Ten Keys to Identifying a Violin

How to identify violins? The short answer of course is to find a qualified expert, and they are rare, who will give you their own best information. There is no shortcut to genuine expertise in the fine string instrument world. Anyone seeking quick answers and simple solutions in the field needs a reality check. This arena takes a confluence of sharp eyes, strong memory, intellectual capacity, tenacity, patience, and many years of experience, coupled with a bit of luck and the opportunity to actually see authentic pieces. Quickly picking up enough violin expertise to be credible is akin to learning to play the violin in a couple of years. Some things just take a long time to learn and violin expertise is, for many reasons, one of those things.

Violin expertise on a high level is not a part-time job. The serious experts in the field spend their days looking, learning, and reaffirming what they know on a constant basis, just the way serious musicians practice daily. Anyone wanting to know about string instruments will have to cultivate great zeal for their subject in order to have any hope of succeeding. Remember that there are far more people who claim to be experts than there are people who can actually identify violins.

Okay, assuming that you are passionate about the subject, here are some helpful guidelines to consider if you are hoping to gain expertise in the area:

  1. Do not conclude that the instruments you know are necessarily genuine, even if they are certified, “have always been by…”, etc. The world is rife with misattributions, and for a whole host of reasons. A point of confusion for a fledgling aficionado is often a rigid adherence to the idea that the known examples are definitely correct, so that a new and different one could not be correct because it does not appear as it is expected to appear.

  2. The most serious experts start from scratch when examining an instrument. Rather than look at a label, or an auction catalogue attribution or a certificate from another expert, the serious expert sees the violin anew and tries to place it where it belongs based on the expert’s own experience. Be circumspect about anybody else’s pronouncements no matter how credible they seem.

  3. Stylistic features in string instrument making can be observed as a regional phenomenon. In the case of old instruments the regional stylistic traits are one of the main ways in which the instruments are identifiable. For example an instrument bearing an unmistakable Milanese look from the 18th century is, by process of elimination, likely to be by a member of the Landolfi, Testore, Grancino or Mantegazza families. There are other makers of that period in Milan to consider as well, but just by observing the style of the work one can create a short list of makers to compare with the example at hand.

  4. Learn each individual maker’s own chacteristics, as well as the regional influences on the maker. In this way one can place a maker’s output within a context. But there are many opportunities for confusion: for instance in the case of the Turin makers from 19th century onward such as Pressenda, a strong French influence is discernible in the output. This may be because of the documented presence of many fine French luthiers in Turin during from the early 1800′s. As unemployed foreigners they would have been a cheap source of labor for the most successful Italian ateliers whose production as a result would have shown the French influence that we observe today.

  5. Archive as much as possible. Photos and notes are invaluable in helping to remember instruments. Early on in the process of gaining knowledge it is difficult to remember instruments with objectivity because we have little or no frame of reference. Later, if you have the aptitude, you will remember a great many instruments clearly, but this sort of memory takes years to acquire. Develop a standardized system for photographing what you see and keep organized files for frequent reference. Books are useful also as long as you remain circumspect, and thus open to the reality that authors of books frequently have made mistakes that have led a group of would-be experts to misattribute large numbers of instruments. That said, books allow one to cross-reference information and photos in a uniquely efficient manner.

  6. Find a mentor who has experience, photos, access to many instruments, and the willingness to share their knowledge. Your mentor should be someone who is serious about violin expertise and has years of experience in the trade. Don’t blindly follow the mentor but be respectful as the relationship unfolds. If you are lucky the mentor will help you develop an independently critical eye.

  7. Look at as many fine instruments as you can. Look slowly and carefully, trying to absorb detail and feeling the regional attributes like model, varnish and arching. The outline of an instrument is a key indicator to its origins.

  8. Try to memorize the outlines and f-holes of Stradivari, del Gesu, Andrea and Nicolo Amati, Carlo Bergonzi, and Andrea Guarneri, Guadagnini, Montagnana, and Stainer. The vast majority of instruments are built on one of these models. Knowing these models will help you group makers by their influences.

  9. Blind-test yourself on photos as often as possible. Try to guess the national origin of an instrument first. Then find a city of which the work is characteristic. Then remember who worked in that city and when. Take your time if you need to. Some experts are lightning fast. Others are slow. Speed is useful but is not a measure of ultimate expert ability.

  10. Keep an open mind. There is no quick way to understand the string instrument world. If you want to learn you must be prepared to unlearn and relearn the knowledge you may already have. Everyone in the business has experienced a moment when they were forced to reevaluate a particular position and to acknowledge that a mistake had been made. As part of learning you will make mistakes, and you will have to be willing to admit your mistakes.

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