by Thomas Zach's son Karl. Prague also had several makers in the 19th century who worked off the Strad model with great success. Some of the best were J.B. Dvorak, along with Caspar Strnad and his assistant Ferdinand Homolka.

By the late 19th century Berlin had become one of the centers of the violin world, boasting of stars such as Pablo de Sarasate and Joseph Joachim, so it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that it was also home to many first-rate makers. It is a shame that their instruments are so little known, although it works to your advantage if you find one, for the prices are much lower than what one would expect for instruments of this quality; they are woefully underpriced. Karl Grimm, who was active in the first half of the 19th century, was a copyist whom experts agree was one of the very best – one of the few, in fact, whose works have passed as originals. Another excellent maker was his assistant, Oswald Möckel, whose son Otto was highly respected in the 20th century both for his instruments and his writing. Michael Doetsch (or Dötsch) also worked in Berlin in the early 20th century. His copies of Stradivari, Guadagnini, and del Gesù are wonderful violins. Ludwig Neuner worked with Vuillaume, and his own work is very respectable, although he is primarily known for the factory operation he established under the name Neuner-Hornsteiner.

American

There has been a lot of discussion lately about American violins, and there are excellent instruments to be found, although the general level of achievement is lower than that of other national schools. For the most part, the makers fall into two categories, European émigré or self-taught. The former were almost all from Germany, and they were found mainly in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Many of them established large shops, with the result that works by their own hand can be rare; but the violins from their shops are usually of a very high standard. Charles Albert, in Philadelphia, was one of the best known, along with John Hornsteiner of Chicago. The latter had learned the trade from Matthias Neuner in Berlin, who, as we saw earlier, worked with Vuillaume. Many of Hornsteiner’s violins were actually made by his assistant Frank Sindelar, who went on his own in 1917, operating a shop in Chicago until the end of the Second World War. Another pupil of Hornsteiner was Carl Becker, Sr., also of Chicago.

New York was home to several large shops, the most notable being that of the Gemunder brothers, August and George, who, after a brief partnership, worked separately. Their instruments are worth seeking out. George Gemunder had worked for J. B. Vuillaume in Paris and he made instruments in that style but with his own distinctive character. As did other shops, such as that of John Friedrich and H. R. Knopf (both also of New York), the Gemunders sold a line of shop violins of varying levels of refinement; they can be quite respectable and are still valued at a very low cost.

American-born and trained makers of a professional level were few and far between, but that can work to your advantage – the prices of their works are held down by the general perception that there were none worth talking about. The Conn Wonder Violin was the product of a huge operation, rivaling in scope the mass production facilities of Germany. It was begun in the 19th century by an ex-Union soldier, C. G. Conn, and while most of the fiddles were of that same level of quality – which is still quite acceptable – the business also employed three makers who signed their own violins, and whose works are of the first rank. Ironically, the best of these was of Italian descent, William Pezzoni from Brooklyn. His violins are much superior to many of the modern Italian makers and if you find any, sell at a fraction of the cost. Margaret Downie Banks wrote a thorough piece on Conn in the Violin Society Journal of November 1990 (vol. 11, no. 3).

An earlier issue (vol. 5, no. 1) detailed the life and career of the man who was perhaps best known of the native-trained American violin makers, J. B. Squier (unlike the initials of so many of his colleagues the J. B. stands not for Jean Baptiste but for Jerome Bonaparte). His background was in the colorful tradition of John Lott, the celebrated English elephant trainer and del Gesù copyist. Squier began as a farmer in Michigan, then was a shoemaker and, as far as violin making goes, was essentially self-taught. He moved to Boston in 1881 and produced a large number of instruments, working with his adopted son Victor Carroll, and they can be very good. J. B. Squier is described as having devoted the greater part of his time to varnish experiments; in this, one could say that American violin making has changed very little in the intervening century.

There were many more of these makers across the country; an invaluable guide to them is the comprehensive Violin Makers of the United States by Thomas James Wenberg (Mt. Hood Publishing, 1986). Skinner, the Boston auction house, is a good source for American instruments, since they turn up there regularly–so you can find one at a great price before it heads to Europe, where chances are excellent that the label will be pulled and it will be sold as a modern Italian.

