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.

King del Gesu

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).

million dollar partners

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.



August Wilhelmj’s spectacular Dodd bow.

Wilhelmj ad

August Wilhelmj wrote the transcription of Bach’s 3rd Orchestral suite that spawned Air on a G’ String, but it is his re-orchestration of Paganini’s violin concerto in 1882 and the cadenza he wrote for it that are his significant contributions to the pantheon of great works for the violin. Benjamin Hebbert explores the fame of this extraordinary musician and takes a look at one of his performing bows. 

Nicolo Paganini

Nicolo Paganini

Through twenty-first-century eyes it is difficult to separate the man from the myth of Nicolo Paganini. For such a titanic character of 19th century music it is unexpected to realise that he was already fatally ill with syphillis and mercury poisoning in 1828 – the year after Beethoven’s death – curbing his activity, and his eventual demise in 1840 was still relatively early in his century. For those who had heard him play, it was fleetingly during his tireless tours to endless audiences across Europe. His legend rested largely on the publication of his 24 caprices in 1820, their subsequent dissemination, and the fact that few musicians at all could match his virtuosity. Even performances of his work by other violinists was largely impossible during his own lifetime as he jealously avoided publication of most of his music. The less people encountered of him, the more famous he became. Publication of Paganini’s works came after his death. The first violin concerto written somewhere between 1811 and 1815 finally entered public circulation in 1840.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, the female Paganini in 1885.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, the female Paganini in 1885.

From this point on, the race was on for the ‘next Paganini’. His memory had established such a cult that for the remainder of the century it seemed unthinkable that a new and greater violinist would emerge. Hence even the greatest interpreters of Paganini’s works, ranging from Emile Sauret, or the ‘female Paganini’, Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda to August Wilhelmj would trade immediate fame for a lacklustre review in the annals of history: neither famous for their own compositions nor for famous concertos commissioned in their honour. Nonetheless, these were the violinists who would cement Paganini’s fame. They provided the kind of performances that allowed the likes of Conan-Doyle (born in 1859) to enable Sherlock Holmes to bore Dr Watson with ‘anecdote after anecdote’ about the extraordinary violin virtuoso. Wilhelmj was born in 1845 and was just seven years old when Henriette Sontag declared he would be ‘the German Paganini. His first public performance in 1854 in the court theatre at Wiesbaden made so significant an impact that Prince Emil von Wittgenstein immediately sent him to Franz Listz. Several years later when Listz wrote a letter of introduction for the young violinist to Ferdinand David in 1861, it was once again as ‘the future Paganini’. With his training at an end, the latter part of the 1860s say him embark on the touring life of a virtuoso travelling first to Switzerland then England, France, Italy Russia, Belgium, Sweden and crossing paths with Joachim and Berlioz along the way.

Wilhelmj roll

The ‘Wilhelmj Cylinders’ are a unique set of wax recordings dating from around 1900 that are preserved in the British Library. To read more about them, and to hear fragments of Wilhelmj’s sound, click on the photo to visit the British Library’s website.

By 1875 he had become a public figure in England, playing at the memorial concert for Sterndale-Bennet given by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and heavily involved in the English cult of Wagner. He returned to Germany the following year to become the first concertmaster at Bayreuth, for Wagner’s first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. When he returned to England in 1877 it was his influence that encouraged Wagner to accompany him to conduct a festival of his works at the Royal Albert Hall (with Wilhelmj, as it’s concertmaster). From 1878 to 1882 he embarked on a world tour before retiring back to Germany. His semi-retirement still included occasional performances – famously in 1885 his invitation by the Sultan of Turkey to play before his harem, ‘the ladies of Seraglio’, but he concentrated on running a violin school in Wiesbaden. In 1893 he made his final move to London, becoming principal professor of violin at Guildhall School of Music in the following year. He remained in London for the rest of his life, and died in 1908.

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus where Wilhelmj performed Der Ring des Nibelungen as concertmaster for it's first season in 1876

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus where Wilhelmj performed Der Ring des Nibelungen as concertmaster for it’s first season in 1876

I am delighted to offer for sale a bow by James Dodd that was one of Wilhelmj’s principal performing bows in the 1870s. James Dodd died in 1865 and the bow is representative of his final period of production, with the typically protruding Parisian eye and ‘goldfish’ mother of pearl that is seen throughout the finer works by James Dodd, James Tubbs and Samuel Allen across the late nineteenth-century. The dates are such that it is implausible that Dodd made the bow for the young Wilhemlj, and like heavy Dodd cello bows that became the golden-bullet for soloists such as Amaryllis Fleming and Jacqueline du Pre in the 20th century, it appears these bows suited a purpose that was entirely unintended when they were first made. In London, Wilhelmj was one of the first violinists to encounter the problems of the new generation of concert halls that developed in the late Victorian era, the chasmic Royal Albert Hall that opened in 1871 being significant amongst them.


Weighing in at 64 grams the bow is certainly one of the heaviest and one of the most unusual English violin bows that I have come across. The weight is reserved in the breadth of the octagonal stick, but as it resolves towards the tip, the bow recovers more conventional proportions resolving in a firmly Tourte inspired head following the very best of the Dodd tradition. The balance of the bow is excellent so that the bow does not feel heavy, but has an enormous amount sense of gravity on the string. Wilhelmj said that he ‘could produce a better tone on this Dodd than with any other of his bows’. Some French bows, especially by Pajeot in the 1820s have a similar quality, and it is possible that Dodd was following this concept. Wilhelmj was playing the bow in 1878. We don’t know when exactly he bought it and it seems paradoxical that he should have parted with such a favoured bow in the middle of his world tour. It is certainly deliciously tempting to look further back than 1878 and wonder if this was the bow he used as concertmaster in the inaugural performances at Bayreuth the year earlier.


