On the Arrogance of Experts (or the Principles of Knowing).

Expertise and the ability to authenticate violins has much to do with practical applied philosophy, as a way of understanding how an opinion can have a high degree of veritas. How can we trust a judgement to be sound, if as an observer you are unable to test the attribution in a satisfactory way for yourself. These are big questions and for me, understanding the principles of authenticity have gone hand in hand with applying methods to increase my own practical knowledge. Benjamin Hebbert talks about the Principles of Knowing and ways in which they inform and enable an instinctive means to identify instruments. 


*prescript. In writing a blog that goes between the knowable and unknowable, it is difficult to understand which side this ultimately sits on as I have determinedly represented both the view of the expert and the response that is expected from it by a layman.  It is important to preface this blog with the absolutely firm understanding that attribution and authenticity are rock-solid concepts, and that integrity ultimately rests on the depth of connoisseurship that a particular expert is able to apply to their judgement. As I wrote below:  “What I also depend upon, is that another expert with the same depth of knowledge that I have, but derived independently, will arrive at the same opinion – over and over again.”


Years ago, when I inhabited the strange world of academics, I was approached by an Ecomusicologist named Aaron Allen, whose curiosity about communities who cut down trees that became musical instrument led to questions about their own mythology. Specifically, the woodsmen of the Valle de Fiemme believe that their ancestors selected the wood of Stradivari’s violins, and so he was determined to follow the trail which was why we ended up standing in front of Stradivari’s Messiah in the Ashmolean Museum sometime back in 2011. My position made me especially able to broach the gulf, and explain things to different audiences, and I enjoyed his position of enquiry that came from refreshingly outside of the usual politics of musicians and makers. Mostly that is. Until I came out with the same baloney as the rest of them. “How is this genuine” – “because I say so”. In an email he wrote:

“But I do detect, in my very quick skim of your comments, the same kind of defensive and authoritative tone that struck me in most writing by and about luthiers.  Careful there!  I’m more than happy to be convinced of other points regarding lutherie.”

Those chastening words had an impact on the way that I thought about things, and for some reason, that conversation has remained in my memory, being more influential within the formation of my ideas about expertise and how it is understood than might be expected, but perhaps it was also timely given other things that were happening in my exploration of the phenomenon of expertise. By that time, I had already struck up a friendship at Oxford University with the theologian and philosopher Dr Margaret Yee, and had enjoyed several years of regular conversations about “Principles of Knowing”. These, in the main related to the ethics around perplexing moral dilemmas, and how they could be resolved – how, in essence, it was possible to support a decision as ‘right’ which came from gut-reaction and experience, rather than from attention to an empirical set of rules, and whether these things could be examined from both directions.

In the main, this tended towards such things as medical ethics, to understand the nature of decisions made in an emergency, or without the full extent of knowledge available to make an informed and competent choice, and in that respect it lent on ideas of the ‘unknowable’. Other aspects could be the way that emergency services acted in the height of the moment, making snap decisions to act, or not to act in someone’s interest. However, my particular interests in the integrity of the authenticity process provided a pertinent parallel narrative that helped inform critical thought on the matter. To me, our language is so very limited by contrast to our abilities at perception that this creates enormous problems when a description is bounded by academic principles, since we are not able to describe what we see. Hence, whilst it may be possible to ‘demonstrate’ a decision making process, it is not easily ‘explained’, and that in a nutshell is the root cause of the ‘defensive and authoritative tone’ that Aaron accused me of. Put another way, the arrogance of experts.

Over the years I had seen tremendous tour de force of forensic examination into instruments. Karel Moens, a curator of harpsichords in Belgium had turned his gaze to Italian 16th century stringed instruments, especially those of Andrea Amati, declaring them all fake, with the most extraordinary reports to back up his findings, but rather like Russian disinformation campaigns of the 21st century, bamboozling the reader with an overload of information. (Various articles, including “Problems of Authenticity of Sixteenth Century Stringed Instruments” CIMCIM Newsletter XIV, 1989.) I remember in particular being shown a report on a 1791 Benjamin Banks viola in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had been dismissed as revarnished thus a fake on the basis of it’s good condition and that the varnish was inconsistent with other European violins of the time. A bold statement, but if it had any veritas, it was surely undermined by the fact that Banks worked in Salisbury somewhat in isolation of his London contemporaries with quirks of style and varnish that separated him from the mainstream. The milky-opaque complexion of his varnish distinguished the instrument and was precisely why it related to other genuine examples. Small English violas of this period have a tendency to survive in pure condition.