The Netherlands

By far the best makers in the Netherlands – the two men Hendrick Jacobs and Pieter Rombouts – worked through the end of the 17th century. Unfortunately, cellos or violas by these Dutch masters are exceedingly rare. Both makers used the Amati pattern; Jacobs, in fact, made instruments that were perhaps the most elegant interpretation of the Grand Pattern being made outside of the Amati shop itself, lacking only somewhat in the quality of the ground. As for later Dutch makers, the most famous is Johannes Cuypers, who primarily made violins and concentrated his efforts on the Stradivari model. He worked through the latter half of the 18th century; his son (also named Johannes) took over around 1800, although the labels do not reflect this. It’s an important distinction, because the son was not nearly as accomplished as the father. The work on a Cuypers (even one by Johannes I) is by no means elegant or refined, but it is stylish in its own way, and the instruments can sound very good. They tend to go for about $50,000, although one must be careful that what is being offered as a Cuypers has very good attribution. One must be wary of any attribution when buying an instrument, but particularly so when the work is said to be that of a lesser maker of any school. Many of these makers didn’t label their instruments, or made them for other shops, or have had their labels exchanged for those of more celebrated makers. If you have to pay the extra price for having a name attached to an instrument, it should at least be correct.

England

In the 17th and 18th centuries, English makers, like their colleagues in the rest of Europe, concentrated their efforts on the models of Amati and Stainer. This is a rare case in which cellists (and sometimes violists) are in luck, for these makers produced a disproportionate number of cellos and altos. They generally used the Amati model, which has continued to work well for producing the sort of sound cellists (and violists) want today. In the past few years, England has been a fertile ground for those searching for well-made and good-sounding cellos at bargain prices, compared to what an equivalent Italian might fetch. Now, though, the secret is out and prices have skyrocketed.

Of all the English makers of the 18th century, the most celebrated were Benjamin Banks, William Forster, and Richard Duke. All of them are known today for their cellos, and justly so; they continue to be eminently good for the performing musician, and the best works by these makers reach the level of the better Italian makers. The Forster family’s cellos were made exclusively on an Amati pattern. Samuel Gilkes, one of the assistants at the shop, also sold instruments under his own name, as did his son William; while not as fine, they can be quite serviceable. A much better-known alumnus of the shop was Thomas Kennedy, considered one of the premier cello makers of the English school. His instruments, however, vary tremendously in quality, from some that have a cheap yellow-brown varnish to those of top workmanship and a red varnish that is first-rate. While he concentrated his efforts on the Amati pattern, he did make some cellos on the Stradivari model that are a very personable interpretation of the pattern. Instruments of the Duke shop are not readily found; hisreputation has suffered from the legion of truly cheap violins of a horribly elongated Stainer pattern, stamped "Duke" on the back over the button, that were marketed after his death. The viability of many of the cellos and violas of the Forsters, Kennedy, and Duke is increased by the fact that all of them tended toward archings that were fuller than the original Amati models. Banks, while arguably the best maker in England in the 18th century, followed the narrowness of the Amati arching more faithfully, with the result that his cellos often fail to have the extra power that musicians tend to prefer.

John Betts appeared on the London scene at a pivotal time, shortly before Viotti’s celebrated debut. Although a maker in his own right – he was trained in the workshop of Richard Duke – he quickly turned to dealing to help satisfy an ever-present demand for Italian instruments. One senses that he was quite adept at seeing which way tastes were tending, for he was an early and strong promoter of the Stradivari model. Aside from dealing and repairs, his shop also turned out a sizeable number of instruments made by a group of excellent makers. The earliest of these was John Carter; he was joined in 1791 by Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo. The effect of Panormo and Betts on the course of English making cannot be overstated. Panormo was already quite familiar with Viotti and the effect he had had on Parisian musicians and luthiers, for he had been in Paris at the time of Viotti’s debut. He also had a lifetime of experience with the Stradivari model; the evidence suggests that he may well have spent his early years in the Gagliano shop in Naples. His son, Joseph, was already 23 by the time the family turned up in London; while he concentrated his efforts on the guitar, his cellos and violins are found occasionally and can be very good. Louis Panormo, the youngest of Vincenzo’s sons, also was famous for his guitars, but he had in his shop the third son, George, who is the most likely maker of the very distinctive bows that are found bearing the Panormo stamp.The Betts shop also employed John Furber and, later, his son Henry. Also in residence was Henry Lockey Hill, whose son, William E. Hill, was the founder of the famous house that bore his name. Henry Lockey is regarded quite highly and was the first member of the family to use the Stradivari model on a regular basis. His cellos are particularly worth searching out. Richard Tobin was another man at Betts’ shop, having come from Perry’s in Dublin; his instruments, while of the highest calibre, are hard to identify, for he sold them through the big shops, many of whom applied their own varnish.

