Violin Information

Identifying old Instruments

Some very General Information 

Like anything, there are always exceptions, and with violins, there seem to be as many exceptions as those that follow the guidelines. Violin appraisers spend their entire careers learning and viewing thousands and thousands of violins to become a good and respected appraiser. Often times it's all about interpretation. I have less experience than some and more than others, so I am always adjusting my knowledge base. These interpretations are not meant to be an end-all but only a starting place and a violin should always, always be looked at by a professional rather than assuming something is gospel.  

There are cross-school/country similarities and the more modern the instrument, often the less the individualism of the school/maker. As you can see from the map below that shows many of the major hubs of violin making in Europe, they were/are located relatively close to one another and often right across the border from a neighboring country.  Borders and countries have also changed over the centuries, I have used a modern map so that those not knowing old Europe's borders and countries can have a basic understanding of where things started and moved to. Of course violin makers also worked in other cities than those shown.

Violin making, according to many scholars, started in Cremona Italy and spread from there. As mentioned above, close proximity of violin makers in one town  or country to another town or country lead to similarities between these regions and countries. The towns of Markneukirchen and Klingenthal in Germany are just over the border from Luby in the Czech Republic (all three towns are within 10 or so miles of each other. The town of Mittenwald in Germany is just over the border from Absam in Austria. This sometimes makes it impossible to tell exactly where an instrument was made, as the makers crossed the borders to sell their instruments in other towns and the styles are extremely similar. They also moved to different towns/countries due to war. The instruments were often labeled from the country they were sold from, and not the one they were made in.   This makes for very subtle identifiers as makers from one area easily influenced those in other areas. Even today, a maker is influenced by different schools of work, but apply their own craft and thus their own ideas. This is why it is imperative that you don't assume anything about your instrument based on the label and have it seen by a professional.

 


First let me say that if there were any doubt in your mind, this is a circa 1900 factory copy. There are a number of easy clues such as Stainer never stamped his name on the outside of the back of the instrument, his labels were hand written and to anyone that is familiar with real Stainer violins, the workmanship and varnish are all wrong. 

As for value, a lot will depend on the condition and I just can't see it clearly enough to see what might need to be done. There are also things that can't be seen in pictures, like some crucial measurements that if off could be expensive to fix. These typically retail for under $1000 in very good condition.  There are different qualities starting at worthless.  Yours, once made properly playable and cosmetically decent, would be valued somewhere in betwe

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Do I have a Strad or Guarneri... it says so on the label

 

  The chance of finding a "Strad" today in a basement or attic is near impossible. I have received hundreds if not thousands of inquiries over the years from customers who have an old instrument with a label stating that it is a "Stradivarius," a "Guarnerius," or an "Amati," or another famous violin maker. Dealers know that the chance of stumbling upon a previously unknown authentic instrument by one of these great makers is next to impossible. Very few undiscovered violins by the most famous makers have turned up since 1960, while over the past century and a half, millions of commercial instruments containing fake labels have been made. See more about these Factory Instruments from Germany Czechoslovakia and France.

The insertion of fake labels has not for the most part been a practice of deception. When these instruments were made, it was clear to the consumer that this purchase was only a copy. It was considered fashionable to have an instrument which had been made to look "aged" with an antique-type varnish with a facsimile label by a famous maker.  In more recent years, almost every violin shop has it's own 'label' violins. This is partially so that it makes it harder to compare apples to apples. It also makes it so there is name recognition between the 'brand' and the shop.

Many of these instruments were made in assembly line factories in Germany and France; they could be sold at much lower prices than instruments which were hand-made by a single craftsman. These instruments were mostly made to be exported and as such they were deemed as Trade Instruments. There were also many catalogs that were printed and sent to American dealers to order different grades of these copies at varying prices; they could also buy in bulk. One French company had a models that were available by the piece, by the dozen or by 100. This is a link to a page from a catalog from the 1920's showing a few of the different copies available.  http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/oldvln2.html   During the period from 1880-1920 it is estimated that just from the town of Markneukirchen Germany as many as 7 million bowed string instrument were exported. In Mirecourt France, one firm is known to have produced more than 150,000 instruments in just one year and employed over 1000 violin makers in their factory. A great number of these were simply labeled with the model and not the actual firm that made it. 

Typically these instruments come into a shop in poor condition and need from $100 - $500 in repairs. Many of the previous repairs may have been done by amateurs and may need to be reversed or may have completely destroyed the value of the violin. Some of the labels are very convincing and the only way to know for sure about the quality, authenticity and value of your violin is to have it seen in person by an expert. 

