So, you’ve found or inherited an old violin. You look inside and the first thing that you see is the label, which is affixed to the back of the instrument and can be viewed through the “ff” holes. What does the label say? Odds are quite good that it says “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonenfis Faciebat Anno 17XX”. So, have you just won the lottery? Do you have an instrument worth millions of dollars? Unfortunately chances are good that what you have is a copy of a Stradivari, which was likely made in Germany or Czechoslovakia during the period of 1875 to 1940. These copies, made by the thousands, were manufactured primarily for export, with many of them coming to the United States. They were widely distributed by companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward in a mail order fashion. Most of them were sold as “outfits” or “kits,” meaning they came with a case, bow, rosin, pitchpipe and a beginning violin book. If your violin doesn’t say Stradivarius, it could say Nicolo Amati, Joseph Guarneri, Carlo Bergonzi, J.B. Vuillaume, Steiner, or any number of other well known violin makers. These labels were inserted in the instruments for two reasons: first, to sell the instrument; and, second, to acknowledge that this instrument is (roughly) patterned after one of these great masters of violin making.
How can you tell if you have the real thing? It is fairly easy to identify copies. The first thing an appraiser will do is to look at the quality of workmanship and the varnish. The copies usually do not have the same quality of workmanship or varnish as an original. The appraiser will look at the “ff” holes, the “purfling,” and the overall pattern of the instrument. They check to see if the scroll and instrument are symmetrical, if the purfling is inlaid, and how well that has been executed. The next thing to check is the neck and scroll. A violin made prior to 1850 will still have the original short or baroque neck and short fingerboard or will have had a neck graft, which is where the original scroll is carefully removed and a longer neck and fingerboard are installed and the original scroll is reattached. When an appraiser looks at a violin, generally the last thing they look at is the label. Over the years many fake labels have been put into instruments with deception being the number one reason.
If your label says “Germany” or “Czechoslovakia” or some other country, that helps to date the instrument. In 1891, the McKinley Tariff Act required that all items imported by the U.S. state the country of origin. In 1914, the Act was revised and also required the words “Made in.” In 1921, the Act was revised again to state that all countries of origin be written in English. There are also other clues which can help further date the instrument such as “Made in Occupied Japan”, which would have been 1945 to 1951, or “West Germany” and “East Germany” when Germany was divided. This occurred in 1945 and lasted until the reunification, which started in the summer of 1989.
The burning question remains. Does this violin have any value? There were various grades of copies made. Some of them were made quite crudely, while others have beautiful workmanship. This is where you need the opinion of an expert. The quality of workmanship and varnish in addition to the condition of an instrument greatly affect its value. Your appraiser will assess these things and generally come up with a value based on what the instrument is worth in its current state and what it could be worth if it were put into pristine playing condition. When in doubt, take your treasure to your trusted violin shop for an opinion. You may have to pay for this opinion but if you do have a real Stradivari the information you receive could be priceless.