Stradivari’s fabled “Messiah” three centuries on: The most controversial violin in History?

Antonio Stradivari’s “Messiah” made in 1716 is simultaneously the best preserved of all his instruments in existence, and an example from the height of his “Golden Period”. Owing to it’s new-like condition, it was donated to the Ashmolean Museum in 1940 by the firm of W.E. Hill & Sons to become a benchmark for future makers. Despite their high hopes for it, its usefulness has been overshadowed by rumour and legend. Benjamin Hebbert writes to encourage makers to put their doubts aside and embrace it as an encyclopaedic reference to Stradivari’s working methods, and explains how dispassionate forensic science stands shoulder to shoulder with traditional connoisseurship in providing certainty of attribution.  

Every musical instrument kept behind glass has it’s own controversy, as demand for them to be heard conflicts with the museum curator’s responsibility to preserve. With many instruments this is mitigated by their antiquity, obsolescence, and fragile state of preservation but in the world of great violins where seemingly identical instruments are vied for by the leading musicians of the day, this can become a particularly emotive point. Across the world, the famous concert violins of Fritz Kreisler, Nicolo Paganini, Pierre Rode, Delphin Alard and Ole Bull sit silent – or largely so, but none receive quite the same attention as Stradivari’s 1716 masterpiece, the “Messiah”. Fabled as the greatest of all Stradivari’s violins – whatever that means – it was gifted to the the nation and placed in the Ashmolean Museum by W.E. Hill & Sons in 1940 on the express condition it never be played, and with strict restrictions on access which mean that even most violin experts and makers won’t have the chance to hold it in their hands, and study it meaningfully outside of its glass case. For those who want to understand more about its predicament as a silent relic, my 2013 position paper written with the encouragement of the Ashmolean Museum was published by Oxford Today and can be read here: Caged Messiah

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Patently not what we imagine when we think of a great violin from 300 years ago. Stradivari’s 1716 Messiah.

Such situations inspire emotion and ultimately this must add fuel to the controversy over  whether the instrument is genuine or not. Since word of the existence of the violin first reached Parisian violin dealers in the 1820s, it’s existence and authenticity has been shrouded by scepticism. By this point, almost a century after Stradivari’s death, few of his violins had survived without suffering significant wear as a result of how they were played, and the fragility of the varnish. Luigi Tarisio, the violins owner from 1827 boasted of its existence to the amazement of the Parisian trade, but never brought it with him, leading the violinist Delphin Alard to proclaim  ‘Truly your violin is like the Messiah of the Jews: one always expects him but he never appears’. Thus the violin was baptized with the name by which it is still known. Long before Tarisio died in 1854 thanks to his many trips to Paris, the legend of a remarkable, uniquely preserved Stradivari violin from the height of his Golden Period was strong within dealing circles, so when Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume heard of his death and travelled in secret to Turin to secure Tarisio’s collection of violins, it was as if his reputation rode on his ability to secure the crown jewel of all violin making come what may. As some have suggested, the significance of owning the Messiah was so great for Vuillaume, that he had to return to Paris with it whether it existed or not. From thereon the legend was not subject to whether such a violin existed, but whether it was real of fake.


Whatever rumours abounded in the nineteenth century, the violin is harder to comprehend with modern eyes. Alongside Vuillaume’s own copies, the Messiah inspired a wealth of other makers, and in turn it inspired cheaper more mass produced instruments. It’s influence is easy to see in the work of J.B. Colin-Mezin, and into various instruments by the enormous Jerôme Thibouville-Lamy enterprise that produced tens of thousands of instruments for export around the turn of the century. Even preposterously antiqued violins of the Caussin workshop often show a basic Messiah template as the starting point, whilst the essential design passed into factory made instruments of the Far-East: There are simply millions of violins, good and bad that are derived from the Messiah. Many times we hear of it characterised as a “French violin”, but one has to remember that every French violin that looks like it was made after 1854.

The problem is magnified further in the Ashmolean Museum, where inevitably it stands out glowing red amongst a room of gently worn and faded instruments. In fact, it is rivalled in condition by other instruments, Nicolo Amati’s 1649 “Alard” in particular, but they lack the fiery red colour so unique to the Messiah, yet so reminiscent of many of the instruments copied from it. These reasons make it difficult for the modern eye to accept the Messiah without question. It is too complicated an instrument too isolated in its environment to sit comfortably at first glance.

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It is easy to see how the Messiah contrasts disturbingly against the subdued colours of other violins in the collection, Brothers Amati 1618, Nicolo Amati “Alard” 1649, The Messiah, Giovanni Maria c.1580, and Antonio Stradivari “Cipriani Potter” 1683.

It is easy to see why doubt persists, although in many ways the modern viewer is in a better position to judge the instrument than most people who pursued rumour in the last hundred years. We forget that from 1890 until 1931 it was almost constantly in the hands of private collectors, and only with the W.E. Hill & Sons for nine years before it was given to the nation. In the early days at the Ashmolean, display was difficult. The Hill Room, when it was built in 1950 was seldom open, being reserved for special appointment, and with lighting intended to preserve the tapestries that hung on the wall: The lighting was so bad that a scurilous rumour spread around the museum community that the Messiah’s varnish had been bleached by over exposure because it looked so unappealing in that context. It wasn’t until 2009 that anyone could visit the Messiah unfettered and not until 2014 that it  could be observed in a properly lit case for the first time. The first high quality colour photographs of the violin were produced in 1997 by Stewart Pollens in an abortive exploration to publish a revised catalogue of the collection. Afterwards, The Strad Magazine’s poster, published in their special edition in 2011, really the very first time that makers and experts without access to Oxford were able to examine the Messiah in any meaningful detail (read my article from that edition here). Buy the poster here.

Between 1997 and 2000 stirrings were afoot concerning the Messiah, leading to a front-page exposure in the Sunday Times. Stewart Pollens, a distinguished instrument scholar and Associate Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had made preliminary investigations towards producing a catalogue of the collection. He was already well acquainted with Cremonese archives having documented The Violin Forms of Antonio Stradivari a watershed at the time in bringing Stradivari’s working methods to a wider audience, and his research uncovered many of the apparent inconsistencies in the provenance of the Messiah from the time that it was purportedly in Count Cozio’s hands. Preliminary questions were raised – was this Stradivari the one owned by Cozio or another one? Arguably crucial elements of the violins provenance had been swept under the carpet by complacent dealers and experts raising a variety of possibilities about it.