I have had a few experiences where someone brought in an instrument that was passed down or purchased at a yard sale that turned out to be a very fine instrument valued from $2500 to $25,000 even though they thought it was just a student instrument. However that is only a few out of many thousands of these "finds". If you have a "Strad" labeled violin or any violin with an unknown history, the only way to be sure about the value of the instrument is to have it appraised by a professional. Many violin shops will give you an oral appraisal for little or no cost. Even if you discover that your violin was not made by one of the masters, it may still have some value and be enjoyed for years to come.

A violin's authenticity (i.e., whether it is by the name on the label) can only be determined by comparing it to know examples of the makers workmanship, wood characteristics, and varnish texture. This expertise is obtained over many years of examination of hundreds or thousands of instruments, there is no substitute for an experienced eye.  This knowledge can't be summed up in a few lines of text or even pages of text.

The following information on Stradivari and Guarneri labels has been worked out over the last 150+ years by the foremost authorities in the field, but remember that the label is the last thing a true violin appraiser will look at before rendering an opinion. The inserted label may confirm the appraisers opinion but rarely will sway it. 

Stradivari Labels 

Stradivari never roamed very far away from his home in Cremona and never learned English, so he would never have used any English on his labels, like "Made In".

False Stradivari labels were found in instruments have been seen since the late 1600's.

The 1660's were the last time that it appears that he made a new label block for printing labels and the block had the "166" printed. From the 1670's through the 1690's he just altered or erased numbers to make the change. In 1698 he made a new label block with just the "1" printed and he always hand wrote the last three numbers until his death in 1737. Any instrument dated after 1700 with more than the "1" printed are false labels.

Until 1729 he used the Latin form of the "v" and thus it appeared as a "u" making his labels read "Stradiuarius".  From 1730-1737 he used the standard Roman v

As the years progressed, his label type became courser probably because it became worn or dirty. On some labels a line can be seen above his name. This was from the block and was probably from applying too much pressure when printing and thus the edge of the block also printed. Many of his labels were trimmed to be just above the printing and thus this line is not visible.

A real Strad label looks very much like this one.

 

Here is a common fake label in a 1920's Czech violin::

 

As you can see, they are similar, so a label can be deceiving.  As always, it is best to have the instrument examined by a professional. 

 

A good list of who owns all of the Stradivari Violins

 

Guarneri Labels

He was also known as Joseph Guarnerius Del Jesu  and his given name was Giuseppe.

He used the Latin spelling of Joseph which replaced the "s" with an “f” making his labels read Jofeph Guarnerius.  So if it is spelled Joseph or Josef it is a copy.

In addition his labels spelled the name of his town as Cremone, not Cremonae as it is frequently spelled in the copies. 

I have never seen a label where he didn't print the 17 and then hand write the last two digits.  His labels were very, very similar from year to year.

 

An authentic label would look like this:

 

 

And a fake label might look like this:

 

 

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Labels and Appraisals

 

A violin's authenticity (i.e., whether it is the product of the maker whose label or signature it bears) can only be determined through comparative study of design, model wood characteristics, and varnish texture. This expertise is gained through examination of hundreds or even thousands of instruments, and there is no substitute for an experienced eye.

Appraisals of instruments are done for Insurance or Fair Market Value purposes. The difference between the two appraisals is that an Insurance Appraisal will generally be for a higher amount--this allows the owner of the instrument to replace it with an instrument of like value, if the insured instrument is destroyed, whereas a Fair Market Value is the amount that an instrument should be sold for between two individuals.

With an Insurance Appraisal, previous repairs have less to do with the instrument's replacement value. If a violin has a repaired crack or a non original scroll and you lose the violin, you are not going to go shopping for another violin with a repaired crack and replaced scroll. Unlike the Insurance Appraisal, the Fair Market Value Appraisal takes in all of the factors that affect price, especially condition. With this in mind, a violin with an Insurance Appraisal could be valued at $2000.00 but have a Fair Market Value of $500.00. A person will ask for this type of appraisal if he or she is selling the instrument or looking to buy the instrument from someone.  What you pay for an instrument has little to do with the Insurance Appraisal Value.

In general, the newer an instrument is, the better the condition it is in, and the "cleaner" the provenance; the closer the Insurance and Market Value will agree with each other.  When you purchase an instrument at most violin stores, the price you pay is based on the Fair Market Value, not the Insurance Value. In addition, when you purchase an instrument from most violin stores, an Insurance appraisal is usually available for that instrument at no charge. Appraisals should clearly state which version of appraisal you are getting and should be prepared using guidelines from the Appraisers Association of America.