Certainly the massive nature of the bow seems suited as much to the power required to perform Wagner as it is for the bombastic virtuosity of Paganini’s first violin concerto, a piece that Wilhelmj had virtually claimed as his own, and the extra energy in the bow would certainly have inspired confidence in a musician faced with the unrivalled scale of the Royal Albert Hall or the singular difficulties posed by the Festspeilhaus in Bayreuth. During his world tour, Wilhelmj had been attracted to Chicago by Adolph Rosenbecker a Prussian immigrant to America who organised and conducted the Turner Hall Concerts. Wilhelmj figured amongst the various soloists who played with the orchestra including Pablo de Sarasate and Eugene d’Albert. Rosenbecker was a serially entrepreneurial musician, also serving as concert master to a fledgling Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later the Chicago Grand Opera Company before moving to San Francisco where he became concertmaster of the symphony orchestra in 1912 until his retirement in 1915.

Adolph Rosenbecker's letter to Louis Persinger,September 25th 1917.

Adolph Rosenbecker’s letter to Louis Persinger,September 25th 1917. Part of the correspondence sold with this bow.

Having bought the bow from Wilhelmj in 1878, he passed it to his successor in the San Francisco Symphony in 1917. The strength of the letter which accompanies the bow is an indication of the very high regard with which it was held. His successor was no less than Louis Persinger who had been leader of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Opera Orchestra in Belgium before moving to America. Shortly afterwards he would become the teacher to Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci and Isaac Stern. Papers accompanying the bow indicate that in 1936 it belonged to one Coleman Young of San Francisco, named on a Wurlitzer certificate. We know little about him except that he owned a violin by Jacob Stainer made in 1663. From there, the lawyer and amateur violinist Irving Golombe owned the bow in 1969. It returned to professional use thereafter as a highly prized bow until we acquired it for sale.

Thomas Urquhart, a label with more than meets the eye…


The years surrounding the English Civil War, Interregnum and the Restoration of King Charles II are crucial in the development of English musical taste. Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of King Charles I) returned to France in 1646 and established a royalist-court-in-exile based around the Louvre in Paris. Prince Charles, her son followed her into exile in 1651, and for the next nine years he maintained strong connections to the French court, whilst his court-in-exile shifted from France and the Dutch Republic to the Spanish Netherlands as successive nations concluded treaties with the English Parliament. When Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate over England came to an end, the new King Charles II returned to the English throne having witnessed more of culture outside of England with his own eyes and ears than any other monarch before.

Jean-Baptiste_Lully_Nicolas_MignardWith the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the re-establishment of royal musicians, whose English styles of playing were hopelessly outdated by comparison to the musical achievements of French court and it’s quatre-vingt violons du Roi under the baton of J.B. Lully (right) became the model most admired by the Restoration court (that is, until he struck himself in the foot with it, and died of gangrene in 1687). As Charles II reformed the royal musical establishment, the creation of his own band of four-and-twenty fiddlers became central to emulating the admired aspects of the French royal court. Hence, whilst the crown was quick to employ London’s finest violinists of the day, Thomas Baltzar and Davis Mell, the priority for developing the French taste in music led to John Bannister being sent to Paris in 1661 on the King’s command to attend Lully as his pupil. When he returned in 1662 he became leader of the royal band, establishing the foundations for royal music that survived of roughly half-a-century. Bannister’s own instruments were Cremonese violins which he paid forty pounds for during his time at the French court – a significant sum of roughly double the normal expenditure of an English court musician for a Cremonese violin. The warrant for his payment on 24 October 1662 survives in the Lord Chamberlain’s account books:

Warrant to pay £40 to John Bannister for two Cremona violins bought by him for His Majesty’s service, and £10 for strings for two whole years ending 24 June 1662.

Bannister may be the violinist in the foreground on the left of J.B. Medina’s Cabal painted in the early 1660s (below). For certain, the lanky and unkempt violinist to the right seems to correspond to descriptions of Thomas Baltzar, the Incomparable Lubicer who had arrived in England from Lubeck in 1656 and was replaced by Bannister as leader of the King’s private musicke in 1663. His reputation, like a proto-Paganini, was recorded by John Evelyn in 1656.

John Evelyn, Diary, 4 March 1656: This night I was invited by Mr. Rog: L’Estrange to heare the incomperable Lubicer on the Violin, his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillful as there was nothing so crosse & perplext, which being by our Artists, brought to him, which he did not at first sight, with ravishing sweetenesse & improvements, play off, to the astonishment of our best Masters: In Summ, he plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victor.

UrquhartThese circumstances give context to one of my favourite early English makers, Thomas Urquhart. Although his work is extraordinarily rare, I’ve been lucky to have several examples pass through my hands. The latest of these isn’t anything more than an original back and front, both of which have been ravaged by woodworm and are now coated with an opaque red varnish to helphide the nineteenth-century restorations. Yet, with a genuine label for 1663, it is the earliest dateable example that I have come across.

Thomas Urquhart is, in fact, one of the more famous early English makers. I think that his importance as one of the father-figures of English violin making is somewhat inaccurate. I’ll even go further and suggest that when William Sandys and Simon-Andrew Forster wrote the first comprehensive history of the violin in 1864, the idea of a Scottish-named violin maker holding such an important role appealed to the Forster family’s own sense of heritage: Having come from Brampton on the Scottish border to become an London’s most prestigious and influential dynasty of violin makers in the late-eighteenth-century, it was natural for them to promote a spiritual forbearer from a century before. Nevertheless, the violins by Urquhart that I have seem seem to constantly surprise me for their quality.