At the same time, pioneering studies were taking place into the dendrochronology of stringed instruments. In Britain by John Topham and Derek McCormick, and in Germany by Professor Peter Klein. The two methodologies couldn’t have been more different. The Topham-McCormick technique used a gantry mounted microscope to measure the rings non-invasively and the data was fed directly into a computer programme that cross referenced the results against all know sources on the database. By contrast, Klein had already earned a significant reputation for his work on Renaissance oak panel paintings, and was a kind of granfather figure from the very earliest ages of dendrochronology of cultural objects. His measurements were taken directly off the surface of the object using a magnifying lens, and the resulting sequence drawn as a graph onto tracing paper and overlaid on a master chronology until he found a match. When he was sent photographs of an anonymous, new looking violin it is obvious that he would have started his search in the most plausible place, moving back in time. As the dates became less plausible for the objects appearance, he would have placed greater reliance on a fainter resemblance of his sequence fatally settling on a low lying cross match with an outer-ring date of 1738, the year following Stradivari’s death. The consequences were deadly, as this seemed to be the ‘smoking gun’ that gave credibility to the doubts surrounding all questions concerning the Messiah. In 1998 he addressed the Violin Society of America Conference with his findings that the Messiah was a fake. Almost two years later Topham and McCormick fired back with a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Archaeological Science showing their findings of an outer-ring date of 1682 with significant cross matches against other Stradivari violins of undisputed authenticity, showing that the tree was cut down before the Messiah was made. Read here. “Strad Wars” kicked off, as a witty Times reporter dubbed it.

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Shortly afterwards the Violin Society of America commissioned a group of independent climatological scientists to arbitrate between the two results. Their exercise vindicated the Topham-McCormick’s result (Read here), and no one has since been able to replicate the 1738 date, or the purported cross match with the “Lord Wilton” that followed. Whilst Klein retracted his findings, Pollens remained convinced that other questions remained to be answered. It was remotely possible that Vuillaume had acquired a specimen of Stradivari’s wood, whilst an over reliance on Cozio’s notebooks treated them like notarised deeds of ownership rather that the ad hoc collection of drafts produced over many years that they were. I very much doubt that Cozio’s writings are anything more than circumstantial evidence, however compelling they are, but whilst they may raise issues of provenance, which had been swept under the carpet and deserved to be revisited with a critical eye, they did not raise issues of authorship and attribution. Whatever the history of the Messiah, sometimes Ockham’s Razor is a useful tool – Where there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the simpler one is usually better – the possibility of a second near perfect Stradivari from the height of the Golden period hiding out of sight until Vuillaume needed it to fulfil a legend is less probable than accepting warts-and-all documents of from a dilettante with a wandering mind. Nevertheless, there was always pressure on the Messiah which would have trickled on forever. We should be grateful for Stewart Pollens for opening Pandora’s Box as widely as it could. It paved the way to explore the questions and inconsistencies about the violin and about its provenance. For good or for bad, “Strad Wars” was timely and much needed.


For a while, dendrochronology was the casualty of the debate, with seemingly disparate dates available for the same tree. No one has been able to replicate the 1738 date with any statistical validity, whilst suddenly an enormous range of home-grown dendrochronologists started offering a bizarre range of dates despite 1682 being supported by an independent panel of experts. Whilst professionals in the violin trade knuckled down to understand exactly what was going on, conspiracy theorists sought to bypass the inconvenient truth of the matter, fixating on the idea that independent dendrochronologists had found divergent dates rather than questioning the circumstances. Over the years accusations rumbled on. The spectre of a world-wide mafia with much to lose if the instrument was fake reared its head. It was even suggested that in collusion with the Ashmolean the Hills had added a painted “G” mark to the interior of the pegbox sometime after 1997 to help the instrument’s authenticity. Nonetheless by 2011 the last serious word had been spoken. The year before, Stewart Pollens had published Stradivari with Cambridge University Press. Alongside one of the most useful and exhaustive analysis of Stradivari’s life, he set out his final arguments. This was followed in short order by the Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum, in many ways the first comprehensive published argument to put the record straight.

Despite all odds, new breeds of conspiracy theorists continued to evolve under the illusion that they have something to say, and by 2015 the Messiah had reached a similar status in the public eye as Shakespeare’s true identity, Area 51, or believers in the Da Vinci Code. No one could have guessed that someone would produce the most tedious book ever written on the violin. The assumption, strong as always that the house of cards would come tumbling down when the Messiah was exposed as a fake remained.

Meanwhile sensible things were happening. In 2013 the leading violin expert, Charles Beare was able to mount an extraordinary exhibition of Stradivari’s works at the Ashmolean in which the Messiah took centre stage. The catalogue can be purchased here. The Messiah may be the most complete in terms of it’s preservation, but that does not mean that other instruments don’t share the same purity and features in part here and there. The result was to create a nexus of some of the finest surviving Stradivari instruments, the inner circle of which all contributed directly towards analysing the Messiah from a connoisseurly point of view with an outer circle that helped to place them in a broader, firmer context. Many times since, I have heard it said that “if you were at the 2013 exhibition you could not have failed to be impressed by the similarities between the Messiah and the other violins as to leave you in no doubt of its authenticity.” It pains me to hear that, because although it is absolutely right, by now a generation of Violin Making students have passed through college and many other people across the world with opinions to spill never got to experience the event. It was a unique and extraordinary experience for those who were there at the time. I spent fifteen whole days in the exhibition, with time aside to rest my eyes.

The Messiah back in Cremona 300 years on.

