By Erin Shrader

Just the other day another Strings reader wrote inquiring about the value and authenticity of his violin. Like most readers who write to us, trying to eek out information about a mystery fiddle, he carefully transcribed the faded, dusty label visible through the f-hole on the bass side: “Joseph Rocca fecit Premiato di Medaglie alle Esposizione di Torino,Genova,Londra Parigi Taurini anno Domini 1858 IHS.”

Some of the words may be misspelled, he added, as the label is kind of faded.

It often comes as a surprise to learn how unreliable that paper label pasted inside your instrument can be in identifying an instrument’s maker, age, and place of origin. “Labels are as changeable as a pair of shoes,” quips Kerry Keane of Christie’s auction house. Even if the little tag inside your instrument is original, the information printed on it might be accurate but obscure, genuine but inaccurate, misleading, or downright false. A cursory investigation of the aforementioned Rocca label provides an illustration.

Using a few key words to search the Internet turned up several instruments bearing the same label. Among them, a genuine Joseph Rocca, certified by a famous dealer and sold by a reputable auction house. The auction record for a violin by this maker is $269,360, set in 2010.

Clearly Rocca is a highly desirable maker.

A second violin bearing the same label was made by John Lott, perhaps the best of the English makers. Lott is famous for copies so like a master maker’s work that they have passed the scrutiny of very well-regarded experts undetected. Whether or not to call them forgeries, rather than copies, is debatable, as forgery implies intent to deceive. Lott being a fine maker in his own right, his instrument sold at auction in 1994 for $26,450.

A third instrument with Rocca’s label sold at Skinner’s, catalogued simply as Modern, Genoa school. “I do remember that,” writes Skinner’s specialist, David Bonsey in an email. “It was a modern violin, looked a bit German. It had been everywhere, including a Christie’s sale, where it passed. It was all over New York and had several attributions to Enrico Rocca (Genoa), some from good people, to which I have no comment. In the end, it had just enough quality going for it that it sold to a dealer on spec that it was Enrico.”

The price at Skinner’s that day was $7,931—a good investment if it pans out, as Enrico Rocca instruments have sold as high as $128,500 at auction.

So, using the label alone to answer the reader’s question, could it really be a Rocca? Possible answers are “yes,” “no,” and “maybe, but not the same Rocca inferred by the label.”

As this one example illustrates, labels are hardly a reliable guide to identifying an instrument.

Historical Mis-Labeling

Mislabeling of instruments goes back nearly as far as the violin family itself, as chronicled by the legendary Hill family dealers in their book Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (London, 1902). In 1685 a court violinist petitioned his employer, the Duke of Modena, for relief as a victim of label fraud. Tomasso Antonio Vitali purchased a violin bearing the label of the great Nicolo Amati for the sum of nine pistoles, only to find that behind the master’s label was that of his pupil, Francesco Ruggieri. Ruggieri’s instruments sold for a mere three pistoles at the time.

“Your petitioner has consequently been deceived by the false label and appeals to Your Most Serene Highness…” the victimized violinist implored.

According to the Hills, it was common for a maker to insert the label of his master into his own violins. On the one hand, they defend the practice, saying there was no intent to deceive, since the follower usually included his own label or mark—just not in the usual, easily visible place. On the other hand, the Hills later describe the behavior as “injudicious and also objectionable.”

The reasons for mislabeling have to do with economics. Very early on, violins became collectors’ items and were priced as such. And some makers are more highly collectible than others. Two instruments may perform equally well, but the one with the famous name will command a higher price on the market. Our court violinist Vitale was a discerning professional and founder of his own music school. The violin he bought must have met his playing standards, but he was willing to pay significantly more to own an Amati.

Violins are also valued as antiques. In Vitale’s day in the 17th century, the Amati was worth four times the Ruggieri. Looking at auction results for both makers, the value gap between them has narrowed over the centuries; from this vantage point they are antiques of a similar vintage. But then, as now, Amati’s instruments commanded the higher price.

Even the most ancient and desirable of makers has been the victim of label fraud. Unscrupulous sellers altered the dates on of some of Stradivari’s earlier and later instruments to satisfy the market for works from his so-called Golden Period, perceived as more desirable.

Trade Instruments

As fascinating and entertaining as high-jinx label fraud is, at least when you’re not the victim, the vast majority of confusion results from the labeling of “trade” instruments mass-produced by anonymous makers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Richard Ward of Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito, California, about seven million bowed instruments were exported from the town of Markneukirchen, Germany, alone between 1880 and 1914.