They are frequently a centimetre shorter than a modern violin, although the low-set bridge position means that they were intended to have a regular string length, and never feel like you are playing a fractional-sized violin. What astounds me most about his instruments are that despite an unashamedly vernacular outline, and distinctive soundholes, each instrument that I have seen seems to be an extraordinarily considered interpretation of earlier Cremonese instruments. The violin above which I sold last year (with an indistinct manuscript label) was immediately reminiscent of the 1574 Andrea Amati violin in the National Music Museum in South Dakota.

By contrast the 1663 violin has the kind of ‘pinched’ arching with markedly hollowed margins and a very pronounced rise of the belly. Once again this is completely characteristic of Cremonese violin making by the Amati family, but in this case very typical of Nicole Amati’s work from the 1640s and 1650s, suggesting that Urquhart was taking a relatively new Amati violin as his inspiration. In fact, the 1662 Nicolo Amati violin in the Royal Academy of Music collection provides a completely contemporaneous example of this kind.

There has been some discussion about the printed labels in Urquhart’s instruments, and some while ago it was noticed that in some examples a second line of text was just about visible, leading to the idea that these were fake labels, perhaps cut from a seventeenth-century book. This seemed all the more plausible since a famous Scottish writer and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660), provided at least the potential to find this name printed in seventeenth-century type. To add to the level of doubt, labels as brief in their content as “Tho. Urquhart 1663″ seem to be suspiciously short by comparison to other makers of the period. Moreover, given the complexity of early English violins as well as there rarity, up until a decade ago I was more or less willing to wager that Urquhart was a complete invention of the Forster family.

urquhart labelsI’ve now seen three identical labels for 1663, 1665 and another that seems to have been re-dated several times over in the 1660s (6, 7 and 9 perhaps?) which all have the same characteristics, including identical fragments of the bottom line. The identical pattern of letters mean that it is implausible that these were cut from a book, as if it were the case, each of the three labels would have had to be cut from the same page of a different copy of the same book, and there is no evidence of ink seeping through from the other side of the page. Instead the pattern makes clear sense, with pattern “i_W_ft_i_ft__” for which the only possible reading would be “in Weftminfter” showing that Urquhart was active in Westminster when he labelled these instruments, perhaps the only violin maker working so close to the Chapel Royal in close communication with the royal musicians.

Why did Urquhart cut his labels in two? The most likely answer is that he provided some of his instruments for retail by other sellers in London and elsewhere. He was an important enough maker that there was reason for him to put his name on his labels. However, leaving his address on them would have put him in direct competition with the people trying to sell instruments on his behalf. Nevertheless, there is a peculiarity with these labels that in every example I have seen, the label is consistently cut just below the tips of the serifs. Just as it is possible to reconstruct the second line of text today, perhaps the rebellious element in Urquhart’s character is witnessed in leaving just enough evidence that an intelligent and observant customer could track him down.

PurcellHenry Purcell was born in Westminster in 1659, joined the chapel Royal in 1664, and when his voice broke in 1673 he was employed by John Hingeston within the royal court to assist him as “keeper, maker, mender repairer and tuner of regals, virginals, flutes and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever”. Urquhart’s labels reportedly date to as late as 1681, so that the timelines of both are easily compatible. In the 1660s Urquhart’s geography and preponderance to copy Cremonese instruments places him close to the English royal court, making it highly likely that the two figures had some connection. Tantalisingly, given Purcell’s responsibility for recorders, a treble recorder survives in the Bate Collection at Oxford University that is entirely in the late-seventeenth-century style associated with Pierre Bressan who came to London in 1688. It is stamped “URQUHART”. Hence if any maker can be associated directly with Purcell, the circumstantial evidence sits wonderfully in Urquhart’s favour.

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.

Charles François Langonet, W.E. Hill & Sons and the Tuscan Strad.

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century the 1690 Tuscan Stradivari made for Cosimo III de Medici was the most famous violin in the world. Now an all but forgotten instrument, Benjamin Hebbert looks at it’s importance and some of the extraordinary copies made of it in by C.F. Langonet in the workshop of W.E. Hill & Sons. 

W.E. Hill & Sons shop at 140 New Bond Street, immediately across the road from Sotheby's.

W.E. Hill & Sons shop at 140 New Bond Street, immediately across the road from Sotheby’s.

The company of W.E. Hill & Sons started life in Wardour Street, London in 1880, taking secondary premises at 38 New Bond Street in 1882 and new purpose-built premises at 140 New Bond Street in 1895 where they established themselves as pre-eminent amongst all of the violin dealers in London. Location was everything for the Hills and in 140 New Bond Street; they had made a substantial coup, occupying the shop (now familiar as Zilli) directly opposite the front door of auctioneers, Sotheby’s. From this moment onwards, anybody connected to the art and antique trade had immediate access to a prestigious London violin-dealer. The bowed glass shop front gave space to more of a museum of instruments than a violin dealer plying their trade, all with the intention of making the Hill name known to the kind of people who may have an ‘old Cremona’ in the attic. This was the period of the ‘country-house Strad’ as traditional landed wealth gave way to new industrial wealth and bankrupt aristocrats began selling the treasures that had been amassed by their ancestors on the Grand Tour.

Stradivari’s 1716 Messie photographed in Vuillaume’s ownership at the South Kensington Exhibition of 1872.