The tercentenary of the violins birth in 2016 allowed it back to Italy for the first time, to be displayed in Cremona in an exhibition curated by Gregg Alf. I had to question my sanity in taking two trips to Italy and the number of times I revisited a violin that I had studied so long in the ten-or-so years I lived in Oxford, but the joy of seeing it amongst three of the finest specimens of Vuillaume’s copying was superb. Back in 2012 Ingles & Hayday (then Sotheby’s musical instrument department) had mounted a superb exhibition of Vuillaume’s work and I had spent three of four days ritually taking notes and returning in the afternoon to Oxford to compare my observations against the Messiah – just as I had with the Vuillaume’s vaunted Evangelist Quartet, but there is nothing quite like seeing the same things in the same room. Just as important were Giuseppe Rocca’s copies of the Messiah – crude, yet distinctive that were made in Turin when it was owned by Luigi Tarisio, confirmation of the history of the violin prior to 1854 that was conveniently overlooked by conspiracy theorists at large.  Better still, the Museo del Violino had enabled the Messiah to undergo unrivalled scientific study. The Absolute Stradivari: The Messie violin 1716-2016 and the associated study day comprised the fruits of this study. It summarised some of Brigitte Brandmair’s excellent work on varnish, and revisited John Topham’s dendrochronological studies over a decade after they had first been published, and led to some gems in the most unexpected corners that significantly added to our knowledge of things. As I left the study day, one thing that had been left unsaid was the corroborative quality of different strands of evidence.

In 2017 I was honoured to be able to be chairman and organiser of the Messiah 301 conference at Oxford for the British Violin Making Association with the blessing of the Ashmolean Museum, and just as importantly the blessing of the Museo del Violino. It was an opportunity to reconvene the most important papers of their study day, and combine them with other missing parts of the story: If people persist on thinking the violin is by Vuillaume, lets invite someone – Bruce Carlson – who has restored both Vuillaumes and Stradivaris to offer his opinion on their varying construction. Lets ask Jean-Jacques Rampal, as the effective descendant of Vuillaume’s legacy to teach us more about Vuillaume’s workshop. With a year to digest, what could Carlo Chiesa tell us about Count Cozio’s Carteggio, and specifically about the questions raised over it. But most importantly what was the impact of the forensic evidence that had been put forward?

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Here was the very heart of the issue as I understood it. To put it frankly (time to put your tinfoil hat on, if you may), the authenticity of the Messiah as a purely connoisseurly judgement comes down to the experience of seeing and recalling many other Stradivaris, (and many instruments that are not Stradivaris), in order to be able to make a judgement. People who have invested enough time and expertise in the question tend to have a vested interest in the subject, because – it can be argued, they are a part of the mafia, the global conspiracy that has much to lose if they are wrong. Hence, the perfect conspiracy theory follows that the harder you argue that it is genuine, the more you appear to have a vested interest: Much like the United States Government trying to argue that there are no aliens in a secret bunker in Area 51 – the more they deny it, the more they are doing what the conspiracy theorists expect them to do, yet they cannot rationally do otherwise.

In the end this can become a race to the bottom, with one persons word against another, with one person picking apart the inconsistencies of what another seems to have said until the argument becomes abstracted beyond recognition from the original question and the winner is the one with the greater stamina: Somebody in America around the end of the nineteenth century wrote “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” That somebody may have been Mark Twain, although it’s delightfully poetic that scholars of American literature contest to this day whether it is an authentic quote of his or not.

What attracted me in curating most of all in the Oxford conference was that it was seemingly possible to provide enough separate threads of highly credible forensic evidence for a scientific argument to stand shoulder to shoulder with a conventional connoisseurly judgement. Dendrochronology, Varnish Analysis and the results of CT Scans all provided highly credible evidence of their own, but put together it seemed that they had the scientific weight to test a secure conviction, a scenario that seemed arguably to be possible for the first time in the history of violin expertise.

My own experience with Dendrochronology harks back to Student days, and my baptism of fire in 2000 was to be sitting immediately in front of Stewart Pollens when John Topham was giving his paper to demonstrate his technique at a conference in Edinburgh. I’d followed all sides of the story with great interest, and my respect for Stewart was all the more after spending a year’s fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve always had taken his questions sincerely and seriously, even if I found myself disagreeing with his conclusions. I had seen how dendrochronology had developed and the power of cross matching instruments against each other. With thousands of instruments on four independent databases across Europe the technique was beyond infancy and able to yield profoundly informative forensic detail. John’s work by this point had been able to demonstrate statistical groupings of Stradivari’s wood use, placing the Messiah’s 1716 date as consistent with those instruments that resembled it closest from a scientific point of view. You can review his work in The Absolute Messiah, and the high quality of data that it yields after many years of adding to the database after the initial findings of 2000. Meanwhile, the more recent presentation by Peter Ratcliff, another excellent dendrochronologist surrounds a particularly strong match between wood of the Messiah and the 1717 Wilhelmj Stradivari gives the best insight to date into the nature and reliability of dendrochronology. If you want to understand dendrochronology for yourself, this video is indispensable.

My luck had allowed me to be an intermediary for Brigitte Brandmair and Jan Röhrmann in the production of the Stradivari Varnish project  back in 2009 along with Stefan Peter Greiner, enabling me to gain a first hand understanding of the process and them to  access to the Ashmolean Museum and to our surprise to being able to involve the Messiah in the project as we thought the rules would be too strict to allow it. Brigitte, a conservation scientist with a background in guitar making, had observed a characteristic layer between the wood and the varnish that was identifiable under Ultraviolet light at magnification, that was common to Classical Italian Instruments of Cremona, Brescia and closely related schools, but not present elsewhere. At the most basic level Vuillaume’s instruments did not respond under Ultraviolet in the same manner with the Messiah  was consistently Cremonese, with this intermediary layer simply not detectable with nineteenth century technology, removing the possibility that the instrument could have been made outside of the Classical Cremonese system.

Lastly Gregg Alf had overseen CT Scanning of the instrument, allowing us a detailed look into it’s construction methods, both making it easier to observe elements that were difficult under normal conditions, and providing new ways to see things that may have been completely impossible without taking the instrument apart. Mysteries like the lack of iron stain on the neck, leading to the belief that there were no nails in the neck were dispelled in an instant, but of the varied observations, his ability to digitally place Stradivari’s existing PG mould into the ribs was of extraordinary importance. Although the mould form was predicatable (Stewart Pollens had first noted it after writing his authoritative book on Stradivari’s moulds and patterns), the vacant areas for the blocks are randomly cut, providing six block shapes – and essentially fourteen reference points aligned, showing that the violin had been made from that unique mould. Along with such elements as the scratch marks from Stradivari’s sound hole placement, demonstrably not practiced by Vuillaume and others, the CT Scans provided another compelling strand of evidence with which to assess the Messiah.


