A copy of a fine stringed instrument remains a passionate and practical choice for many musicians
In 2007, Bonnie Hampton, who has taught cello at the San Francisco Conservatory and Juilliard, had David Wiebe make a copy of her 1616 Brothers Amati cello, in part, because of the difficulties and concerns with traveling with her very old and valuable cello. Wiebe copied the dimensions, but made it as a modern instrument with no antiquing. It sounds like a modern instrument and doesn’t replicate the sound of the original. Two other makers had copied her cello in the past, but Hampton has been most happy with Wiebe’s cello.

She is one of many string players who have turned to luthiers to craft copies of valuable stringed instruments.

In fact, copying stringed instruments is an age-old practice. Since Andrea Amati made the first violin in the mid-1500s, its basic form has changed little. In some important ways, this makes just about every violin, viola, or cello ever made a copy. Within 150 years of this creation, violin making reached its peak with the work of Nicolò Amati, Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, Carlo Bergonzi, and others. Over the years, most violin makers have looked to these great masters for inspiration.

By the beginning of the 19th century, most makers built their instruments based on the models of either Stradivari or Guarneri. Violins were made not only on the models of the great masters, but often these craftsmen tried to reproduce the look of a master violin, attempting to duplicate the qualities of the varnish and the signs of wear. In the process, some became quite adept at the art of “antiquing.” In reproducing a fine old violin, the best option for a violin maker is to have the original on the workbench during the making process. But most makers don’t have a fine Stradivari or Guarneri available to them for an extended period.

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Wiebe’s copy of the 1616 Brothers Amati cello

 

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Wiebe’s copy of the 1616 Brothers Amati cello

Of course, there have been exceptions. Ignaz Lutz, a violin maker who was originally from Vienna and worked in San Francisco in the 1920s, owned a fine Stradivari from 1724 and based most of his violins from that period on that violin. Lutz’s instruments are very fine, but an expert appraiser would never confuse one for a Stradivari.

One of the best-known copyists of the 19th century was the great Parisian maker and dealer J.B. Vuillaume. He always had the finest Cremonese masterpieces at his disposal, and most of the instruments from his workshop are copies of Strads and Guarneris that are masterful and share many of qualities of the originals.

He is believed to have made copies for the great violinists of the day, including Nicolò Paganini.

A number of other makers have had the luxury of hosting fine old violins on their workbench.

Even some of the French and German workshops producing commercial instruments, like Marc Laberte in Mirecourt and Ernst Heinrich Roth in Markneukirchen, had fine Cremonese instruments that were made available to the makers who created their best instruments.

The Copy as Backup Plan

Fine old Italian and French violins have been escalating rapidly in value, so it’s not surprising that musicians who own these fine and valuable old instruments sometimes want to have a copy of their instrument to preserve the original, or to let it rest for a period of time. Musicians also like to have a compatible instrument to play while the original is in the shop for repairs or restoration.

Soloists and other professional musicians often travel with their instruments and have every right to be afraid of the hazards of climate and weather conditions. In general, stringed instruments are fragile and those that are two or three centuries old are especially so and will have numerous old repairs with old cracks that can open, often at the most inopportune time. Traveling instruments are also subject to rapid changes of temperature and humidity, and musicians may be required to perform in hot, humid climates, an inhospitable environment for any stringed instrument.

Violin thefts have also inspired some players to seek out copies as these highly publicized stories draw wider public attention to the prices of fine violins.

Making Copies

Some makers may be willing to create  a copy of an instrument, but there are a number of considerations. If the maker is going to take on the task, he or she often needs to have the original on-hand to be sure the measurements are the same so that switching from the original to the copy is comfortable for the player.

The maker will take not only the external measurements and an outline, but diagram the archings, too. They will measure the thicknesses of the top, ribs, and back, and try to find wood that matches the original.

If the client wants the copy to have the same outward appearance (though many makers won’t do high-level antiquing), they will need high-quality, detailed photos.

Ideally though, the maker should have the original available at least during the varnishing and antiquing process. All this comes at a cost and after the instrument is finished, it probably won’t sound like the original.

After all, it’s going to be a modern instrument without hundreds of years of repairs, fine-tuning, and playing.

A number of copies belonging to important musicians have become famous in their own right. Probably best known in recent years are two copies of Isaac Stern’s Guarneri made by New York City maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz. One of these copies sold at an auction of Stern’s collection for the unheard of price of $130,000. Most people believe that much of that price was because the violin belonged to Stern, but it certainly helped make a name for Zygmuntowicz.

If you have a fine old violin and would like to have a second one that you can interchange easily, you could have a maker take on the task, but you could also find a new or older violin that might match yours closely.

Try to visit shops with your instrument and compare—preferably instruments with similar measurements and built on the same model.

Explain to the dealer what characteristics you are trying to duplicate. Cellist Jeffrey Solow, who owns a fine Montagnana, purchased another cello for tours and his frequent travels and ultimately settled on an instrument built on the same model with similar measurements—a Jay Haide Montagnana model cello.

With some help and some research, you may find just the right instrument, and possibly for less money than the cost of commissioning a copy. After all Solow’s copy retails for $4,950.

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