Throughout the early history of W.E. Hill & Sons, the firm had paid enormous deference to Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris in a relationship that would eventually lead to their inheritance of the prime position in European violin dealing. This relationship meant that well into the 20th century they openly used the legacy of their relationship to enhance their own reputation, allowing it to become so strong an element of their own legendary position in the market that even in 1972 they were still hanging to the coat-tails of the legacy with their publication of Roger Milliant’s Jean-Baptiste Vuilllaume, sa vie et son oeuvre. As far back as 1862, William Ebsworth Hill had exhibited a quartet of bows at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (even though the bows led to an irreconcilable falling out with James Tubbs who had actually made them) and it was Vuillaume’s praise which served as the highest commercial endorsement and accolade for the Hill bow when they went into production many decades later. Vuillaume was far more integrated with the London violin trade than is first assumed as a result of his success at the various international Industrial Exhibitions in London, where he had won medals or served as Juror. At the time of the Special Loan Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum in 1872 – one of the several times he brought the Messie to London – it was he rather than any British violin dealer who had curated the violins in the exhibition. With the continuing Franco-Prussian War, the exile of Napoleon III and the anarchy of the Paris Commune, Vuillaume increasingly looked to abandoning Paris completely in favour of becoming London’s leading violin dealer. The increasing economic stability in France led to Vuillaume’s return and his death in 1875.

Vuillaume’s demise left Paris and the rest of the world without a clear successor to clearing the way for William Ebsworth Hill to build a business that would eventually take the lead throughout Europe and into the burgeoning economies of the wider English-speaking world. In the 1880s, no matter how hard the Hills worked to fulfil every aspect of Vuillaume’s reputation, one essential element was tantalisingly out of their grasp. The Messie had first arrived in London in 1862 for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace; valued at 15,000 francs it took centre stage in the 1872 South Kensington Exhibition. After Vuillaume’s death it passed to his heirs and may have seemed destined to take it’s place in the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, a fate that overcame the 1742 Alard del Gesu in 1888. For the Hills, the answer to the ‘Messie’ was to create their own legend around a violin of their own. At the time, the idea of the Golden Period was still very much in flux and it was the French, particularly Vuillaume who had focussed on the first decade of the eighteenth-century as the zenith of Stradivari’s achievement. George Hart coined the term ‘Golden Period’, but in their 1901 monograph on Stradivari, Hills were openly scornful of what they referred to as ‘The So-Called Golden Period’ a concept that they accepted ‘but not without considerable reservation’. Charles Reade, an influential figure in London society placed the 1720s as Stradivari’s ‘grandest epoch’, and for the Hills the years of ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ came earlier:

1901‘Stradivari had now reached the plenitude of his powers as a craftsman, for it cannot be questioned that in point of sharpness, accuracy and beauty of finish some examples of the years 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, and 1690 stand unsurpassable. This is natural, when we consider that he was now in the prime of life. The perfect skill with which he handled his knife is seen in the cutting of the “f ” holes, the insertion of the purfling, and the carving of the heads. The finish throughout marks him as having been one of the most dexterous craftsmen the world has ever known, and we emphatically assert that no violin-maker has ever surpassed and few have equalled him No more unique example of his unrivalled finish of work exists than the “Tuscan” violin, made in 1690. It stands alone. Others equally fine were made, but the vicissitudes of time have not spared them to us.”                                 W.E. Hill & Sons, Antonio Stradivari, 1901, p.42.

By focussing on pure craftsmanship and the logic that Stradivari was then in his prime of life, W. E. Hill & Sons were able to provide commentary that neatly placed the 1690 Tuscan as the greatest of all Stradivari violins. This contradicted the opinions of their nearest rivals – Hart, Vuillaume and Reade. This would change by 1901 when they wrote their monologue on Stradivari, but the fundamental respect for the period which produced the 1679 Hellier decorated violin and the 1690 Tuscan held a very special place for the Hills. Nevertheless as they came to dominate the market, they made efforts to retell history to rehabilitate Hart’s ‘Golden Period’ for their own commercial advantage without loosing the integrity of William Ebsworth Hill’s claims about the importance of violins made in Stradivari’s prime.

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

The Tuscan did not reach the serious attention of the Hills until 1888, but dramatic changes in the British musical landscape had been significant in the rise of W.E. Hill & Sons in the years preceding it’s acquisition. The move to Bond Street in 1882 had boldly separated W.E.Hill & Sons from the maze of violin dealers in and around Wardour Street, ensuring a new kind of market alongside dealers in the finest elements of grand aristocratic European culture from silversmiths to the dealers of old master paintings. Their shift in track was directly linked to the burgeoning popularity of amateur music making amongst London’s affluent society. The much awaited opening of the Royal Albert Hall, London’s first great concert hall for the masses took place in March 1871. From 1872 Sir Arthur Sullivan had conducted the Royal Orchestral Society, at the time London’s only standing orchestra apart from the Royal Philharmonic Society, but exclusively populated by amateurs led by it’s founder, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The opening concert of the Queen's Hall on 25 December 1893 given by the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society, with Tivadar Nachez as soloist. Arthur Sullivan was the first conductor of this entirely amateur orchestra, and the Duke of Edinburgh was it's leader.

The opening concert of the Queen’s Hall on 25 December 1893 given by the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society, with Tivadar Nachez as soloist. Arthur Sullivan was the first conductor of this entirely amateur orchestra, and the Duke of Edinburgh was it’s leader.

By 1880 the Royal Academy of Music had transformed from a fledgling organisation into an established teaching institution with more than 350 students. In South Kensington, the National Training School for Music was built alongside the Royal Albert Hall what is now the Royal College of Organists. As with the Royal Academy of Music it had categorically failed to differentiate between the needs of the scion of the rich industrialist family looking to perfect their social accomplishments in music from the requirements of professional training. Sir Arthur Sullivan resigned as it’s principal in 1882 and in the following year the Royal College of Music was formed under the directorship of Sir George Grove. The College still relied on 42 fee-paying places (largely string players, pianists and singers) to subsidise the fifty scholars (significantly wind and brass) elected by competition to become professional musicians. The ambitions of Hill & Sons directly followed the changing social climate of music during one of the most revolutionary points in the history of British music. They still didn’t own the Messie. As things looked in 1885 it was probably out of reach. However, W.E Hill & Sons fortunes changed favourable during 1888 with the opportunity to acquire the greatest Stradivari in the world, the near perfect example representing the most extraordinary period of the master’s workmanship and backed by a provenance that alone placed the Messie in the shadows. The peerless violin had not lain unplayed in the attic of a piedmontese tramp, as the Messie had done, neither did it have the dubious merit of being owned by the sometime-amateur-violin-playing aristocratic, horse-training great-great granddaughter of Lord Byron, Lady Blunt. Instead precisely the kind of ‘country-house Strad’ that the Hills had dreamed of came through their doors.