Benjamin Hebbert, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, (Colin Harrison missing). The team for the Oxford Conference.

The Oxford conference could not have been done without the energies of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Brigitte’s, John’s and Gregg’s research is published in The Absolute Stradivari by the museum in Cremona. However, at Oxford we were able to advance the point a crucial element further. In this instance, we could show three separate strands of forensic science that were able to deliver independently supportive evidence towards the authenticity of the Messiah as 1) A violin of classical Cremonese making 2) made using the same precise wood source used by Stradivari around the year 1716 3) made in his workshop using techniques familiar to him and using moulds belonging to Antonio Stradivari that still survive in the Museo del Violino. This has the equivalence of finding the fingerprint evidence, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print at the scene of the crime and the boot that matches it. The case for a solid conviction based on forensic evidence that is completely independent from traditional connoisseurship arguments was compelling, and for probably the first time a compelling case for authorship could be put from a forensic point alone.

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Fingerprints, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print and the boots to match. The Forensic basis for authenticating the Messiah sits shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional connoisseurship.

This leaves unanswered questions. Who in the Stradivari workshop made it? John Dilworth, an expert I admire greatly has put forward a supposition that it is the hand of the young Giovanni Baptista Martino Stradivari, the great hope to succeed his father who died prematurely in 1727.  I argue that in a busy workshop that included at least three sons, and the occasional presence of Carlo Bergonzi and others, there were times when the senior hand would have to make a violin from start to finish to assert his authority. The chamfers on the scroll hark back to the violins of the 1680s and 1690s when Antonio Stradivari was working alone, and perhaps this is the rarest of all treasures, a genuine golden period Strad made entirely by Antonio. Whatever the reason, it made it special enough to be passed through the Stradivari line to Paolo Stradivari, the grandson who sold it pristine to Count Cozio. These are the a priori propositions whose plausibility is only cancelled out by the plausibility of the other and do nothing to diminish the essential truth of a violin made in the Stradivari workshop in 1716.

Do I think controversy will ever die? Probably not. It’s preservation unplayed in near perfect condition is a preposterous contradiction to the violins we are used to seeing, but those are the same reasons that the 1820s Paris trade was in awe of the tantalising possibility that it could exist. Growing to understand it is an essential journey for any violin maker seeking to understand Stradivari at his best and purest, but that has to start with disbelief and incredulity which means that generations of upcoming violin makers will never cease to question it as they approach it for the first time. Delphin Alard may have named it because “one always expects him but he never appears”. In the 21st century I think the Messiah is an even more appropriate name because of the test of faith that it presents. Nevertheless we now have the tools to put forward a compelling rational scientific argument in its favour devoid of the emotional nature of connoisseurly judgement.

As far as the Ashmolean Museum is concerned, they are only interested in the truth.



My thanks to the Museo del Violino in Cremona, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Stewart Pollens, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, John Dilworth Colin Harrison, Charles Beare, and everyone who has every looked at the Messiah with me on more visits than I can admit of.


The Violin Maker of Cremona

MARY PICKFORD’S starring role in The Violin Maker of Cremona comes at a time in the development of the silent movies where film producers were finding their feet, and the American love-affair with rare Italian violins was just beginning.

We often blame the economic collapse of Europe following the first World War as the moment that the American market for fine violins emerged. To a point there is truth in this, as European financial desperation contrasted with the the burgeoning American economy of the interwar years. Even America’s great depression of the 1930s was a relatively short-term crisis especially for America’s wealthy, by comparison to Europe’s post-war financial strain, and the overall sustaining wealth of the American market drew fine instruments in ever greater numbers towards its shores. However violin-mania in America was rooted far further back. It is even alleged that the city of Pittsburgh was founded on land that was swapped in exchange for a Jacob Stainer violin back in the early 1800s.


“The most wonderful price ever paid, taken at it’s present value, was given for a Steiner violins – 1,500 acres of land, on which a large part of the city of Pittsburgh now stands, were exchanged for one in the early part of this century.” From The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art. (New York, May 1872.) 

OleBullLater, the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull made his American debut in 1843, touring with a fabulous collection of rare and exquisite violins. His repeated tours to the country eventually led to his establishment of an ill-fated colony of New Norway on 11,000 acres of land he acquired in Pennsylvania in 1852 (the capital was named Oleana). Aged sixty in 1868, he married the 20 year old Sarah Chapman Thorp of Madison, Wisconsin before returning to Norway in the 1870s. If any single influence can be identified in the development of violin mania in the United States, the responsibility would seem to be his.

From the other end of the cultural spectrum (and somewhat paradoxically), the establishment of Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1886 played an enormous role in broadening the collective consciousness in America for fine violins and other objects of European culture that had previously appeared distant and unobtainable. The enormous mail order operation grew out of industrialised European and American manufacture, and for violins it drew upon the mass-production german musical instrument making from the town of Markneukirchen in Saxony. The trade with America was so vast in scale, that although the population was only 6,652 in 1890, from 1893 until America joined the First World War there was a United States Consulate established there to facilitate export of musical instruments. The sense of variety offered by German factory fiddles, made to endless classical designs, and identified by imitation labels of the great Cremonese makers of the past, provided endless potential for mail order companies to create a mystique about the violin. Within a generation the names of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati became familiar across violin-playing America.

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Royal de Forest Hawley’s 1737 “King” Giuseppe del Gesu, as illustrated in George Hart’s History of the Violin.