Please note: Due to the numerous factors involved in determining an instrument's value, any good violin store will only offer appraisals (written and verbal) for instruments physically seen in the store. Photographs of an instrument or a description of the label do not provide enough information about the instrument to accurately determine a value, nor are they usually enough to say where the instrument was made or who may have made it.  Any such statements would simply be a best guess based on the limited information provided.  If you wish to have an evaluation of an instrument, we recommend bringing the instrument into a reputable violin store near you for identification, it is always best to have an instrument seen in person to determine its age and value. There are so many makers of instruments and no individual violin appraiser can ever know them all. Sometimes all that can be determined about an instrument is the country of origin and approximately when it was made.  A good appraiser will know his limitations and not give an opinion on more that what he knows to be sure.

 

There has been much written about violin fraud and fictitious labels being placed inside instruments. The label that appears inside an instrument may have little to do with its actual origins. It only takes moments to place a label into a violin. There are many books with actual reproductions of labels, like those above, in them that many unscrupulous violin dealers or individuals have copied and inserted inside violins. The true appraiser will only look at the label after they have determined the most likely origins of the instrument. The inserted label may confirm the appraisers opinion but rarely will sway it. 

Reminder - A violin's authenticity (i.e., whether it is by the name on the label) can only be determined by comparing it to know examples of the makers workmanship, wood characteristics, and varnish texture. This expertise is obtained over many years of examination of hundreds or thousands of instruments, there is no substitute for an experienced eye.  This knowledge can't be summed up in a few lines of text or even pages of text.

Serial numbers - Serial numbers weren't typically used in violins until the mid-1900's and even dates were only sometimes added to labels. Often times the same people that were making violins that were labeled with one name, were making other models for the same or different exporters, the same model might even be sold with two or more different labels to different exporters, maybe with just a different varnish. Companies also purchased the instruments unvarnished from many different small output makers, and then varnished them in-house so they would all have a similar look.  Often times these labels weren't inserted until they arrived in the US (all that was required by import laws was a country of origin and possible the words - "Made In"- see below). Serial numbers in violins also in general denoted lower quality as it implied mass production rather than being hand made in the cottage industry like many violins were made.   A few makers did add dates and/or serial numbers, but they were generally the top tier ones such as Roth. Many times you will find that the dates added were not correct anyway as the maker predated the instruments by a few decades or just used the same pre-printed labels for many years. Some wholesalers in the US did include serial numbers starting somewhat earlier than the 1950's. As they were selling directly to the dealers, the instruments were always known exactly what they were. Typically violins were made to denote a model and the actual maker was of secondary importance. So, if your violin has a serial number, it is almost certainly a post-1900 or even 1950 instrument.

There may be some clues on a label that make it very evident that an instrument is not as labeled. Rarely would someone insert a label of a lesser makers work in an instrument. So you won't see a JTL label in a high end Roth. Although I have seen a few deflated value labels inserted to make it cheaper/easier to get them into the US.

Before jumping to the conclusion that you have a rare violin by one of the great masters, consider the following because the chance is extremely high that you don't.  In the end. the best way to know is to take your instrument to a violin shop to have it looked at in person.

What is Printed on the Label 

If its label says that it was made in the 1500’s - 1800's and it has any blue ink on it--blue ink was not invented until the early 1900’s, so it would have been made or at least labeled after that time.

In 1891 the McKinley Tariff Act was put into law which required that items that were imported into the United States be marked with the country of origin. Also, if the label includes any English, it was made for the US market - the vast majority of the European factory instruments were made for export to the US. 

In 1914 this act was revised to require that the words "Made in" be used.

Once again in 1921 the act was revised to require that the country of origin name be in English.

By Country 

Japan - A violin labeled "Made in Japan" was probably made after 1921. Prior to 1921, instruments most likely have been labeled "Made in Nippon."  After WWII (1945-1952), during the US occupation of Japan; items made for export were marked "Made in Occupied Japan" or perhaps "Occupied Japan." 

Chinese violins were usually labelled simply as “China” if made in the period 1891 to 1949 or post 1978. “Republic of China” if made from 1949 to 1978, or sometimes “People’s Rep. of China” in the 1970s.

Germany - Violins labeled "Made in Germany" are most likely manufactured between 1921 and 1939.  After the split of Germany until its reunification in the 1990's, labels were marked "Made in West Germany" or "Made in East Germany." This basically means, if your "attic" violin says that it is an Antonio Stradivari 1707, but it also says "Made in Germany," the violin is obviously NOT an authentic Stradivari, but a factory-made copy. If it is marked Made in West Germany or just West Germany, it was made between 1949 and 1990. There are some instruments that were made in Occupied Germany in the 40's and 50's that still say "Made in Germany".

Label says “Italia” or “Deutschland”– made from 1891-1914

Label says “Made in Italia” or “Made in Deutschland”– made from 1914-1921

Label says “Made in Italy” – made after 1921

Label says “Made in Germany” – made from 1921-1939 or post 1990.  From 1939-1945 instruments did not flow out of Europe due to the war and only trickled out from 1945-1949. Some of these were made in Germany by were taken across the border and exported from Czechoslovakia or Austria.