Angelica Kauffman, the Austrian-born portrait painter whose encouragement led David Ker to purchase the Tuscan Stradivari

Angelica Kauffman, the Swiss-born portrait painter whose encouragement led David Ker to purchase the Tuscan Stradivari

The violin had left Italy in 1793 in the hands of David Ker, an Irishman on the Grand Tour. Ker had little interest in violins, but clearly had more than an interest in the painter Angelica Kauffman, for whom he was sitting for a portrait. With her encouragement he bought the Stradivari for £24 from Giovanni Felice Mosell, a prominent composer and musician in the Tuscan court. He returned to Ireland with the violin and portrait alongside an art collection that included paintings by da Vinci and Raphael, acquired from the Pitti Palace. Once on home soil he put the violin safely aside and promptly forgot about it. With the passing of years Ker died, his house moved into other ownerships with only a family legend of a Stradivari lingering on. During ensuing years his family searched for the violin amongst the various houses that had belonged to them, eventually finding the violin in a house that was then owned by a book collector who, so engrossed in his hobby, was unaware of the instruments’ existence in the house.

Giovanni Felice Mosell's receipt of sale to David Ker in 1794 stating his belief that it had been made for the Court of Tuscany

Giovanni Felice Mosell’s receipt of sale to David Ker in 1794 stating his belief that it had been made for the Court of Tuscany (click to enlarge).

In 1845 the Stradivari was rescued from a fire, which destroyed the family’s seat at Portavo, and sold to a family friend, F. Ricardo. Under his care it was brought to Paris, where it was setup by Vuillaume. “Mr. Ricardo was at first puzzled by its fresh appearance, but lost no times in taking it to the celebrated Parisian maker, Vuillaume. His old foreman examined it carefully, but would give no opinion; but on Vuillaume’s entrance, held it up and said: “Here! Monsieur Vuillaume, here is a Stradivari,” to which Vuillaume, without approaching nearer, replied at once: “Oui, certainment.” Hills relate the story of another occasion when it was shown to Fendt, who was reported to have exclaimed, “If it is not a Strad it is something better”. From Ricardo it passed back into the family in 1875 for £240 and in 1888 it arrived at W E Hills & Sons shop where they acquired it for a four-figure sum.

For the Hills they suddenly had a violin of their own that could be compared to the Messie in terms of craftsmanship and preservation, but this Stradivari offered more to them than just that. The letter accompanying the violin from 1794 stated that the violin had been made for Cosimo III Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Moreover their knowledge of the 1684 letter between the Marquis Ariberti and Stradivari ordering the quintet of instruments for the Medici court and Dom Desiderio Arisi’s mention of the order in his biography of Stradivari provided the highest standard of provenance. In their own words, the violin was representative of Stradivari’s highest powers as a maker, and it had been made for the most famous patrons of the arts in Italian history. This was the masthead violin that W.E.Hill & Sons had been dreaming of, with a provenance comprehendible to any connoisseur of art, whether they knew about music or not. The acquisition prompted the first monograph to be published on a single violin, The “Tuscan”. A short account of a violin by Stradivari made for Cosimo Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, dated 1690. The violin became central in promoting themselves as the world’s greatest violin dealers.

Ever mindful of taking Vuillaume’s lead, the Hills looked beyond the simple matter of owning the world’s greatest Stradivari and sought to find ways of making it translate into a powerful tool for reinforcing sales and reputation at every level. Just as Vuillaume had made copies of the Messie copies of the Tuscan became an important symbol for the Hill shop.

The Marquis of Ariberti's letter to Stradivari in 1684 commissioning a 'concerto' of violins (click to enlarge)

The Marquis of Ariberti’s letter to Stradivari in 1684 commissioning a ‘concerto’ of violins for the Medici court (click to enlarge)


The copies:

Alfred Slocombe's 1889 chromolithographs of the Tuscan Stradivari printed for Hill's monograph on the violin.

Alfred Slocombe’s 1889 chromolithographs of the Tuscan Stradivari printed for Hill’s monograph on the violin.

John Askew’s Bronze Medal Diploma from the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition. W.E. Hill & Sons took gold medal for a quartet of instruments.

John Askew’s Bronze Medal Diploma from the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition. W.E. Hill & Sons took gold medal for a quartet of instruments.

The majority of W E Hill & Sons violins were made after 1900 and production increased more-or-less in parallel with their bow production. Before this point violins were produced in very small numbers, with the suggestion that they were more ‘exhibition pieces’ intended to demonstrate the universal expertise of the firm than instruments intended for sale. Industrial exhibitions of the kind typified by Crystal Palace held a very important place in raising awareness of a brand, and since they concentrated on modern manufactured goods, it was essential to produce new instruments for the purpose. In 1885 W E Hill & Sons won gold medal for a quartet of instruments entered in the International Inventions Exhibition against altogether dubious competition. In the medals for a single violin the Glasgow maker, George Duncan won gold and Szepessy Bela took silver, but bronze medals went to significantly lesser makers, John Askew and William Pearce. Likewise Hills had beaten Jeffrey Gilbert into silver medal for a quartet of instruments with Walter H. Mayson and Emmanuel Whitmarsh taking bronze. Over-reliance on the medal rankings would produce a woefully distorted picture of British violin making at the time.