Following in the footsteps of Ole Bull, an agricultural machine supplier from Hartford in Connecticut ended up becoming a significant influence on the American market. The unlikely name of this figure was Royal de Forest Hawley, whose journeys to Europe brought him in contact with George Hart who supplied the majority of his enormous collection of fine violins. Hawley had intended to publish a history of the violin and his collection had been hand picked to provide an encyclopaedic spectrum of classical violin making. His death in 1893 allowed the Chicago firm of Lyon & Healy to acquire the entire collection, plus the manuscript which they published in 1904 as The Hawley Collection of Violins: With a History of Their Makers and a Brief Review of the Evolution and Decline. Whatever Hawley’s ambitions may have been, for Lyon & Healy, their acquisition of the collection and launch of the book established their reputation as America’s eminent dealer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Stradivari violins were rare in the United States. Hawley’s own collection contained the 1722 Earl and the 1723 Healy, both made outside of the Golden period. The crown-jewel of the collection was the 1737 King Joseph Guarneri del Gesu and Cremonatone copies of this violin (Lyon & Healy model G.1125) appear from this period celebrating the greatest violin in America.

On one hand the phenomenon of rare Italian violins was heavily entrenched in the American musical psyche. On the other, an awareness of the rarity of these instruments underlines how few had made their permanent home outside of Europe. Even in the 1930s Stradivari’s work was so rare in the United States that there was serious concern that they would not be heard unless examples were secured for the nation through it’s cultural institutions. Mrs Annie Bolton Matthews Bryant donated the 1694 Francesca and the 1711 Antonius to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for that purpose in 1933, and two years later the Library of Congress received it’s quartet from Mrs Gertrude Clark Whittall (ironically with the changing agendas of cultural institutions, these are now amongst the least played Stradivaris in the world).

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Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffiths, the million dollar partners. 

In the early days of the silent screen, film producers were grappling with to find subject matter that would provide them with commercial success. Tensions existed between the concept of a new art form, and an increasing realisation of the attraction of the cinema for the mass market. In 1909 when David W. Griffith produced The Violin Maker, the format of slap-stick silent movies that would propel the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to world-iconic status was almost unimagined. Instead film companies sought to build their artistic legitimacy within already established traditions. Cinematography grew out of the realism that existed amongst the literary and artistic movements that followed the pre-Raphaelites in painting, and responded to the challenge to visual art that had been established by the birth of photography in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The same choices to involve subjects that related to real life were referential to the emerging American literature, which took Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irvine as it’s founding fathers. This wasn’t simply the pretensions of dramatists and movie moguls to be compared alongside the literary, artistic and dramatic icons of their day, but it allowed early film to combine short dramatic adventure for a culturally aspirational society as a source of enrichment.


D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer in 1920

David W. Griffith’s output in the early years was extraordinary. As a failed playwright, he began his acting career with Edison Studios in 1907 after they rejected one of his manuscripts, and in the following year joined the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. By chance, Biograph’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon fell ill, and his son proved an unsuccessful successor, providing Griffith with the chance for success. Following The Adventures of Dollie. The film was a ‘lemon’, nevertheless he progressed to direct forty-eight further short films in 1908, more than 170 in 1909 and a total of 532 films before the end of his career in 1931. With the realisation that sound and film went together, it seems that an exploration of the violins potential was strong in the ideology of Biograph, and Griffith produced three films between 1909 and 1910 in which the violin featured prominently in the title. The Message of the Violin in 1910 is lost, and given it’s rather slushy title that may be no loss to history. The Voice of the Violin produced in 1909 is a contemporary story of romance and anarchy, making light of the threats offered by the new radical ideas of Communism that existed within much of the new immigrant population of the United States.


Le Luthier de Crémone, a rival 1909 adaptation of Coppées play by the Pathé brothers (now lost)

Griffith’s 1909 The Violin Maker of Cremona is most important to film buffs because it starred Mary Pickford in her debut role as an actress playing Giannina. For charting the history of the violin market in America it is interesting that the concept of Cremonese violins – however tangentially dealt with – was considered significant enough to have commercial potential as the pretext for an otherwise undistinguished silent film. From a violinistic point of view, however there may have been much more to this film than meets the eye. At first glance the film is an acknowledged adaptation of François Coppée’s 1876 French comedy, Le Luthier de Cremone. The original play was written in verse and as a result had a sustaining literary value beyond the stage performance. Although his critics published numerous parodies of this style, describing his work as ‘chatty comfortable rhymes’, damning them with faint praise as ‘the delight of the enlightened bourgeois of the day’, nevertheless they were widely disseminated and translated into English, Hungarian and German by the 1890s. In 1894 the play formed the basis of an opera by the Hungarian violinist Jeno Hubay, and in 1909 the theme attracted not only Griffith’s adaptation, but a (lost) French interpretation by the Pathé brothers.


Jeno Hubay’s A cremonai hegedūs performed by Franz von Vecsey (click to listen)

Returning to Griffith’s silent film, the choreography is strongly operatic, relying at all times on a small and highly theatrical cast and set at a time when other silent films were trying to be much more naturalistic, taking advantage of the camera’s ability to bring outside environments into the movie theatre, suggesting that it was Hubay’s opera rather than Coppée’s rhyming text that provided the inspiration for the silent film. The Intermezzo to Hubay’s opera in two parts, A cremonai hegedūs lasting approximately 2 minutes was a widely published and performed part of the virtuoso repertoire of the early 20th century (download the music from IMSLP here).

Here’s the silent film… enjoy!

The coming of the ‘Messiah’

175145_10150137319771955_4175646_oWhen Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume visited London in 1872 he caused a considerable fracas amongst British dealers through his antics at the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments held at South Kensington. Benjamin Hebbert examines the circumstances of his visit, and reveals photographs taken of the ‘Messiah’ at the time of the exhibition whilst still in Vuillaume’s possession. First published in the March 2011 ‘Messiah’ issue of The Strad. 

In the early 1870s a controversy erupted in the London violin world, and even the presence in the city of the most celebrated instrument of all could not reconcile those involved. The disagreement was caused by the French violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume whose behaviour in curating an 1872 exhibition of ancient instruments angered several leading figures in the violin trade. Among these was the English novelist and dealer Charles Reade, who was so enraged by Vuillaume’s ungentlemanly conduct that he openly attacked the Parisian in letters to the press. In this sulphurous atmosphere, not even the excitement of seeing the Frenchman’s prized Stradivari violin, the mint-condition ‘Messie’ could diminish the antipathy Reade felt towards its owner.