Label says “Made in West Germany” or “Made in East Germany” – made from 1950-1990.

Label says "U.S. Zone" or US Zone Made in Germany” it's from 1945 to 1950

 If your label says simply "Saxony" or “Saxony law” it’s probably post-1891, but before 1914. Before 1891 it might say Sachsen. 

Label says “Made in Czechoslovakia” - from 1918-1993.  It was spelled Czechoslovakia from (1921–1993) It was spelled Checoslvacia or Cecho-Slowakia from 1918-1921. 

Label says “Made in Bohemia” made from 1914-1918 when Czech and Slovaks state was formed, just Bohemia from 1891-1914

Label say “Made in the Czech Republic” made after 1993

For more on Strad and Guarneri labels, see the section above.

    Note: Keep in mind that the country of origin did not have to be part of the main label, and often it was on a second label inserted by the first. That way, no mater where the instrument was to be exported to, it was easy to oblige any specific countries laws. Sometimes this second label has been removed and other clues need to be applied. Also, since an instrument sold in Europe did not have the same import rules, some of those instruments that have been brought to the US in more recent years, may not adhere to these principles. Again, it is best to have it seen by a professional.

The look of a label.

In addition to what is written on a label, how the label looks is just as important.  

   Prior to around 1850, labels were primarily made form what is called "laid paper". This was a technique that uses linen fibers from old rags, The fibers were divided by size and color and put in a water bath.  The fibers were then screened and let to dry, the paper was rarely an even thickness. Once the fibers were dry, this formed the "paper" and the wire screen left an imprint in the paper. Old paper violin labels will never be really smooth and white. The print was also hand done with lead type, like old books and newspapers were printed and this the type was pressed to the paper.. The pressure from the press would leave the printing slightly indented and the ink that was used would not run in the paper leaving a very crisp and clean outline.  

Here is a piece of laid paper from a manuscript from the mid 1700's showing the screen lines. 

 

   After 1850, labels were more likely made from wood pulp.  This "Woven" paper will not have those screen lines and the type is less clear.  The paper makers, in order to keep the ink from running, sized the paper with alum. Over time, this acidic alum coating made the labels less stable. These labels were thus more prone to curling and changing color (browning unnaturally).

So an appraiser will look at the color of the label, both the wood and the label on a very old violin will darken. Edges of a label on a more modern instrument may curl up exposing a lighter shade of wood beneath, sometimes a clue that the wood was treated to make it look older than it is. Sometimes a label will appear to have been removed, often a second line will appear where a bigger or different location label had been, sometimes a label is removed for a repair or when an instrument has been re-graduated.   

However, on a well planned out forgery, it is not impossible to get old paper to print a fake label on and modern laid paper is still made. 

Some Label Terms
TermMeaningExample
faciebat, fece, fecit or me fecitmade, finishedme fecit - "made me" or "made by"
annoin the yearFaciebat Anno 1717 = "Made in the year 1717."
etand 
in or ain or ofin Mittenwald
alumnusstudent of 
neposdescendant of 
nachafter, i.e., copy of 
sub titulopatron saint
Fr. or fraterbrother of 
filiusson of 

 

Neck Grafts:  By about 1820 or as late as 1840 most old violins, except those with the original old style baroque necks still in them, have had neck grafts. Around 1780 the pitch that the orchestra was tuned to, changed from around 420 Htz., after this time most necks were changed out.  This pitch has gradually been raised, it has been as high as 450 Htz, but the standard is 440. Because of the higher tension from the strings, the neck needed to be made longer and set in at a different angle, in addition to some internal changes. These changes didn't happen over night, but it means that if your (non baroque set up) violin does not have a neck graft, it was most likely made after 1820-1840 no matter what it says inside. Sometimes these grafts are easily seen and other times they are hard to see, there are also many instruments with fake grafts, done to make the instrument look older than it is. There are some old instruments where the entire neck and scroll has been replaced for various reasons and these are a little harder to detect.  As always, the instrument should be looked at by a professional to ascertain its age and value.

 

 A lot of especially old instruments have had their edges built up, so it might look like the instrument is made from laminated wood.  

There are other ways to tell an instruments age, but they get into some very close up examination by someone that truly knows what they are looking for, not things that a novice could identify by a few lines of text here and where an informed interpretation will need to be made.

Nothing beats an opinion from a professional and if you ask one that doesn't do this, find another.  But keep in mind that if an appraiser isn't willing to make a statement of origin, they just might not be able to say with 100% certainty.  

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