Glasgow 1888These may be the very first instruments made by W.E. Hill & Sons. A handful of violins with the label “William E Hill & Sons, Makers, Wardour Street, London 1887” also survive and it seems more than plausible that these were intended for exhibition at the Glasgow International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art held in 1888, which was the greatest exhibition of it’s kind to be held outside of London and the most significant international exhibition in Britain of the decade. Hills were certainly upping their game at the time, and 1887 is the same year that they commissioned the 12 ‘Apostles’ violin cases, each intended to house a golden-period Stradivari violin. Whatever the circumstances of this early batch of violins, the workmanship is very precise and it is possible that they were made as a joint project between several members of the workshop.

The very fine workmanship that we associate with Charles François Langonet can be seen in the backs and scrolls but the fronts have a tendency towards more sterile Mirecourt workmanship, suggesting another hand. It appears that the workshop made quite a high number of instruments in the white, leaving them to be labelled and varnished when they were required because instruments of this kind seem to appear with later forms of varnish even as late as 1909. Surprisingly the majority of these early instruments are made to a 356mm Stradivari long-pattern, perhaps intended to consciously differentiate Hill’s finest work from the endless Messie-derived violins that came over from France. Just as there are no W.E. Hill & Sons violins known to me before 1887, 1888 also seems to be a vacant year. The earliest numbered W.E. Hill & Sons violin that I have encountered (with a 38 New Bond Street label) is 13, an exhibition copy of the decorated Hellier Stradivari violin (featured in The British Violin). These instruments are amongst the very finest that the Hills produced, and stand out from the more typical Hill violins of the early 20th century. However, the acquisition of the Tuscan in 1888 seems to have inspired the Hills to go one step further.

Charles François Langonet in the W.E. Hill & Sons workshop.

Charles François Langonet in the W.E. Hill & Sons workshop.

Amongst the violin makers who appeared in the Hill workshop from France in 1880, Joseph Prunier, Joseph Maurice Somney and Leon-August Delunet. Charles François Langonet, the workshop foreman has the most prodigious reputation as a violin maker. The majority of craftsmen in the workshop appear to have spent their time working on restorations, although some clever Voller-like violins by Delunet appear from time to time. Langonet, by contrast couldn’t have been older than fourteen when he was singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’ by Vuillaume; he was just nineteen years old when he entered the Hill workshop and became its foreman. Langonet never signed his work when he was at Hills, although from time to time instruments appear with an oral attribution provided by the Hills when they were first sold. Somewhat perversely the Hills worked hard to sustain Langonet’s reputation as their finest craftsman whilst making it almost impossible to identify his hand.

Back in 1855 when Vuillaume had travelled to Turin to purchase the Messie, he instantly began to produce copies of his prized violin. Evidently taking their lead from Vuillaume, in 1889 the Hills set about producing a series of stunning copies of the Tuscan. Given the extraordinary quality of these instruments, logic alone dictates that they were made by the man that Vuillaume had singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’. Almost painfully detailed scroll carving resolving in an undersized eye seems to be a constant feature of his work, and very precise rounded edgework is another element that singles him out from most Mirecourt-trained makers. What is clear is that one particular hand is seen in Hills finest work, and it fits the legend that they allowed to grow around him. The Hills seem to have been aware that the use of conventional wood for their instruments could draw comparison to good French work of the time, so that the major differentiation of the Tuscan copies (and some other violins made by them) is the use of almost slab-cut wood as opposed to more strongly flamed cuts. The wood is particular to Hill work of this period (and possibly exclusive to Langonet), and it is even arguable that they thought it more refined than the choices available to Stradivari. Nevertheless, the one piece back follows the same density of flame that exists in the original violin.

W. E. Hill & Sons violin number 15, one of Langonet's copies of the Tuscan Stradivari.

W. E. Hill & Sons violin number 15 made in 1889, one of Langonet’s copies of the Tuscan Stradivari.

Pins surprisingly are absent from the back. Once again at a time that understanding of Stradivari’s work was primitive, it is possible that the Hills considered them a blemish on Stradivari’s work that they could dispense with. In fact, the Tuscan is one of the few Stradivari violins where he too seems to have been conscious to keep them as discrete as possible. The top pin is completely hidden beneath the purfling and the lower pin is only slightly visible. Remembering that number 13 is a copy of the Hellier (and made in more the 1887 style), numbers 15, 16 and 18 are known to me and are all identical Tuscan copies, suggesting that maybe as few as five such instruments were ever made. These instruments come from a time when W.E. Hill & Sons seemed particularly self-conscious and anxious about the quality of workmanship, and there is much in this seemingly short-lived golden period that compares to their history of bow making, with the outstanding playing quality and technical perfection of Samuel Allen’s bows – essentially making more precise Tourte copies than Tourte ever made himself – finding itself absent from later generations of a more industrialised W.E Hill & Sons workshop at Hanwell.