The Royal Albert Hall and International Exhibition Galleries as they looked in 1871

The Royal Albert Hall and International Exhibition Galleries as they looked in 1871

To commemorate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, a committee was formed to secure the loan of specimens for the Special Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments, an event which was to be hosted at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, the following year. Vuillaume was appointed as part of a Paris-based sub-committee, and was given personal responsibility to ‘superintend the arrangement of the Italian Stringed Instruments’ for this exhibition. The Frenchman was well respected in England and had significant links to the London violin trade where he had bought and sold many antique instruments, and where there was a ready market for his new violins. His influence was felt strongly in the formation of the exhibition and his direct contribution was considerable, the Frenchman loaning four instruments of the highest quality – the ‘Violon du Diable’ by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gésu and, by Stradivari, the ‘Messie’ and ‘La Pucelle’ violins, as well as a 16th century Brescian cittern that he erroneously attributed to Stradivari.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1860.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1860.

Significantly, the exhibition committee did not include any British violin dealer or expert among its 45 members. Whatever reasons surrounded this snub to the British violin trade on it’s own soil, Vuillaume capitalised on it mercilessly in the exhibition catalogue, treating his rivals with appalling contempt. Read and his fellow British dealers John Hart and Georges Chanot each loaned fine instruments to the exhibition, yet Vuillaume described them in the catalogue with nothing more that ‘A VIOLIN, By Straduarius’. In other places he poured doubt on attributions of instruments belonging to rival London dealers, in order to diminish the reputation of the London trade. In one case he wrote acidly, ‘if we may rely on the label inside, by Gaspar di Salo’, and elsewhere ‘ascribed to Guarnerius, probably Storioni’. Simultaneously, he turned the catalogue into a brochure dedicated to his own commercial success, and he devoted detailed descriptions to those instruments in which he had a vested interest, including half a page – the longest description in the entire catalogue – to his beloved ‘Messiah’.

Charles Reade, novelist and violin connoisseur.

Charles Reade, novelist and violin connoisseur.

Charles Reade was justifiably enraged by Vuillaume’s behaviour. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, published on 24 August 1872, he sought to belittle the Frenchman’s contribution by purposely underplaying examples of Stradivari’s golden period, writing simply that ‘for nearly twenty years Stradivari poured forth with unceasing fertility some admirable works, of which you have three fine examples, under average wear, hard wear, and no wear – 90, 92, 91. Please look at the three violins in this order to realised what I have indicated before – that time is no sure measure in this business.’ These numbers referred to ‘La Pucelle’, ‘A VIOLIN. By Straduarius, Lent by Mr. John Hart,’ and the ‘Le Messie’ placing focus on the instrument entirely dismissed by Vuillaume between his two treasures. To render his sabotage more effective, Reade confounded convention by stating that it was not the instruments of the golden period, by those of the 1720s that were of ‘the grandest epoch’.

It is more than likely that the 'Messiah' had first been seen - and heard - in England in 1862, when Vuillaume was juror at the World's Exhibition. Unable to compete because of his office, the violin maker was allowed to make an unofficial presentation of his own creations. These were played against a Stradivari violin he had brought with him from France that had a reputed valuation of 15,000 francs (£600). No mention is made of the identity of this violin, but we can be reasonably certain it was the 'Messiah'.  In 1872 and 1874 both Reade and Carl Engel, the organiser of the South Kensington Exhibition associated this value with the Messiah.

It is more than likely that the ‘Messiah’ had first been seen – and heard – in England in 1862, when Vuillaume was juror at the World’s Exhibition. Unable to compete because of his office, the violin maker was allowed to make an unofficial presentation of his own creations. These were played against a Stradivari violin he had brought with him from France that had a reputed valuation of 15,000 francs (£600). No mention is made of the identity of this violin, but we can be reasonably certain it was the ‘Messiah’. In 1872 and 1874 both Reade and Carl Engel, the organiser of the South Kensington Exhibition associated this value with the Messiah.

On 5 June 1872 The Times had issued a report of the exhibition that focused chiefly on Vuillaume’s contribution and included a rare description of the sound of the ‘Messie’ from its owner: The exhibition is strong in violins, and the musical amateur has such an opportunity as will probably never come to him again of studying the fine lines, the flat surface, and the exquisite varnish and purfling of some of the most precious in Europe – notably M.Vuillaume’s Straduarius ‘La Pucelle,’ so named from its ‘parfait conservation’, and his ‘Le Messie,’ another instrument by the great maker, which has been scarcely played upon since first its strings were knotted in 1716, and still looks brand-new, having been venerated and cherished in glass cases by its successive owners for more than a century and a half. As its happy possessor proudly says, this instrument proves that long-playing is not the secret of the exquisite tones of a Straduarius; for though scarcely played since it left the hands of the great master, the notes of ‘Le Messie’ have all the golden qualities for which his best instruments are renowned – ‘force, moëlleux, rondeur, finess, vibration, facile, ton distinguée, noble, incisive’.

The attention Vuillaume received in the British press again raised Reade’s ire, and in his letter of 24 August he attacked the value of the Frenchman’s connoisseurship with regard to the ‘Violon du Diable’ Guarneri. And while he begrudgingly accepted the importance of the ‘Messiah’, his bitterness against Vuillaume wasn’t spared. ‘There is a  beautiful and very perfect violin by Stradiuarius, which the Times, in an article on these instruments, calls Le Messie,’ he wrote. ‘These leading journalists have private information on every subject, even grammar. I prefer to call it – after the very intelligent man to who we owe sight of it – the Vuillaume Stradiuarius. Well, the Vuillaume Stradiuarius is worth, as times go, £600 at least’.

Unable to criticise the ‘Messiah’, Reade launched a thinly veiled attack on Vuillaume as a maker. ‘As further illustration that violins are heard by the eye,’ he wrote, ‘let me remind your readers of the high prices at which numberless copies of the old makers were sold in Paris for many years’. He elaborates on the chemical processes used to age the wood, concluding that ‘these processes kill the wood as a vehicle of sound; and those copies were, and are, the worst musical instruments Europe has created in this century; and, bad as they are at starting, they get worse every year of their untuneful existence; yet, because they flattered the eye with something like the light and shade and picturesqueness of the Cremona violin, these psuedo-antiquities, though illimitable in number, sold like wildfire, and hundreds of self-decievers heard them by the eye, and fancied these tinpots sounded divinely. the hideous red violins of Bernadel, Gand, and an English maker or two, are a reaction against those copies.’

