By Florian Leonhard
I was standing backstage at a festival in Russia and the musicians were parading past me on their way to the platform. As a lady walked past, her violin caught the light and stood out to me from across the room. I called over to her, “That’s a nice Alessandro Mezzadri you have there!” Her face was a picture of confusion, and she barely had time to say “I’ll speak to you after the concert” before she had to hurry onstage to launch into the first piece. It turned out the violin had been a gift from her late professor, and though she had fallen in love with the instrument’s sound, she had no idea that it was by such an important maker!
Of course, authentication isn’t always so instant, and in many cases I have to study the instrument over a few days, turning it over in my mind, revisiting it regularly, and all the while ruling out erroneous possibilities. It occurs to me that the process is akin to the denouement chapter in a detective story: The detective gathers everyone together and meticulously presents each suspect, testing their alibis, analyzing their characters, before arriving at the final culprit—always the person the reader least suspects!
This was the case when a client brought me a beautiful violin he believed to be made by Tommaso Balestrieri, as stated on the instrument’s label. On first inspection, it was clearly not a Balestrieri, but it bore all the usual tell-tale signs of an interesting and perhaps even a fine old Italian violin. If there existed a reference book of violin authentication, you could have ticked all the boxes: outline with long shallow C’s, the elongated narrow-bodied f’s, flat arching with a narrow channel, the virtuosically carved scroll with its characteristically cut chamfer, the glowing ground and the light transparent red varnish, the pin holes and the tool marks left by the gouge.
But I wasn’t convinced.
Over time, the authentication process becomes very much driven by instinct, but in order to explain it I will go through the process of elimination that happens automatically in my mind after many years of carefully examining instruments, building the expertise that allows me to confirm or rule out various possibilities.
On this occasion, the violin is a supposed Balestrieri. Even if I have zero confidence that this is right, I first try to view the violin through the profile of a violin by that maker, picking up on any characteristics that support or refute this possibility—it can still be a good starting point.
As I turn it over in my hands, I notice how the light reflects on the different parts of its body. Superficially, it looks convincing: There are no disturbing patches of re-varnish that would indicate a covering up of something sinister, and the violin clearly appears to be well constructed. In this case, I don’t have that feeling that comes when an instrument just “clicks” and feels instantly right, like it did with the Mezzadri in Russia. I need to dig a little deeper.
And so my investigation begins. Immediately I begin to observe and consider: purfling too black, channel too shallow, the edge too fat and flat, the varnish and edges and corners wrongly worn, the pins too large and dark, the f-holes cut the wrong way…
Though the original labels of many instruments have been removed, this can still be a very telling part of the examination. It is very difficult to spot whether a label is original, but clues can be found in the paper, in the font and depth of the print, in the state of wear and the positioning. Sometimes it is clear a label is printed with a modern laser jet printer or a photocopier, but it could also be an early 20th-century screen print, or even a late 18th-century facsimile label made just 50 years after the original! Is part of the label handwritten, or is there a signature showing handwriting that you can compare to a reference example? Are there signs that the label has been moved or tampered with in the past?
In this case, the violin is labelled Balestrieri. I have a photographic memory, and it allows me to scan through the thousands of instruments I have held in my hands in the past, making comparisons down to the minutest detail. Imagine searching through your music collection on your iPhone, scanning thousands of tracks: This is what happens in my mind—it’s fast and intuitive. Of course, instead of songs, these are images of instruments compiled over 33 years of experience and thorough study.
It takes time to develop expertise in the violin business: five to ten years just isn’t enough. To understand a maker’s character properly, it’s no good having only a few reference examples in your memory for each luthier, because nearly all makers vary greatly in style and model. The more experience you have and the more comparisons you can make, the better.
Of the instruments that spin through my mind, most are dismissed instantly as irrelevant. This process is repeated many times, often over days or even weeks as I’m revisiting the same instrument in pursuit of the answer. Sometimes the process happens in an instant, but other times I reach the conclusion through a methodical process of elimination.
It is hard to demonstrate what I see, without showing you an instrument in the flesh that you can turn over in your hands to see how the light reflects on its shape, but as a clear example, from the front view of the scroll (see Ex. 1) you can clearly see that the first three violins (all examples of Balestrieri) are from the same family. Our instrument, number four, is quite different, so at this stage I’m happy to rule out Balestrieri altogether for the scroll.
Moving on to the f-holes, there are some similarities, but the outline is very different, the corners, too, as well as the execution of the channeling. The berries (the circles of the soundholes) are somewhat elliptical, bringing to mind the work of G.B. Guadagnini. There was also no inclination in my mind that this might be a Guadagnini, but let us compare it to that maker anyway, and note how it differs in its edge and corner work, as well as the arching.
Looking at the outlines you can see that this doesn’t match the work of Guadagnini either. Ex. 2 compares the mystery violin to two Guadagnini violins, and it is clear that they differ in workmanship, outline, C-bouts, and corners. It occurs to me that the outline does match that of Guarneri del Gesù much better, and if you compare the violin to known examples by that maker (Ex. 3), there are some similarities, despite the notable differences in the purfling mitres or the scroll.