These instruments were labeled according to all kinds of conventions: The instrument might bear the name of the master maker in charge of the workshop, the business that exported them, the shop that imported and sold them, or an entirely fictitious name made up for export.

Most bore some sort of label with the name of a famous maker. Countless people have experienced that moment of hope, peering inside the f-hole of a family heirloom and recognizing the name of a famous Italian maker: “Stradivarius,” “Guarnerius,” or, less often, Amati, Maggini, or the Tyrolean Stainer.

These labels were not intended to deceive. Who today would walk up to a row of brand new student violins labeled Stradivarius and mistake them for originals? Often the famous names reflected the maker used as a model—sometimes quite loosely. My first violin, handed down from great-grandpa, was labeled Amati, despite its flattish arching characteristic of a much later-style instrument.

Names, real and made-up, were also a marketing tool—not to reflect a certain maker’s work but simply to create a sort of cachet, an association, in the mind of the buyer. Glance through the pages of a Sears Roebuck catalog from the turn of the last century and you’ll find Stradivarius violins starting at just $1.95. The practice is still common today. Andreas Eastman, for example, is a line of instruments produced by Eastman Strings. The label says made in China, nothing is hidden, but the name Andreas conjures up visions of Andreas Amati or Andreas Guarneri crafting fine instruments one at a time in long-ago Cremona, while the old English name Eastman (meaning man from the east, appropriately) hardly evokes images of modern-day China.

Many trade instruments bore the label of the master maker in charge of the shop. Ernst Heinrich Roth is a famous example. Born in 1877, the original Ernst Heinrich made many fine-quality instruments himself, which are in great demand today, but he did not spend his career working alone, making one at a time. He started his own business in 1902, overseeing production in his workshop. The business passed to succeeding generations, who, like the old Italians, used the same name as the old master. But without knowing the history of the Roth shop, the lay-person might not know whether he or she has a valuable original or a serviceable student instrument. While the stakes are not nearly so high as in the case of the Rocca, the price difference is considerable.

And then there are dealer labels, another practice dating at least to Stradivari’s day. Johann Elias Pfretzschner (born 1675), a common ancestor to most violin and bow making Pfretzschners, was not a maker but “an astute dealer” who “became the first dealer of the community,” according to Karel Jalovec’s history of violin makers. After paying a fee, Pfretzschner was allowed into the guild to handle sales. “Instruments bearing his label do not, for the most part, tell who made them,” Jalovec’s entry continues.

Finding the Clues

Despite the potential for unreliability, information can sometimes be gleaned from a label, especially if it says something in English, like “Made in Germany,” or “Bavaria.” This means that the instrument was produced for export to the United States. Exactly how the information is worded can help determine the approximate date of export.

The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 required all products imported to the United States be marked with their country of origin. So, if there is no such mark, the instrument is pre-1890, or not made for the US market. (Remember, the vast majority were.) In 1914 the act was revised to require that the words “Made in” be used as well. So if your label says simply “Bavaria” it’s probably post-McKinley, but before 1914. The act was amended further in 1921 to state that the place of origin must be in English. So, “Made in Nippon” would indicate an instrument manufactured between 1914 and 1921. After 1921 it would be “Made in Japan.”

Post-World War II labels carry further clues. After the partition of Germany, goods were from West Germany or East Germany. Likewise, during the US occupation of Japan goods were marked “Made in Occupied Japan.”

A few words of Latin and Italian are useful, as well. Guarnerius and Stradivarius are the the Latinized forms of Guarneri and Stradivari. Giuseppe is the Italian form of Josepf. You can also learn who is related to whom by knowing that filius means son of, nepos means descendant of, alumnus means student of, and frater or Fr. means brother of.

It’s also helpful to know the names of the great historical centers of the trade: Markneukirchen and Mirecourt were the largest centers of production in Germany and France, respectively. Cremona (Cremonae, Cremonensis) is the Italian city where Amati, Stradivari, and other great classical makers worked. Brescia is just to the north and vied with Cremona for supremacy before the 1700s. Brescia’s best-known makers are Maggini and da Salo.

Yet no amount of label reading can replace an experienced eye. When in doubt, take your instrument to a good maker or dealer for evaluation. To the unpracticed eye it’s hard to tell whether an instrument is 100 or 300 years old. Expect to pay for the expert’s time. The ability to read the signature left by the maker’s hand—the shapes of arching and corners, purfling, varnish, and scroll—takes years to acquire.

And who knows? It could be a real Rocca. Sometimes people do win the lottery.

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