In 2011, Stradivari’s Messiah was still very much in purgatory as the weight of academic study thanks to Stewart Pollens was towards it being wrong, despite the protestations of those who had seriously studied it. Here especially, against an enormous weight of cutlural doubt expressed about the instrument, experts who claimed to be able to make a definitive judgement were framed as those who had the most reputational and financial interest in upholding the authenticity of the instrument as the reputation of the industry rode on their unassailable authority.

As I wrote to Aaron in 2011 in direct defence of my perceived arrogance, “The Messiah is a genuine Stradivari to me, because I have held it in my hands and examined it for hours on end, as I have the Viotti and whole host of Stradivari violins including most of the finest preserved examples in the world. To me it makes sense, things that I see in it fall into place when I look at other violins by Stradivari, even ones that seem quite remote, in a way that it compares to no other violin. I have seen more Vuillaume violins than I have seen Stradivaris, and there is nothing made in France, not even Vuillaume’s copies of the Messiah that seem even remotely close to the original in the way that just another Strad might be. What I also depend upon, is that another expert with the same depth of knowledge that I have, but derived independently, will arrive at the same opinion – over and over again. The problem is that if you ask me to transform this into a written and defensible statement it is impossible. As you will see, when you read [Stewart] Pollens book on Stradivari, he is able to articulate an academic defence of why the Messiah is a fake. On paper my word is not qualitatively different from his, yet I would refute every statement he has made, and so would anyone else who … has a good knowledge and understanding of it. I would even invite you to look at the Messiah with me, as could Pollens, and would either of us be able to articulate a definitive knowledge of the instruments in/authenticity? To be honest, there is a moment where it simply is the real deal because … I say so … (Arrogant, I know, that it seems).” In essence, I am not asking you to trust that it is real as much as asking you to trust my opinion until you can form an opinion of your own – an inherently problematic position to put forward, as we shall see presently.

Stradivari’s 1716 Messiah in the Ashmolean Museum, is simply in too pristine condition to be accepted as genuine by many people, regardless of concentrated scholarly evaluation of it.

I want to be careful with what I say, because actually I am very grateful to Pollens’ analysis, which really put forward serious questions that needed to be reconciled by the violin world if it wanted to address it’s own integrity. I worked with him for a year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and am somewhat in awe of his work and I respect the way that he gathered together the doubts expressed about the Messiah and delivered them. So saying, my chairmanship and organisation of an international conference in Oxford about the Messiah in 2017 had at it’s heart the principal accusations that Pollens had raised as the pillar’s of investigation that required interrogation, and with that in mind I would like to unequivocally exclude this particular case from what I am going to say next: There is a point where the limitations of language becomes an advantage to the idiot because it cannot explain the nuances of perception. As Mark Twain (is supposed to have) wrote:

Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

Books promoting a conspiracy theory about the Messiah post 2011 are certainly not excluded from that statement. In the main, experts neither produce descriptive accounts of why things are genuine, nor engage in a response to problematic claims of this sort simply because as you engage in the exercise of countering one claim after another, you quickly realise that this lends itself to a rhetorical backwards and forwards which brings us no closer to any absolute kind of truth, just a death dive to the bottom in which he who endures the longest wins.

Instead, a description is at best a brief aide memoire to what can be shown in life, a case of quod erat demonstrandum. Karel Moens’ in depth writings debunking Andrea Amati’s work as forgery, are countered by examining accepted works of the Brothers Amati, (who point towards being the sons of Andrea on the label of every violin they made), of Nicolo Amati, and latterly Stradivari, establishing a continuum of style onto which is neatly prepended the work of Andrea. One need only visit the Ashmolean, compare the Charles IX Andrea and the 1592 Brothers Amati violas to develop a sense of proximity and fluent evolutionary progression that supports the idea of similarity. One can investigate 19th century fakes, and find nothing that sits so closely to that continuum, but that is conditional on absorbing detail from as broad a knowledge base as possible. I know of no conspiracists who have seen the tens of thousands of instruments that a violin dealer will.

In making the case for Andrea Amati’s instruments being fake, Karel Moens failed to account for the number of labels in violins by Girolamo (Hieronymus) and Antonio Amati that cite themselves as the sons of Andrea. Were they in on the conspiracy from early in the 1590s?

