Fine instruments and the industry they have inspired have long piqued the interests of musicians, dealers and investors. For some, it also happens to be a solid or sole source of livelihood. Yet standard avenues to the acquisition of expertise in the field - a science that vacillates between the broader subjects of art, craft, history, science, as well as music - have lagged behind the other human sciences. While numerous violin making schools have existed for generations, neither they, nor any institution for higher learning have ever offered the study of the instruments themselves as a part of their curriculum. Clearly, a formal educational setting is neither ideal to teach or learn a subject as specific as violin expertise; furthermore, it is highly unlikely that anyone possessing sufficient knowledge to teach it, would be willing to share it in such an evironment.
The market for fine stringed musical instruments was probably pioneered by the Italians, Count Cozio di Salabue (1755-1840) and Luigi Tarisio (1790-1854). For decades, Cozio's Carteggio (virtually unknown until the 1950's and only translated into English in 2007), as well as some sporadic notes here and there from the wellheeded 19th century violin makers, though of dubious accuracy, were pretty much all there was of significant historical value. While the image of Cozio might be that of an enlightened gentleman and connoisseur, that of Tarisio inspires that of a seasoned, traveling wheeler - dealer. Their younger colleague and eventual distributor in Paris, J.B. Vuillaume (1898-1875), was probably the world's first maker-dealer who excelled in both expertise and violin making. Otherwise, during the 19th century the weak and haphazard old violin market was generally controlled by several violin makers, who while dedicating most of their time making and marketing their work in a very competitive atmosphere, only occasionally dealt in fine old instruments.
An air of mystique has surrounded this esoteric, niche market for generations. Until the late 20th century, informative violin and bow books, often containing outdated or incorrect information, were notoriously scarce. Much of the then available knowledge was derived from rather fanciful stories of the 19th century violin makers recounted by dealers, such as Benedetto Gioffredo-Rinaldi (1821-1886), who wrote a much embellished, biographical pamphlet on G.F. Pressenda, and David Laurie (1833-1897), the author of The Reminiscences of a Fiddle Dealer, first published in 1900. Musicians and aficionados, relying largely on their own sensibilities and convictions regarding tone and aesthetics, were at the mercy of those few who knew much more. This suited most dealers, as general ignorance allowed for easy manipulation of instruments and their labels.
During the late 19th century, things began to change somewhat, when George Hart (1839-1891) published his enlightening: The Violin: Its Famous Makers And Their Imitators, completed by 1885, though unpublished, it seems, until 1909. The first issues of the Strad magazine surfaced in 1890. Then, the Hill brothers' unusually well researched and documented book on Antonio Stradivari, published in 1902, was followed by their similar work, published in 1931, on the Guarneri family. Later, a limited number of interesting manuscripts went on to reveal further information on old Italian and even Germanic makers: during the mid to late 1940's, Ernst Doring came out with How Many Strads and his book on the Guadagnini family, that offered an unprecedented amount of visual and other information. By the 1960s and the 70s Walter Hamma and Simone Sacconi contributed further knowledge. But none of this literature could compete with libraries by then available for study on most other similar fields.
Since then information has become much more readily sourced and general expertise in our tricky field has made great strides. Within the last thirty years a number of notable additions to the previously sparse libraries and archival material on dozens of old Italian violin and the French bow makers, have appeared through tireless efforts from a handful of most passionate individuals. Collaboration of experts and historians has been invoked at various conferences, round table discussions and during exhibitions, resulting in enlightening articles documented in dedicated publications and online.
The last two decades have seen most progress in instrument identification, greatly aided by the technological advancements of the period. The evolution of digital photography and widespread use of computers and Internet communication have been perhaps of single greatest importance in the dissemination of knowledge, leading to a far greater need for diligence and accountability in violin and bow expertise. Existing identification and restoration tools for artworks, such as dendrochronology to date the wood, ultra violet light, and chemical varnish analysis, have also greatly contributed to the advancement of violin expertise, aiding even the best violin eyes. Violin expertise has reached its highest point yet, but much remains unknown with as many mysteries about the instruments as about the makers themselves.
But how might a dealer, investor, or musician searching for the 'right' instruments to own, go about harnessing, processing and using the new existing information and identification techniques? Even having carefully gone through all of the now more plentiful literature and online data, one may hardly consider oneself truly knowledgeable, let alone ready to affront the market. Making or restoring instruments, scholarship of violinmaking history, playing a stringed instrument, and/ or the handling and dealing in fine instruments - all contribute to the necessary knowledge in the acquisition of true expertise. Past experts have learned their trade through first hand, personal experience in the business, often helped by senior figures within their entourage, rather than from classrooms or texts. So the activity of dealing in instruments, where a variety of examples - fine and standard - are handled on a daily basis, is probably essential to keeping one's interest alive over the long term. However, even a sharp eye, supplemented by photographic memory and a good amount knowledge does not guarantee the success of an instrument dealer, as that profession normally requires a significant starting capital and/or an array of other qualities, not the least of which is a good business sense.
