As the legend goes, this most perfectly preserved example of Antonio Stradivari’s output was retained by the master until his death in 1737. Purportedly the violin remained in the Stradivari estate until it was sold along with other instruments and numerous Stradivari workshop relics in 1775 by Paolo Stradivari, the last surviving son of Antonio Stradivari. The often told story continues that the most famous collector of violins of the eighteenth century, Count Cozio di Salabue, was the purchaser of all of these items from the Stradivari estate, including the fabled “Messiah” violin.
The itinerant violin dealer, Luigi Tarisio is said to have purchased the “Messiah” violin from the Cozio estate upon the death of Count Cozio in 1827. As the tale unfolds, the violin was subsequently acquired from the Tarisio estate, after his death in 1854, by the famous Parisian dealer and maker, J.B. Vuillaume. Vuillaume retained the violin until his death in 1875 when it passed by inheritance to his son-in-law, the highly regarded violinist, Delphin Alard.
Alard died in 1888, and his heirs sold the “Messiah” through the firm of W. E. Hill and Sons to a Mr. R. Crawford of Edinburgh. The Hills repurchased the violin from Crawford in 1904 and sold the “Messiah” to the great collector, Richard Bennett. In 1928 the Hills once again repurchased the violin, and at this time presented the violin to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, where it is displayed to this day.
But no violin in history has been the subject of more controversy than the “Messiah” Stradivari violin of 1716. Beginning with Vuillaume’s importation of the instrument to France in 1855, speculation contesting the authenticity of the “Messiah” has periodically flared up. Across generations of informed violin aficionados, some have claimed that the violin was an elaborate deception by Vuillaume himself. Hosts of other theories have been advanced decrying underlying fraud, and even conspiracy, with the “Messiah.” The fact that the violin is in an unprecedented state of preservation has heightened suspicions brought on by numerous irregularities in detail of construction which set the “Messiah” apart from other Stradivari violins. But such controversy has routinely been quelled over the decades by the opinions of the foremost experts who have always supported the authenticity of the instrument.
Now, modern science has afforded us a new view, in the most recent reopening of the controversy regarding the “Messiah.” Dendrochronology, the analysis of the growth rings of trees, is a modern process for dating soft alpine woods such as the spruce used in the fronts of violins. It has gained credibility in the scientific community and become recognized as a highly
accurate dating method. Several years ago the violin photographer and historian, Stuart Pollens photographed the “Messiah” violin and sent the photos to Peter Klein, a respected dendrochronologist in Germany. Klein was asked to date the front of the violin with no information about the supposed origin of the instrument under examination. His initial findings suggested that the “Messiah” could not have been built in Antonio Stradivari’s lifetime. This haymaker created a stir among those violin aficionados allied with the traditional old guard of violin experts. At stake was the cornerstone of the antique string instrument business: credibility of the expertise on which consumer confidence is built. The current owners of the “Messiah” Stradivari, descendants of the Hill firm which had placed the violin on permanent display at the Ashmolean museum stood to be particularly embarrassed by a revelation that the fabled “Messiah” was certainly not what the Hills had long purported it was. The most highly regarded contemporary expert, Charles Beare publicly admitted that there must have been a long running mistake with the “Messiah” Stradivari.
In England a violin maker and sometime dendrochronologist, John Topham was hired to make his own scientific study of the “Messiah.” Topham concluded that the spruce used for the front of the “Messiah” did predate the violin’s supposed date of construction, 1716. Further, Topham claimed to be able to show that the material used in the construction matched that of other Stradivari instruments constructed around 1716. Topham’s findings seemed to lay to rest the scientific controversy surrounding the “Messiah.”
Subsequently Peter Klein withdrew his findings and claimed that he was neither able to support Tophams findings nor able to establish a date for the front of the “Messiah” at all. The Hills were seemingly exonerated as the string instrument world heaved a sigh of relief.