Yet for all his posturing, Reade was bewitched by the ‘Messiah’; ‘If you could see the Vuillaume Straduarius at night and move it about in the light of a candle, you would be amazed at the fire of the foil and refraction of the light.

Front images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Front images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Back images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Back images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Side images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Side images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Postscript: Publishing this article in 2011 provided the first opportunity to put photographs into the public domain that were taken in London in 1872 during the exhibition. These show ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon Diable’ displayed together in front back and side views. Although these were originally published in a special exhibitors printing of the exhibition catalogue, copies are so rare that we believe these are likely to be the only copies surviving in the public domain. It is notable that no reference has been made to them in recent publications disputing the authenticity of the Messiah, and the ability to see the aged violin photographed in the same frame as two Cremonese instruments of undisputed provenance at the time that they belonged to Vuillaume gives us significant additional evidence that needs to be taken into consideration by those who dispute the authenticity and history of the Ashmolean Museum’s 1716 Stradivari. The violin remained the property of Vuillaume and after his death in 1875 it passed to his heirs who sold it to W.E. Hill & Sons in 1890.



Record Prices of the Past

StradAug2011When the Lady Blunt Stradivari sold by Tarisio in 2011 broke all auction records, Benjamin Hebbert looked back on the market shattering prices of the past for the August 2011 issue of The Strad Magazine. Some years on and we’ve seen further extravagant prices asked for and paid for the world’s finest instruments. The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu was sold against a price tag of $18million, and an eye-watering $40million has been asked for the Stradivari Macdonald viola. Here we take a look at sales that changed the face of the market periodically since the seventeenth century. (A version of this article was published in the Strad Magazine August 2011 issue at the time of the sale of the 1721 Lady Blunt). 

Justus Sustermans portrait of Galileo Galilei painted in 1636 around the time that he was shopping for a violin.  Justus Sustermans portrait of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636

Justus Sustermans portrait of Galileo Galilei painted in 1636 around the time that he was shopping for a violin.

By the beginning of the seventeenth-century connoisseurs of musical instruments began to distinguish between the qualities of new and old specimens. When Galileo sought a violin in 1637-8, his agent reported the advice of claudio Monteverdi. his nephew wished “to send an instrument of exquisite work” which needed time for it’s cremonese maker to “bring it to perfection”. The letter followed on that “he can, however, offer an old one of superlative merit, but the price asked is two ducats more – that is, fourteen. I have requested him to have this one sent at once, irrespective of price”. We can safely assume that the maker was Amati. The superlative statements applied to both the new and old work that was on offer male it clear that amongst Cremonese violins, the advantages of age were already well understood. Meanwhile in England, and before his death in 1626, Sir Francis Bacon expressed the view that “old lutes sound better than new”. Setting a familiar precedent for the violin market that followed, at a time when a professional lutenist might pay two or three pounds for a good instrument, and ten pounds for an exceptional one, antique instruments could make three or four times more. In an exceptional case, King Charles I was reputed to have paid £100 for a prized old lute by the Bolognese maker, Laux Maler.

Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument describing prices of £100 for the lutes of Laux Maler during the reign of Charles I.

Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument describing prices of £100 for the lutes of Laux Maler during the reign of Charles I.

During the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries (a period of negligible inflation), receipts from the Lord Chamberlain’s Account Books of the English Royal Court repeatedly give values between £10 and £12 for violins bought for musicians in the King’s employment, sometimes described as Cremonese. John Bannister, master of the King’s violins returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to learn the French style of playing from Lully, submitting receipts upon his arrival for two Cremona violins at a value of £40. In the previous year another celebrated violinist in London, Thomas Baltzar likewise submitted a receipt for £34 3s 4d to buy a pair of fiddles for the Kings service. These prices seem to reflect the purchase of very special violins, and were a foretaste of what would come as the violin sonata became popular amongst wealthy gentleman amateurs. Before long the prestige of owning the most celebrated violins would drive prices upwards and the rage for Cremonese violins that followed was noted by Thomas Shadwell in 1672 in The Miser, where he noted a ‘Cremonia Violin’ amongst the essential assets of a true lover of music. John Evelyn commented in 1683 that “‘Nor have the Cremona Violins or Loxmollar [Laux Mahler] Lutes been lately of such excessive prices as formerly”. Cremonese violins were escalating in price, and as they increased in popularity increasingly existed in the imagination of a broad population, more diverse than the wealthy elite that owned them.

Charles II's "Private Musick" by J.B. Medina, circa 1662.

The members of Charles II’s “Private Musick” by J.B. Medina painted around 1662. Amongst the sitters, the identities of the two violinists in the foreground are thought to by John Bannister (left) and Thomas Baltzar (right).

An auction in 1692 sets the trend for violin sales in the following century in which violins would be sold. That year, Edward Millington, a prominent auctioneer working at the Vendu in Charles Street advertised ‘A number of curious violins, Cremonia and others’ forming part of a sale of old master paintings. Nothing further is known of the sale, but the reaction of the playwright, Thomas Southerne in the following year may relate to the results of this auction. In The Maids Last Prayer Sir Symphony plausibly remarked ‘Mines a Cremona, and cost me fifty pounds, gentlemen, Pray suspend your curiosity, and come to my chamber, and I’ll resolve you any Question in Musick’.