The purpose of the 1889 Tuscan copies is also uncertain. The monologue about the Tuscan could only have been conceived of as a permanent calling card to demonstrate to achievement of Hills in bagging the greatest Stradivari the world had seen. It follows that Hills would have been happy to demonstrate their prowess as craftsmen through showing off their near-perfect copies alongside or in place of the original Stradivari violin. The uncompromisingly new appearance of the instruments, like that of the Tuscan itself, was out of keeping with most London instrument making of the period and would have probably resulted in a harder sale within a shop full of authentic and beautifully worn antique instruments. The answer to why they were made seems to be explained by William Ebsworth Hill’s commentary in the Tuscan monologue.

pIMs6QYOpW5uHA7U5HpMhtD1rRwSGR3G-FTUYWEg94YThis remarkable instrument, one of the finest examples of Stradivari’s work, is probably unique in the preservation, in every detail, of the original beauty of its form and workmanship. The violins of Stradivari, like most other old works of art, have almost all suffered from the accidents of time. Even in exceptionally well-preserved instruments, cracks have appeared in the soft wood of the belly, the sound holes have often lost some of their accuracy of outline, and the varnish has been rubbed off the parts most exposed to wear. It has consequently been difficult to realise, even from the best specimens, how a violin looked and spoke when fresh from the hands of Stradivari. But the condition, in which this instrument has been preserved, for nearly two hundred years, enables us to stand, in imagination, as contemporaries of the great master, and to see and handle a violin just as it left his workshop.

Just as Vuillaume could express his fundamental understanding of Stradivari through his obsession with copying the Messie, W E Hill & Sons could claim the same through the Tuscan. By 1895 numbers on Hill violins had reached only 85, indicating that little more than ten violins were made every year. Cellos appear to have been on a different numbering system, and a fine forma-B cello from 1893 is numbered 15. As early as 1893 the Hills experimented with artificial dyes in their varnish, with the result that some of the best work has discoloured to become particularly lurid salmon-pink, diminishing the appeal of what is otherwise much of the finest Hill work ever produced. The 1889 Tuscan copies contrastingly remain compellingly close to the varnish of the original Stradivari violin.

In 1890, despite what must have seemed the near-certainty that it would have been gifted to the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, Vuillaume’s heirs put the Messie up for sale and it became the property of W.E. Hill & Sons. The following year they published The Salabue Stradivari: A History and Critical Description of the Famous Violin, Commonly Called “le Messie”. The Hills seemed far less concerned about copying the Messie, perhaps so that their own copies of the Tuscan could stand against Vuillaume’s of the Messie. Perhaps also because the Messie was so widely copied by that point finding reincarnations both in trade Mirecourt work, and in copies produced by some of their London rivals such as G.A. Chanot that it lacked the significant distinction that the Hills were looking for. With the onset of 20th Century the Hills were in a dominant position in the London and European violin trade. The expense of producing uncompromising works seemed to be less important than simply producing better products than their competition. Langonet’s hand in Hill violins became rarer, and Hill violins tended to look more like improved versions of Mirecourt work rather than masterly copies of a Cremonese original. The short-lived golden-period in W. E. Hill &Sons violin making was over.

After 1890 when the Hills had the Messie in their possession, they changed their tune ever so slightly about when Stradivari made his best works. Their observations about ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ in Stradivari’s 1680-1690s period is still as acute today as it was when they wrote it in 1901, but Stradivari’s constant experimenting with the long-pattern and other forms makes this the most inconsistent period of his entire career. By contrast the ‘golden-period’ from around 1700 to 1720, with 1716 at the zenith proves explicable for a far more consistent and numerous period in Stradivari’s career. As a firm with a commercial sense, once they owned the Messie, it was a matter of time before they came around to Vuillaume and Hart’s way of thinking.

What was once the most important Stradivari violin in the world was sold successively by Hills to a number of the most famous collectors of the day – R.E. Brandt (1890), Charles Oldham (1904), F.Smith (1908), Richard Bennett (1918) and G.Kemp (1933). They bought it back in 1940 and in 1953 it was sold to the Italian Government. Under the guardianship of the Accademia S.Cecilia in Rome it was played by Gioconda di Vito and Pina Carmirelli and although it featured in the 1987 Cremona exhibition, it had become an increasingly overlooked violin given its previous importance. Whilst the tenore viola and cello from the 1690 commission are preserved in Florence (and the contralto viola in the Library of Congress with the last violin of the quintet unidentified), the Tuscan is now in the academy’s museum. It is less well preserved than when the Hills knew it in 1888, but is still one of the most important Stradivari violins in existence, made when Antonio Stradivari was in his prime. It is potentially the single-most significant waypoint in his departure from the Amati traditions that continued to dominate Cremonese thinking past 1690, and sharing the same proportions as the 1714 Dolphin, is  one of the remarkable early violins (along with the 1679 Hellier) that anticipate many of the qualities that Stradivari would return to as consistent features in the best years of his Golden Period.


A violin for Sherlock Holmes..?

The world’s most famous detective was probably fiction’s most famous violinist, but a further look at the influences behind these timeless novels places the young George Wulme Hudson closer than expected to the influences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

HoneymanSherlock Holmes aficionados have long speculated on the link between Conan-Doyle as a medical student in Edinburgh and the Scottish writer of police novels, James M’Govan (McGovan) who began publishing his work in 1881, a full six years before the first Sherlock Holmes episode went to print. In fact, M’Govan was a pen-name for the New Zealander, William Crawford Honeyman who became a well-known Edinburgh figure given to wearing velvet jackets and a black artistic beard. He was likely as obsessed by the violin as Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Honeyman’s house was Cremona Villa, in Newport, Fife, and as a noted authority on the violin and violin playing. He collected violins, including a 1742 Del Gesu, and his published works on the violin, including The Violin: How to Choose One, are as numerous as his detective fiction.
Parallels between the genuine velvet-jacketed violin-playing Honeyman and the fictitious Holmes are striking. There is a more-than-plausible case that he was a model for some elements of Holmes’ character, and that references to the violin were a constant acknowledgement of Conan-Doyle’s debt to the novelist that inspired him. Sherlock Holmes retirement to Sussex to keep bees is just as likely a shrouded reference to Honeyman. Holmes’ own foray into writing, a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen mentioned in His Last Bow serves as a parody of the titles of Honeyman’s own instructional books on violin playing. Conan Doyle’s method of creating the character of Sherlock Holmes depends on fleeting descriptions of the elements of his personality that make him more than just a detective. His addiction to opium, his near-non-existent love life and his obsession with violins are all dealt with through fleeting disinterested yet penetrating observation. He never engages in a first hand narrative of the actual events, but uses Watson’s experience in order to weave a more textured biography of the human being that exists beyond the immediate super-sleuth, but each time the effect is to convey an impressive depth of knowledge that the reader can take for granted. Take Study in Scarlet where the depth of Holmes’ knowledge is taken for granted. The tediousness of it, viewed through the long-suffering eyes of Dr Watson, is not.