All except for Stuart Pollens, the original instigator of the controversy, who vociferously cried foul to anyone who would listen, and in so doing became something of an outcast in the world of string instrument cognoscenti. The debate has been left open to question by several important details: The Hill’s have refused to allow a direct scientific examination of the “Messiah” by anyone but Topham. Klein’s original findings were based on photographs, Topham’s on a direct examination of the instrument. And a subsequent dendrochronology test performed by Peter Ian Kuniholm, a noted dendrochronology expert and professor at Cornell University corroborated Klein’s original findings.
On Wednesday the controversy made a comeback in Cincinnatti at the Violin Society of America’s annual meeting. In attendance were many of the world’s most respected string instrument experts. In a lecture full of scientific jargon John Topham related his findings regarding the “Messiah” violin, and his use of dendrochronology in the dating of the instrument. Topham’s substantive point was his determination that the spruce for the front of the “Messiah” violin came from a tree which was cut down in 1682. This is at odds with the original conclusion of Klein which was corroborated by Kuniholm and places the date of the spruce for the front of the “Messiah” at 1738, one year after Antonio Stradivari’s death.
At the conclusion of the lecture an energetic debate ensued. Stuart Pollens asked Topham about the method by which he established a time line in his dendrochronology. The construction of a time line is the central issue in dendrochronolgy technique. Topham did not answer the question but referred to a paper he has written about his findings. The paper does not thoroughly detail Topham’s methods for construction of a time line in his dendrochronology techniques.
Further debate ensued involving Robert Bein of Bein and Fushi, and Charles Beare on the one side, and Stuart Pollens on the other. Methods of authentication were discussed including the question of how much weight is to be given to provenance in determining authenticity. Bein suggested that provenance play a back seat to the intuition of skilled, trained eyes. Pollens said he agreed with Bein’s hypothesis in the main, but pointed out that provenance with the “Messiah” violin is a much more important issue than it might be with other instruments.
With other questions regarding the “Messiah” Pollens seemed to be implying that the Hills should have recognized discrepancies that they may have ignored for commercial reasons. Beare defended the Hills’ integrity. Specifically Pollens avers the presence of a scribed letter “G” in the pegbox of the violin which is not noted by the Hills and is not discussed in any of the literature on the “Messiah.” Beare claims not to have noticed this in his eight separate examinations of the “Messiah.”
Helen Hayes, the President of the VSA acted as moderator in a separate afternoon panel which included Beare, Topham and Pollens, as well as Phillip Kass, a respected author on the subject of violins, the esteemed maker and expert Carl Becker and Dr. Henry Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee. Beare opened the session with comments at times generous towards Pollens and his expertise, and at other times critical of what he seemed to regard as Pollens over-zealousness. Pollens admitted that he had had the photographs of the “Messiah” analyzed without the permission of the owners, but rebutted a portion of Beare’s charge of over-zealousness by pointing out that Beare himself had gone public before anyone else with the news about the problem with dating the “Messiah,” at the Paris exhibition of J.B. Vuillaume instruments. In his turn Topham admitted that a meeting with Klein was not productive in developing a consensus about the date of the violin. Grissino-Mayer expressed respect for Klein and disquiet over Klein’s withdrawal of his findings. Grissino-Mayer also indicated the need to establish whether either hypothesis can be disproved.
Nothing could be settled in the course of this debate. And the discrepancies in findings are inconclusive. Klein and Kuniholm are credible scientists whose findings would suggest that the “Messiah” cannot be what it is purported to be, but they have not been able to make direct examinations of the “Messiah” violin, instead being forced to rely on photographs for their
determinations. Topham is a trained violin maker probing for the secrets of the old masters, but does he have the scientific background to make accurate determinations on a scientific basis?
Clearly questions linger about the “Messiah.” For the future one would hope that the Hills will grant independent access to the violin in the hope of laying aside those questions that can be answered by a thorough and direct examination of the “Messiah.”