What practical things can I write, or say, that characterise the Messiah as a genuine Stradivari? Most obviously, it has pins in the back in the right place, of end grain wood bisected by the purfling, it has beestings at the end of the purfling, a one-piece bottom rib, the scroll has a black line around it, one sound hole is slightly higher than the other and the varnish is red. More? It is made on a PG mould, the label is slightly bent over the linings, the soundhole circles are perfectly round, cut by a cutter not a knife, the blocks are aligned in the right manner and there are nail holes in the top one. The one thing above all that got the better of Vuillaume, the edges in profile aren’t like sausages, they undulate in harmony with the proportions of the instrument, and the corners flair. The peak of the edge work is about 2/5 between the purfling and the edge. It has a little tongue on the belly still that you only see on unmodernised instruments, and actually the original saddle is nice and rhomboid in shape – tiny details that you see on the fewest of Cremonese violins in such fine condition: The nonsense of my description becomes obvious when it is clear that to be able to describe these features means I can replicate them as easily, with the consequence that hundreds of makers can do and may have done intentionally or unintentionally to one extent or another. It also becomes nonsensical because the process of reversing these, as instructions for reconstructing what the Messiah is will not result in the same result, or anything close. It may be that statements such as “if it doesn’t have pins in the back, it can’t be Cremonese”, or “if it is Cremonese and has a dorsal pin, it is Guarneri or Amati, but not Stradivari or Rugeri” may hold true but those are reliant on a whole load of other interrogations being satisfied before we approach those issues. Whilst such an observation may constitute a closing statement in asserting an opinion, it any of these statements are within a very small percentile of experience and perception. My list is not unhelpful, and it is all true, but as a pathway to determining authenticity it is as flawed as Johnny Five making breakfast:

There is no question that using these proscribed formulas plays a role in “satisfying” a line of enquiry. Sometimes in turn the inquisitor is simply looking for the way that an expert approaches a tricky question, just as well-trained shopkeepers during the time when you signed a debit card slip were more interested in the behaviour – hesitation, sweatiness, discomfort of the purchaser than the forensic graphology of their manuscript when deciding if a card was being used by the wrong person. From an expert view, any of the statements above is as false as it is true. Granted, that it is satisfying to see evidence of an almost completely removed black line around a scroll you suspect to be Stradvari. However, on the question of whether the presence of the black line is a defining characteristic of Stradivari’s work, the expert may find that a fundamentally problematic assertion, and may balance it against the weight of expert knowledge that counters it. There are thousands of instruments, from those made by Stradivari’s near-pupils to those made in Mirecourt factories that incorporate that conscious reference to Stradivari’s style. It was enough to satisfy a librarian at the Bodleian Library once, that her “Stradivari” was a fake, because the label was in a font particular to late-nineteenth-century German printing, yet clearly that label could have been put into the instrument years after it was made. In certain contexts, that statement could be an insidiously dishonest assessment.

There is a difference between seeking satisfaction and contentment or unassailable proof, and hence to claim that this single anomaly obviated all other elements that an expert would depend on is nothing other than falsehood, even if the violin was indeed provably 1870s German. An expert is often highly aware that all hard rules are moderated by their exceptions, and a secure judgement is the sum total of many considerations. Many of the writers who have provided autopsy documents to prove a particular case lack the training of a forensic investigator, who understands that a coroner is rarely able to determine an unequivocal case. First: Law and science have always had an uneasy alliance, and since as far back as the fourteenth century, scientific evidence has posed profound challenges of the law, for in almost every instance, scientific evidence tests the abilities of judges, lawyers, and jurors, all of whom may lack the scientific expertise to comprehend the evidence and evaluate it in an informed manner.  Second: Scientific expertise does not necessarily understand what is pertinent to specific expertise. Recommended reading, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States (especially chapter 5). During the 2016 examination of the Messiah at Cremona, for example, one conservation scientist reported deposits of  a proteinous deposit detectable under particular scientific analysis in the margins of the instrument, suggesting it’s possible interest to the experts at large. Not only was it faint traces of animal glue, but the process of examination applied to the instrument was less effective than visual examination that revealed the other characteristics of a bit of glue in the seams. Mike Podmaniczky, my erstwhile conservation colleague at West Dean College was brilliant at advocating E.Y.E.S. as a system of analytical differentiation between materials when students were clamouring to apply X-Ray Flourescence and other sophisticated means to identify substances in the objects they were seeking to restore. It was always amusing to see how long it took for the penny to drop. E.Y.E.S.