I must, however, take into account that the scroll could have been changed at some point over the centuries.
Now I return to the violin’s f-holes, this time to compare them to those of del Gesù. If I imagine for a moment that the soundholes might have been recut, which is not uncommon, could they once have matched a del Gesù? In this case the wings of the soundholes have been cut in a fashion that is not typical for del Gesù.
Turning the instrument over, I survey its outline once more, from the back (Ex. 4). From this view, it is very similar indeed to a del Gesù—it is even difficult to say which is the odd one out in these photos!
Looking closely at the wood, I can’t yet rule out del Gesù. To confirm this possibility, I analyze in close detail; the violin seems well preserved, so there is a lot of evidence to support my conclusion one way or another. I start with the choice of wood: Would this work? I look at the ground and varnish, and the purfling. The outline is similar, and given the stylistically varied output by del Gesù there are certain characteristics that could make such an attribution plausible. However, the wood source appears to be different from anything I’ve seen from the Cremonese school.
Anomalies within a maker’s output are of course possible, so I always keep an open mind. When compared to these two violins by Guarneri del Gesù, one sees that the grain lines are rather hard and thin, and don’t fade between the winter and summer periods of growth, as commonly seen in the wood typically used by Cremonese makers. Examining the scroll closely reveals that the ground and varnish are identical to the rest of the instrument and therefore it all clearly belongs together.
My doubts about this instrument deepen!
A checklist for expert violin authentication would list bullet points such as varnish, wood, outline, f-holes, and label. But in this case, arguably the biggest clue is in the “antiquing.” Consider the places where an instrument is normally worn: wear and scratches to the middle of the back where it has been placed carefully to rest on a table thousands of times; the mark next to the side of the fingerboard where countless violinists of the past have slid their fingers reaching for the high notes on the E string; the patch where sweat has eroded the varnish above where the violin sits on the player’s shoulder.
On this violin, upon very close inspection (Ex. 5), the wear marks appear to have been made all in the same manner—you could even go so far as to question whether they weren’t in fact all made with the same tool, on the same day! They don’t have the variety you see from a slow building up of marks over decades or centuries. Despite the instrument’s first appearance of being old, on further examination it becomes clear that at some point someone has intentionally made this violin look older than it is.
I reflect on the violin’s back, purfling, varnish, edge-work (evenly worn yet well preserved), and as I look closer, suddenly I notice the ebony purfling, which was never used by the Old Italian makers, but was in fact first introduced by 19th-century luthiers in France. This takes my mind to the circle of J.B. Vuillaume, since he liked copying the old Italian masters and often used ebony for the blacks of his purfling. However, considered in the finest detail, this purfling is executed in a way not quite like any French maker I have ever come across. Vuillaume and his school remained quite strong in their personal style, whereas in this violin the hand of the maker has been more carefully hidden.
This brings me to consider another school altogether. A memory springs into my mind of a violin I once saw with very similar workmanship, although on a different pattern. The violin was a David Tecchler copy by the Voller Brothers. Among other features, it showed the same coloring of ground, the same antiquing of the varnish, the same ebony purfling, and the same general attitude of copying, which was different from other English copyists of the time. By this point I am convinced that the violin in question is also an English violin by the Voller Brothers (Ex. 6), very skillfully made as a precise and convincing copy of a del Gesù.
The final stage is to consult a dendrochronology expert, which can’t confirm an attribution with complete certainty, but can authoritatively rule out too early an attribution. Though in this case old wood was used, the dendrochronology matches are mainly of English instruments, backing up my theory that this is a Voller copy.
The Voller brothers were talented violin makers in England around the turn of the 19th century, capable of imitating the great makers with uncanny realism at first sight. They often used original parts, confusing the attribution even further. With their skill, they could make one Stradivari into three separate fakes, each taking an original part, and their convincing new components blending in almost imperceptibly. They represent one of the toughest challenges to today’s experts.
But still tougher are the requests for authentication of instruments by lesser known and even unknown makers. With values that have always shown a steadily climb, the difference in price between an “unknown Italian” and one by a specific, albeit little-known, maker is now vast. Therefore, today’s experts are faced with ever more demanding authentication puzzles. I love this challenge, and it is important that today’s experts respond with research to illuminate the lesser-known “schools” of makers. This was the motivation behind my book, The Makers of Central Italy, which covers a spectrum—from the doctor who made many successful instruments in his spare time and the rural “contadini” farmers who would make a fiddle for the local band to some highly skilled luthiers. Wonderfully accomplished craftsmen that emerge from these humble stables include the likes of Giuseppe Odoardi and Andrea Postacchini (known as the Stradivari of the Marche region), Antonio Ungarini, and Emilio Celani.
There is a wealth of violin-making knowledge to be learned, and an endless supply of conundrums—such as the undiscovered Mezzadri or the sneaky Voller copy to name but a couple!
Florian Leonhard visits the United States every month to carry out authentications and sound adjustments, and keep in touch with Jonathan Solars, who runs his Manhattan boutique. Florian Leonhard Fine Violins (London and New York) offers violins of every level.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.