Basil-Rathbones-Sherlock-Homes1It was a foggy, cloudy morning, and a dun-coloured veil hung over the house-tops, looking like the reflection of the mud-coloured streets beneath. My companion was in the best of spirits, and prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati. As for myself, I was silent, for the dull weather and the melancholy business upon which we were engaged, depressed my spirits. “You don’t seem to give much thought to the matter in hand,” I said at last, interrupting Holmes’ musical disquisition.

In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box written in 1892, we discover how Sherlock Holmes acquired his Stradivari: We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker’s in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This led him to Paganini, and we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man.
anxious moment 1891Tottenham Court Road was already a well established area for the musical instrument trade, but then as in now it was predominantly a focus for lower end instruments, so the possibility of finding a fine Italian violin amongst the pawn shops and ancillary businesses in the area was not beyond the realm of fantasy when Conan-Doyle was writing, although nearby Wardour Street had become a thriving centre for the violin trade, making the possibility of a stray Stradivari seem more remote than in any other part of London. Pawn shops themselves were not always the shady and iniquitous dens that popular myth suggests. For sure, even in William Hogarth’s time, the last resort of pawning an inheritance becomes central to the moralistic tales of Beer Street and Gin Lane from 1751 (or Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawn Shop from 1916). However, in a time before easy access to money and credit, the cash advances offered through the pawn-broker system were a far more necessary and accepted evil of society. The ability to pledge goods against loans providing a vital service for the population at large and at the same time, pawn brokers developed into becoming hunting grounds for second hand goods of all sorts. Inevitably boundaries blurred between the ability of a pawn broker to provide access to cash, and the possibilities of serving a retail market. Pawn shops existed at all levels of society from the gentrified to the slums (even King Edward III and Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I pawned the crown jewels at one time or another). An edition of the London Illustrated News from December 1891 seemingly sums up the environment of bric-a-brac and curiosities in which a violin – possibly by Stradivari – could be found.

George Wulme Hudson

George Wulme Hudson

The real life circumstances of George Wulme Hudson counterpose Conan Doyle’s world of the violin, as he experienced it from Honeyman, and expressed through Dr Watson’s despairing comments. His writing comes at a time when a burgeoning literature demonstrated a fascination for the violin, and the activites of the trade revealed opportunities for increasing skulduggery. Hudson was born in 1862 making him only a few years younger than Conan Doyle. His father had been a freelance musician from the north of England who had settled in London before he was born. At the age of twelve he was put to work at a pawnbrokers shop in the Hackney Road as a ‘living in’ apprentice with his bed under the back counter. This gave him endless access to old musical instrument from penny whistles to violins, pledged by their owners. At the age of fourteen he was able to earn a few coppers a week by helping the junior assistant (aged sixteen) to make new violins look old by all sorts of devious means. Meanwhile his woodworking and carving skills were honed at the bench to repair objects brought into the shop and to make replacement parts as necessary.

A Wulme Hudson forgery claiming to be by G.B. Pallencia a pupil of the Gagliano family working in Milan. It combines characteristics of Nicolo Gagliano and G.B. Guadagnini. Pallencia never existed.

A Wulme Hudson forgery claiming to be by G.B. Pallencia a pupil of the Gagliano family working in Milan. It combines characteristics of Nicolo Gagliano and G.B. Guadagnini. Pallencia never existed.

The musical interests of the pawn shop evidently meant that they handled better instruments from time to time. One of his assignments was to a Edward John Payne, a respected expert and dealer, and father of Arthur Payne (onetime leader of the Proms Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood) who later gave violin lessons to Hudson at the Guildhall School of Music. By the 1890s Hudson had left the pawn shop and had become a freelance violinist and conductor. However, his experiences and training focussed his occupation towards violin making. By his own account, Hudson didn’t start violin making until 1897 – five years after Conan Doyle wrote of Holmes’ pawn shop triumph, but nobody in the violin world could have been better attuned to this part of the market. Immediately that Hudson became a violin maker, the old tricks of the trade that he was accustomed to played their part. It is rare to find a straightforward violin by Hudson and most of them are either copies of Italian instruments or Italian fantasy violins designed to fool an unsuspecting buyer. The more I get to see of Hudson’s work (I have six of them in the showroom as I write) the more I learn to appreciate his incredible sharpness and intelligence as a maker and as a rogue and his endless ability for reinvention and deception – without doubt a man that Holmes would have revelled in knowing, and perhaps the sort of man that Conan Doyle did. Postscript: It may seem beyond wildest imagination for a Stradivari violin to appear in a pawn shop in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings, but in 2010 almost exactly that happened. The day after Min-Jin Kym’s 1698 Stradivari violin was stolen from her at Euston Station, the two thieves went to an internet cafe in Tottenham Court Road to find out what it was worth. In the end they offered it for just £100 to another man in the cafe who turned it down because his daughter played the recorder, after which the case went cold for over a year. The criminal mastermind behind the heist, John Maughan had over 40 different aliases, 26 different dates of birth and over 65 convictions for theft. Not exactly Moriarty, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.