In my discussion of Andrea Amati, I have essentially described a framework of visual reconciliation for reading the early Cremonese masters. One can discern the degrees of differentiation between the different makers and epochs, in such a manner that when Andrea Amati, or for that matter a later Girolamo (II) Amati appears at the end of the dynasty, one is able to judge it within an observable continuum quod erat demonstrandum. The exercise is a simple one, and easy to perform for yourself in a visit to Oxford and reliant on your eyes and you critical faculty of comparison.

The Richelieu Venus

There are, however, pitfalls to this approach. The absence of that framework means that the prospect of forgeries being undetectable is enlarged, and in so saying, the imposition of the wrong framework will encourage forgeries. Let us take the example of Roman forgeries of antique Greek sculptures of Praxlites, as Phaedrus, the Roman translator of Aesop’s  referred to  in his Book V of Fables:

If Esop’s name at any time
I bring into this measured rhyme,
To whom I’ve paid whate’er I owe,
Let all men by these presents know.
I with th’ old fabulist make free,
To strengthen my authority.
As certain sculptors of the age,
The more attention to engage,
And raise their price, the curious please,
By forging of Praxelites.

The Richelieu Venus in the Louvre is both an early and significant example of forgery, signed with Praxelites name in letters typical of the Middle Roman period (2nd century AD) from which it dates, and hence some 500 years after Praxelites was purported to have made it. Venus, in this case is wearing a Roman Stola, associated with female virtue and modesty, and normally reserved for Patrician women, hence completely inconsistent with Greek traditions of the 4th century BC (that is equivalent to depicting Henry VIII in a lounge suit and tie).

The patently Roman Richelieu Venus in the Musée du Louvre, signed and once accepted as Praxelites.

There are two considerations to this. The superficial one is to note that the audience for the forgery lacked the knowledge, either in 2nd century AD or in the Renaissance to differentiate between Roman clothing of the middle era, and that of Praxelites’ in Greece. But more than that, the success was reliant on the legend of Praxelites and how the sculpture responded to it. It is an excellent sculpture of it’s sort, well above average in Roman terms. For this reason it is possible to understand how a belief would form that it it “is” good enough to be Praxelites. What would promote doubt is to see original works to compare it by, or failing that, to compare it to other works of the highest quality and see where it fares. It doesn’t take long to view it as a fine Greek-style head lumped onto an entirely Roman pastiche but in the absence of all other knowledge, it may be seen as compelling, just as a Joseph Hill violin or a Hendrick Jacobs could pass as an Amati if one only believed you knew what the required qualities should be. This all comes down to understanding your framework, and the language to explain difference between similar things. As with the Messiah, much of the superficial language that describes it throws up obvious difference. It will remain a rubric of the conspiracy theorist because of the blinding obviousness of how it is different, and how that overshadows the refined language that finds the common values between this and others.

Namibian Tribesmen and the Wine Dark Sea

To explain the nature of this language, it is interesting to reflect on Homer’s Odyssey, and how he famously described the “Wine Dark Sea”. In 1858 William Ewart Gladstone (the prime minister, who said something about locomotives and violins) realised that this extraordinary descriptive metaphor arose fundamentally because there was no word for blue in Ancient Greek. A philologist called Lazarus Geiger expanded this observation to ancient Hebrew, Icelandic, Chinese, and of  Hindu Vedic Myths he wrote “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.” Indeed of all the ancient languages the only one to have a word for blue was the Egyptians. They in turn were the only ancient culture to produce a blue (calcium copper silicate) pigment.

A researcher called Jules Davidoff travelled to the Himba tribe in Namibia, who also don’t have a word for blue, to show a similar pattern of squares to those below, one of them blue, which the Himba were unable to perceive, because they didn’t have the vocabulary to guide them or to distinguish between blue and green.