The earliest record of a violin achieving £100 is found in 1705 when Nicolo Cosimi, a pupil of Arcangelo Correlli resident in London, and an inveterate dealer in instruments sold a violin to Lord Baltimore. For the century that followed, the sum of £100 appears to have remained as a sort of ceiling for the value of violins. In 1774, for example, the Carbonelli sale conducted by Mr Bremner on the Strand achieved 80 guineas for a Stainer of 1668, 60 for another made in 1674, and a mere 30 guineas for a Stradivari. The sale of a significant music collection belonging to John Stanley, and conducted by James Christie in 1786 included a 1617 Amati violin and a Cremona dated 1657. The publicity surrounding the sale and the high prices achieved in the promoted an excitement for violins at auction. The satirist, Peter Pinder wrote one of his Fairwell Odes for the Year 1786 remembering the auction:


In the same year, the playwrights, Elizabeth Inchbald and Thomas Holcroft took the same circumstances to an extreme in the prologue of The Widow’s Vow (needless to remark, the first occasions that a violin auctioneer has appeared either a play or an ode):

Inchbold Holcroft

The justifications for high prices up to the beginning of the twentieth century appear to have been inspired by passion rather than sound economic sense, with the most generous sums paid within very close social groups where one particular instrument had become highly coveted. One such example was a Barak Norman cello belonging to John Crosdill. The Prince of Wales, his pupil, took a liking to the cello and gave several liberal offers for it. Having had all of his offers refused, the prince borrowed the cello for an evening and never returned it. Crosdill was instead allowed to keep an Amati cello that had cost 70 guineas in lieu of it, and given a sinecure place of £100 per year. We don’t know the date of the transaction, but the prince was crowned George IV in 1820, five years before Crosdill’s death leaving a minimum sinecure of £500 on top of the Amati cello. It may have been much more. Yet even with the greatest of instruments, over-pricing could leave an auctioneer severely burnt. This was certainly the case at the Christie’s sale in 1827 comprising instruments belonging to the late Sir William Curtis, one of the great collectors of the day. The Spanish Court viola estimated at 150 guineas failed to take a single bid, and the 1572 King cello by Andrea Amati failed to sell against an eye-watering estimate of 500 guineas. “A document was given to the proprietor when he purchased this instrument, stating that it was presented by Pope Pius V. to Charles IX., King of France, for his chapel. It has been richly painted, the arms of France being on the back, and the motto ‘Pietate et Justitia’ on the sides. The tone of this violoncello is of extraordinary power and richness”. A 1647 Nicolo Amati (now, the Ole Bull) was bought in at 185 guineas, though “justly considered as one of the most beautiful and finest instruments in THE WHOLE WORLD”, and a 1684 Stradivari cello that had been preserved in a crate of cotton for a hundred years, (now the General Kydd) failed to find a buyer at 235 guineas. Remarking upon the period, W. T. Parke recalled in 1830 “That there exists a sort of mania amongst certain connoisseurs in fiddles, (as in regard to pictures,) is not to be doubted, as the following fact will show : Mr. Hay, a former excellent leader of the King’s band of musicians, produced on his favourite violin, made by Klotz, a German, a tone so sweet and powerful, that he had been frequently solicited to part with it, and was, on one occasion, offered for it by a noble lord three hundred pounds in cash, and an annuity, durante vita, of one hundred pounds! Mr. Hay, however, possessing a handsome independence, and not being desirous to part with his instrument, rejected the offer, and dying some years afterwards, this rara avis, at the subsequent sale of effects, produced but forty pounds!”.

Lady Blunt’s purchase of her 1721 Stradivari from Vuillaume in 1864 must count amongst the great prices paid for a violin during the nineteenth century. Vuillaume acknowledged that ‘this fine instrument is absolutely complete, and in an exceptionally rare state of preservation’, setting the price at £260. During this period it was unusual to see a Stradivari sell for much over £150, yet in 1862 and again in 1972 Vuillaume exhibited the Messiah, claiming a value of 15,000 francs (£600). The tremendous differential between the two values can only be explained as part of the myth-making that surrounded the Messiah and Vuillaume’s ownership of it. It is otherwise difficult to justify so large a premium over the price of the Lady Blunt. Passion, mystique, provenance and other intangible elements of human desire continued to define prices for violins during the nineteenth-century at levels far beyond their economic value as raw instruments. Therefore, whilst the Lady Blunt reflects the upper end of a market controlled only by the musical nature of rare violins, examples that had particular personal associations continued to achieve vastly increased prices. “The highest Price ever given for a fiddle was for a Steiner make – by the father of General Neville of Cincinnati, America – he gave 1500 acres of land, worth a dollar per acre – suppose a dollar was worth four shillings (moderate value) £300 – but as the City of Pittsburgh was soon after built in this 1500 acres, how much must the fiddle have cost? The next highest priced was sold in 1856 (14 years ago) at £40 per ounce”. A violin roughly weighs 14 ounces, giving a price of £600.

At the end of the nineteenth-century, the market for rare violins would increase exponentially. The success of dealers such as W.E. Hill & Sons appears to have come about because of rapid movement in the values of great instruments. The Messiah, valued in the 1870s at an unthinkably high 15,000 francs sold in 1890 to Hills for 50,000 francs (£2000) palling earlier prices into insignificance. The late nineteenth-century had witnessed rapidly emerging interest in violins from a cash-rich, largely English middle class which pushed prices ever higher. As the Americans came into the market following the first world war, values would reflect the rapidly growing market. To buy the same violin in the 1920s, Henry Ford believed it was worth offering a blank cheque.

More on the Lady Blunt…

Antonio Stradivari’s Lady Blunt was made in 1721 making it just about the last violin that he made within his ‘golden period’. After the 1716 Messiah it is reckoned to be the finest Stradivari violin in existence, and the finest example outright in private hands. Here it is being graced by Yehudi Menuhin at Sotheby’s in 1971

The violin is accompanied by it’s original bass bar and fingerboard. The original neck is retained and the 19th century modernisation sympathetically raised the heel to give the violin a modern neck angle. The present pegs and tailpiece are by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. No other Stradivari violin – including the Messiah – has as many original parts.


I was in the Musée de la Musique in Paris not very long ago and pondering a group of old fittings once given to the Paris Conservatoire by Vuillaume. I might have been frustrated that one was displayed upside down, but suddenly got that spine-tingling moment of excitement and discovery. The manuscript hand on the back of the tailpiece was Vuillaume’s and was instantly memorable as a match for the inscriptions on the back of the fingerboard first in pencil and also in pen (A.E. Hill later added that the fingerboard was from the Lady Blunt, it was yet to be named when Vuillaume had it). It seems without any significant doubt that the tailpiece is the original to the instrument. Is this geekery at it’s most extreme? Well, the answer is no. The answer is that we can now finally locate a matched set of original fittings for a Stradivari violin. I just wonder if there are four pegs knocking around as well…