By Brian Wise | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
String players will tell of concertgoers who drop backstage after a performance to pay compliments—and promptly turn into armchair instrument connoisseurs. “Sometimes, well, most times, people hear with their eyes first,” said Holly Mulcahy, the concertmaster of both the Wichita Symphony and Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. “I’ve had an audience member with zero music knowledge inform me that they ‘were so impressed that one of my section violinists was playing on an expensive old Italian.’”
There was one problem: Her section-mate’s instrument was not a Stradivari or an Amati but rather a modern violin that had been antiqued, the process of simulating the wear and tear on an instrument, from its distressed varnish down to the tiniest scratches and dents.
“It just looked old,” the patron sheepishly admitted.
Broadly defined, antiquing is a simulation, meant to suggest the distress brought on by decades of perspiration, soot, retouching, and cleaning, not to mention crude wooden cases and back-country carriage rides. Sometimes the goal is to reproduce a specific golden-age instrument, sometimes not. When done artfully, it delivers “a powerful visual effect,” says the Ann Arbor, Michigan, violin maker Joseph Curtin.
But antiquing has always been contentious, seen by its critics as a way of reinforcing the ill-founded belief that old violins are automatically better than new ones. “Almost every time someone is shown a very expensive and valuable violin, the easiest feature to notice and retain in memory is that it looks old,” the maker David Burgess writes in an e-mail. “So that look came to be associated with a coveted instrument.” Makers, in turn, saw antiquing as a compromise between new and old.
But Burgess believes the emphasis on an old look may also prevent the violin maker from establishing a more personal style. As he argues in an article on his website, “Would Picasso have been as noteworthy if he had painted copies of Renoir?”
The Brooklyn, New York, maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz began antiquing in the 1980s, and understands the desire for an old, weathered look. “There’s kind of a Pavlovian response: You see something that looks a certain way and your cognitive bias leads you to expect it to sound a certain way,” he says. “Personally, as a craftsperson with very deep training, I try to make something that very faithfully represents what is the finest of old instruments. A poorly antiqued violin is a travesty.”
Typically, the process of antiquing starts with choosing a varnish that will leave a naturalistic look when it is removed strategically, says Christopher Germain, a Philadelphia maker and longtime director of the Oberlin Violin Maker’s Workshop.
“I start by completely varnishing the instrument as I would with the intent to make a brand-new appearance and then work backwards from there,” he explains. “I tend to take away varnish where it would be naturally worn and also create a patina that comes from age and from being handled. I also have some of the varnish gather in the more protected areas.”
Germain says that he’s not aware of any industry guidelines that oversee antiquing, though most makers will use photographs, and when possible, in-person examinations of old instruments as models for their work. A few have turned to CT scans when a specific copy is being made. Beyond the varnish treatment, carving tools may be used to leave gouge marks or other abrasions.
David Gusset, a maker based in Eugene, Oregon, has moved from antiquing about half of his instrument output to nearly all of it. Though it is more time-consuming, he says that he enjoys the new creative dimension. “It’s almost like the instrument is a canvas and I’m creating a believable painting on top of it,” he says. “I’m trying to create a visual composition, with lights and darks and color and texture and transparency against something that’s more matte.”
The practice of antiquing may be traced to Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798–1875), the French luthier who made copies of earlier violins, including the 1743 “Il Cannone, Paganini” Guarneri del Gesù (Vuillaume’s copy is currently owned by Hilary Hahn). In the 1970s and early ’80s, New York maker Luiz Bellini led a new generation of makers who demonstrated the value of copies.
“It was initially frowned upon,” says Curtin, “but that war has already been won and lost. You see it everywhere,” including on new factory instruments from China. “Is there going to be a swing the other way? I don’t know. I’ve reduced the amount of antiquing that I do.” Curtin points to his Ultralight series of violins, which is not antiqued.
There is little doubt about the utility of copies, as when a soloist faces the prospect of hauling his or her Strad out for a summer parks concert. With a copy on hand, they have a closely similar tool but without the same risk. “For someone who owns a great Strad, having a second instrument is very helpful,” says Zygmuntowicz. “It’s the same size, it feels the same, it looks the same, and nobody knows. It’s a little ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
Nearly all of the makers interviewed for this article admit that this scenario is common, yet as Zygmuntowicz notes with a chuckle, “It’s not for me to blow their cover.”
Then there is the question of evolving tastes. Julie Reed-Yeboah, owner of Reed Yeboah Fine Violins in New York, says that among top soloists there is a widespread interest in antiqued violins that can visually blend with an orchestra onstage. A similar preference can be seen at the annual Contemporary Violin Makers Exhibition, which her shop hosts every fall. “When we observe people walking around the exhibition, sometimes they walk past the ones that are full varnished,” she said.
But Reed-Yeboah also sees a shift among some discerning older musicians, who have turned to full-varnished instruments in the belief that they are more pure, better to reveal a maker’s craftsmanship (and not all carry the “brand-new shiny orange” appearance).
Some leading luthier competitions, including the Cremona Triennale Lutherie Competition, also require makers to submit full-varnish instruments. Gusset, the Oregon maker, won the gold medal in Cremona’s violin category in 1985. He is philosophical about the marketplace’s demand for antiqued instruments.
“I used to wish that people would be able to appreciate my work in full varnish,” he says. “The thing is, I have the skill set that I can do the antiquing and I have the art background. It’s just satisfying. The only thing is, doing the antiquing is so time consuming. But I’m not concerned with that anymore. Whatever makes the player happy. They have to pay a fair amount for an instrument and why shouldn’t they have what they want?”