Bernhard Fendt also worked for John Betts, but not until he had spent many years in the shop of Thomas Dodd, where he worked with John Lott. Dodd, whose brother was the most famous bow maker of a bow-making family, was the other major London dealer in instruments, new and antique, although he himself was not a maker. The cellos of the Dodd shop are among the best produced in England: distinctive, of a model reminiscent of but not tied to the Amati, and bolder in execution. For a modern cellist, they work very well; I would much prefer a Dodd over the efforts of virtually any second-level Italian who comes to mind. The irony, of course, is that since it is a shop cello, the exact author is often not known – which is also true of what goes by the name of a Betts. Fendt’s son Bernhard Simon also worked for Betts, whose brother Arthur took over the shop when John died in 1823 (coincidentally, the same year that Thomas Dodd gave up violins to concentrate on harps and pianos; the violin business in England was going through a very bad time, which is reflected in the number of makers ending their days in poorhouses). Arthur Betts was the man who, in 1825, had the good fortune to have a man wander into his shop with one of the most beautiful violins ever made by Antonio Stradivari. He also had the ruthlessness to pay only a guinea for it when he discovered that the man had no idea what he had; the violin, from 1704, is now a part of the collection at the Library of Congress.

With Bernhard Simon Fendt, we begin to see what the English makers of the 19th century are noted for: excellent fakes. He was one of the best makers in England at the time, and his instruments are well worth looking for. So are those of John Lott, Jr., who is considered to be the prince of del Gesù counterfeiters. Lott specialized in the instruments of the late del Gesù, and while he did make exact copies, he also followed the counterfeiter’s trick of creating unique works in the style of the artist being faked. His best efforts are reputed to pass for the real thing. His instruments now fetch more than $50,000, but many consider them superior to similar efforts by Vuillaume, which can go for twice that. The craze for del Gesù was sparked by an event that was almost a carbon copy of the earlier one for Stradivari: in 1831, Niccolò Paganini made his debuts in Paris and London, causing a sensation the equal of that made by his fellow countryman Viotti 50 years before. Again, the event had been greatly anticipated, and again his instrument, the "Canon" del Gesù, was credited with contributing greatly to his dramatic abilities.

Continuing the tradition of maintaining a steady supply of antiques were the Voller Brothers, who dealt primarily through the shop of Hart & Sons in the latter part of the 19th century. There were actually three in the Voller family–Charles and his sons William and Arthur. Unlike Fendt and Lott, Jr., the Vollers apparently felt no compunction about trying to pass off their creations as the real thing. (They collaborated on a celebrated fake, the "Balfour," that resulted in legal action.) They are reputed to have made some very dangerous copies of lesser Italian makers – in particular the Gaglianos -- where their hand has been quite effectively concealed.

Contemporaries of the Vollers were the members of the Holder family, Thomas Jacques and his younger brother Ernest, both of whom also specialized in antiques that are regarded highly. Thomas Jacques’ career extended from the turn of the century almost until his death in 1952, at the age of 90; his instruments turn up regularly at auction, where they fetch well under $10,000. His son, Thomas James, made the unusual move from England to Paris, where he made some very attractive instruments in the early 20th century. Much more common, particularly in the 19th century, was traffic in the other direction, from Paris to London. Panormo and Fendt had gone over earlier; Charles Maucotel worked for Gand pére (one of the greatest of the French makers, he was an assistant to Nicolas Lupot) in Paris for a decade before making the trip to London, where he opened his own shop in 1850. His instruments are excellent. Georges Chanot arrived as his assistant in 1851, leaving to establish his own shop in 1858. He was the son of the more famous and accomplished Georges Chanot, known as the Paris Georges, who made del Gesù fakes that were similar to those of Lott, Jr.– looser and more personable than the somewhat arid creations of Vuillaume, and much more faithful to the spirit of the original. The London Georges, as he is known, was an excellent maker in his own right. His son Georges, known as the Manchester Georges, made instruments that are more pedestrian.

Another maker whose work is well worth searching out is Charles Boulangier, who spent three years with Gand and three with Vuillaume before heading for London in 1848, where he worked for Withers and then established his own shop in 1856. It grew to be a large establishment before his death in 1888, and by the 1870s the instruments were rarely, if ever, by his own hand; he was importing them from his home town of Mirecourt. His own are in the style of Vuillaume: Stradivari models made with a precise beauty. His cellos are particularly fine.

Being mainly of Scottish descent and having had such fun at the excesses that national pride inspires, I hope it does not sound as though I have succumbed to the same disease when I tout the works of Matthew Hardie. Known as the "Scottish Stradivari," his training is obscure; some place it with Panormo in London. He lived from 1755 to 1826 and, true to his sobriquet, utilized the Stradivari model. He died in prison after gaining a reputation as a heavy drinker–although not as heavy as his son Thomas, who broke his neck falling down the stairs in a drunken stupor. The world did not lack for Hardies, though, for the dictionaries record at least six others–including one known as "Highland Hardie," who was as celebrated for his fiddling and dancing as he was for his knifework.


     James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977, when he graduated from The Violinmaking School of America. His articles regularly appear in Strings Magazine, for which he is a Corresponding Editor. He has served in a number of positions on the Board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, including President.

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