Fine instruments and the industry that grew around them have long fascinated musicians, dealers and investors. For some, it is a main source of income or even a sole livelihood. Yet standard avenues to acquiring expertise in the field - a pursuit that straddles the disparate fields of art, craft, history and science, not to forget music itself - have lagged behind most other scholarly disciplines. While violin-making schools have existed for generations, neither they nor traditional educational institutions have included study of these instruments in their curricula. To be sure, a formal educational setting is not particularly conducive to teaching or learning violin expertise; further, it is highly unlikely that anyone possessing sufficient knowledge to teach it would be willing to share it in such an environment.
The market for fine stringed musical instruments was likely pioneered by the Italians, Count Cozio di Salabue (1755-1840) and Luigi Tarisio (1790-1854). For decades, Cozio's Carteggio (virtually unknown until the 1950s and translated into English only in 2007), as well as sporadic notes of dubious accuracy from affluent 19th-century violin makers, constituted most if not all of significant historical value on the subject. While the name of Cozio conjures up the image of an enlightened gentleman and connoisseur, that of Tarisio invokes a seasoned and worldly sharp operator. Their younger colleague and eventual distributor in Paris, Jean Baptiste 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 feeble and poorly organized market for violins was generally controlled by a handful of makers who, while dedicating most of their time to making and marketing their work in a very competitive atmosphere, dealt only occasionally in fine old instruments.
An aura of mystique has surrounded this esoteric, niche market for generations. Until the late-20th century, books on violins and bows were notoriously scarce, and those that did exist were often filled with outdated or inaccurate information. Much of the then available knowledge was derived from rather fanciful stories of 19th-century violin makers recounted by dealers, such as Benedetto Gioffredo-Rinaldi (1821-1886), who wrote a much-embellished biographical pamphlet on Giovanni Pressenda, and David Laurie (1833-1897), author of The Reminiscences of a Fiddle Dealer, 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 with deeper knowledge. This suited most dealers, as general ignorance allowed for easy manipulation of instruments and their labels.
The late-19th century saw the beginnings of change, when George Hart (1839-1891) published his enlightening The Violin: Its Famous Makers and Their Imitators (completed by 1885, though not published, it seems, until 1909). The first issues of The Strad magazine came out in 1890. Subsequently, the Hill brothers' unusually well-researched and documented book on Antonio Stradivari, published in 1902, was followed by their work on the Guarneris, published in 1931. Later, a limited number of interesting manuscripts would reveal much about old Italian and even Germanic makers: during the mid-to-late-1940s, Ernst Doring came out with How Many Strads and his book on the Guadagnini family, which offered an unprecedented amount of visual and factual information. By the 1960s and the 70s Walter Hamma and Simone Sacconi made further notable contributions. Such strides forward, though impressive, pale in comparison with advances made in most fields of study represented in a typical library.
Since then, information has become significantly easier to source, and expertise in our highly complex field has extended more broadly. The last 30 years have seen multiple notable additions to the previously sparse libraries and archival material on dozens of old Italian violin and the French bow makers, brought about through the tireless efforts of a handful of passionate individuals. Collaboration of experts and historians has emerged from various conferences, round-table discussions and exhibitions, resulting in enlightening articles in specialist publications and online.
The last two decades have seen tremendous progress in instrument identification, greatly aided by new technologies. Identification and restoration tools for works of art, such as dendrochronology for wood dating, ultraviolet light, and chemical-varnish analysis have greatly contributed to the advancement of violin expertise, aiding even the most expert eyes. The evolution of digital photography and the Internet have accelerated and improved the dissemination of knowledge, leading to a far greater need for diligence and accountability in violin and bow expertise. Violin expertise has now reached its highest point to date, but much remains unknown, with many mysteries surrounding the instruments as the makers themselves.
But how might a dealer, investor or musician searching for the 'right' instruments to own apply these tools and technologies? After perusing the newly abundant literature and online data, one may hardly consider oneself truly knowledgeable, let alone ready to make serious investment decisions. Making or restoring instruments, mastering violin-making history and scholarship, playing a stringed instrument and handling/dealing in fine instruments - all these contribute to the necessary expertise. Past experts learned their trade through first-hand experience, often aided by senior figures within their entourage, rather than the classroom or textbook. So, dealing in instruments, where a variety of examples - both fine and common - 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 a quasi-photographic memory and copious knowledge, can hardly guarantee success to an instrument dealer, as that profession normally requires significant starting capital and an array of other qualities, not least of which is good business sense.
After years of persistence assimilating, compartmentalising and applying such knowledge on a daily basis, one might gain sufficient experience to start judging instruments more objectively. For many, this self-education is unlikely to be economical: the cost of tuition may come in the form of 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 steering clear of investments above one's level of experience, though we also learn from those mistakes, often more quickly than otherwise. At some point in the continual learning process one may become a connoisseur or expert, one not only able to recognise obvious instruments by the greatest makers, but also capable of resolving, for oneself, some of the many mysteries in the field and later sharing that knowledge with others.
The advancement of knowledge in fine stringed instruments is not the realm of 'hard' sciences, driven mainly by empirical, rational and objective approaches. Rather, learning ensues from a mixture of fact and conjecture, evaluation, analysis and debate. The erudition of a violin or bow expert relies, at best, on well-informed opinions based on available factual data, rarely indisputable facts. An expert knows that his or her opinions may, sooner or later, be challenged by others or even by one's own broadened experience. Any antiquarian is thus well advised to keep an open and questioning mind even regarding one's previous opinions.
The walls of experts in nearly any other field may be lined with impressive diplomas; those of the violin or bow expert may at best feature signed photographs of great musicians they have known or served. A typical violin expert or dealer's qualifications may rely on their perceived stature in the business and their background, the presumed number of great instruments that passed through their hands or are currently in their safes or, in some cases, perhaps the location and splendour of their business premises. An expert's ability may be more appropriately validated through the respect accorded by 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 interests is no mean feat.
The knowledge of many of the world's past and present experts is often in very narrowly defined domains. Those who specialise in classical Italian instruments may be less 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 experts naturally lavish less attention on those of lesser stature and of other schools. 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, for example, fine Venetian instruments of the period. Some of these forgotten makers' names will one day be reclaimed through research of the concerned schools; though 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 beautiful and viable alternatives.
Once an instrument's original label is removed, moved or manipulated, our already 'inexact' discipline becomes further obscured, and this is where expert opinions begin to diverge. 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 maker's 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. When they are attributed to whichever maker is being copied they become 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, trickier-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 treacherous, but solving or resolving past mysteries and correcting gross or minor misattributions of the past is challenging, fascinating and quite often rewarding.