After some years of persistence in assimilating, compartmentalising and utilising the accumulated knowledge on a daily basis, one could attain sufficient experience to start judging instruments more objectively. For many, this type of self-education is unlikely to come cheap: its price may come in the form of hopefully only a few mistakes, such as misjudged acquisitions - perhaps those with hidden flaws, or downright copies and fakes. 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained', one might then say and carry on with yet greater resilience. Risk can be mitigated to some extent by staying clear of investments that are above one's level of experience, though we also learn from those mistakes, often more quickly than otherwise. At some stage during the continual learning process one may become a connoisseur or expert, who is not only able to recognising obvious instruments by the greatest of makers, but who may also be capable of resolving, for oneself, some of the many mysteries in the field and later share that knowledge with others.
None of the humanities conform to the empirical, rational and objective approaches of the so called 'exact' sciences, such as mathematics or chemistry. Rather, learning ensues from a mixture of fact and speculation, evaluation, analyses and debate. Therefore cumulative erudition of a violin or bow expert can, at best, offer wellinformed opinions based on available factual data - not indisputable facts. An expert knows that his or her opinions may, sooner or later be challenged by others or even by their own increased experience. Any antiquarian should thus be well - advised to keep an open and questioning mind even regarding his or her previous opinions.
While experts in nearly any other field may feature on the walls of their offices the many impressive diplomas from venerable institutions they attended, the profession of violin or bow expert will never be guaranteed by any such tangible affirmations and may instead feature numerous, signed photographs of great musicians they may have known or served. A typical violin expert-dealers' qualifications may have been confirmed by their perceived stature in the business and their name forged by their background, the presumed number of great instruments that passed through their hands or are currently in their safes, or in some cases perhaps, even the location and size of their business premises. An expert's ability may be more appropriately validated through the respect of his or her colleagues and clients with whom knowledge and experience is shared. Earning and preserving a good reputation in a niche business prone to intrigue and conflict of interest, may nevertheless prove to be challenging.
Some of the world's past and present experts have possessed a great deal of knowledge in their specific fields. So those who specialise in classical Italian instruments, may not be as knowledgeable in say, the later Italian schools, or those of France and Germany and vice - versa. Most naturally focus their attention on the lives and work of the greatest Italian makers, while those of lesser stature and of other schools, have substantially evaded attention from such experts. This is unfortunate, as some instruments made in or just north of the Alps, have had the names of their makers obliterated by past generations who would pass them off as, say fine Venetian instruments of the period. Some of these forgotten makers' names will one day be reclaimed through research of the concerned schools; this is unlikely to occur on any substantial scale until the best Italian instruments become so unaffordable that musicians seeking old instruments are forced to look for beautifullooking and working alternatives.
Once an instrument's original label is removed, moved or tampered with, our already 'non-exact' discipline becomes yet more obscured and this is where expert opinions begin to differ. Most labels found in centuries - old or even 20th century instruments are either inauthentic, altered or displaced, according to the whims of upgraders and emulators. Thus confirming even an approximate year of production depends on the ability of the expert to interpret the makers' stylistic changes over time. Luckily, there exist exceptionally pure, indisputable examples, still bearing their original, dated and unmoved labels or brands. Having direct access to these is essential, as they, along with some tools of the trade described earlier, hold the keys to positive identification and dating. However, no-one can be intimately familiar with all working periods of even the best makers, whose careers often spanned decades of continually evolving work. Further complicating matters are the 'nearly original' labels inserted by their direct followers who used paper, printing techniques and ink extremely similar to those used by their predecessors.
Copies that remain copies are plentiful, and for some, are more appealing than the more valuable originals. It is when they get attributed to whatever maker being copied that is so treacherous and may result in substantial financial losses for the buyer. As is common in art, a subject within violin and bow making that has fascinated scholars and experts is the collaboration between the makers, either from members of their immediate families or from their entourage, such as pupils or followers, whose participation or influence becomes evident in the work of their masters. Thus a wide range of overlapping or collaborative, more difficult to identify works exist and these are amongst the most fascinating riddles in a profession, unfortunately governed by its name-hungry market.
The road to expertise in stringed instruments may be long and rocky, but solving or resolving past mysteries and correcting gross or minor misattributions of the past is challenging, interesting and sometimes rewarding.