This rendition of the experiment is different, and one of the squares is a different colour from the others, (you may want to alter the brightness of your screen to look at this, as it often makes a difference on optical effects) but the difference exists outside of the modern Western vocabulary of colours and differences. Measurably, the normal colour is CMYK: 79%, 9%, 100%, 1%, but the north-north-east (second clockwise) is CMYK 68%, 7% 100%, 1%, however even the differentiations of “sage green”, “grass green” are broader than the difference between these tones even though there is 11% difference in cyan between the two. Some years ago (back in the last century), when I worked as an apprentice for Stanley Gibbons, the dealers in postage stamps, I read a manuscript study on the inks and printings of stamps produced for the tiny island of Heligoland for which ‘reprints’ and authentic stamps are notoriously difficult to differentiate (1 1/2 million stamps were printed under British rule, but more than 7 million reproductions were produced in successive printings after the plates found their way into private hands for the German tourist trade). “The green colour of the 1867 6 Schilling is that of the dew sodden grass on an autumn morning whilst the sun is still low in the sky”, I recall it saying, whilst other variations had their own descriptions to compare them by.

6 schilling.png
Varieties of the 1867 6 Schilling Heligoland postage stamp. By memory, the vibrant pink examples on the right of the image are genuine, but it is only by visual analysis of the different mixes of ink that an expert judgement can be made.

These descriptions, rather than describing a colour, provided a vocabulary to distinguish one from another, a truly powerful analytical tool. When looking at the stamps it provides a kind of checklist for the character of colour which excludes certain examples, although even with something of this nature the finer differentiation still leaves some other form of judgement. I admit that I doubt my ability to perceive a difference on the illustrated example, although I used photoshop to report the differences in colour reported above. When we talk about a fundamentally clear varnish whose red pigment is suspended in translucent layers above an underlying brown surface of wood, as one finds on a Stradivari violin, things become exponentially more difficult, and when levels of ware add further to the problem with the same varnish sowing itself differently according to how much remains of it within a single instrument and within the variations from one instrument to the next, the means with which we recognise it’s unifying characteristics involve a much greater experiential grasp of the nature of the subject than vocabulary can account for. We may opt for scientific method: Ultra violet light analysis can show characteristics of varnish that are different from the naked eye, whilst other deep analysis may yield helpful results (since the solvent in any varnish has evaporated in the process of drying, a huge amount of expected analytical data is lost, and there is little we can do with the incomplete data that dried varnish provides).

Trompe L’Oeil

Many of the same qualities that appear on a Stradivari violin will appear on other very different ones, how we know the difference comes down to an enormous amount of comparative experience that is difficult to express. To give an example of the kind of analysis that your brain is making when it is judging violin varnish, consider a part of your wall where the light is varied, perhaps because the door casts a shadow over one part of it (or the shapes illustrated below). In this case, you know that the wall is painted with the same brush and the same paint, and it is a matter of absolute knowledge that there is nothing different between the two areas of colour. However it may equally be a knowable thing that differentials in colour exist, especially if the phenomenon in nature is represented or drawn as an image. Even here you brain can discern between what it sees and what it understands.

It is self-evident that these shapes (as observed in nature) are of one colour only.

In a way, your brain exercises its ‘arrogance’. There is a caution here that is important to comprehend because depending on your frame of reference you are either seeing (in nature) 3d objects of a single colour, or in 2 dimensions something that exists as a range of colours, and to some extent that relies completely on the preconditions of your brain. Renaissance English craftsmen took an interest in the philosophical dilemma that exists in the understanding of shadow in their employment of Trompe L’Oeil, in which the eye is fooled into thinking that 2 dimensional images are 3 dimensional objects. Being clever, they went further, as in the great staircase at Knole House in Kent, where they moved between the dimensions, sometimes painting ornamental strap work and architectural features, sometimes crafting them in three dimensions, and sometimes painting 3 dimensional objects as if they were flat surfaces rendered into three dimensions. Worse still, there is a conscious interplay between very obvious, poor quality trompe l’oeil, to create a sense of false security, and devilishly intricate features. The melange is confusing and the brain struggles to be able to comprehend, going more with what it choses to read than what the reality may actually be. Once again, there is no immediately obvious vocabulary to describe the differences between shadows, and therefore the brain has some trouble in knowing what it has to distinguish.

staircase knole.jpg
The Great Staircase at Knole in Kent.

The experienced expert is ultimately someone who has developed the all-essential vocabulary to describe difference, and who has developed a level of refinement and a store of knowledge that makes those differences meaningful rather than superficial. Systematic research, hours of study and handling instruments are necessary in order to do this. Handling especially because much of the expert’s judgement comes from the sense of touch and a familiarity of form that is better informed by the fingers than the eye. The result is that an expert can discuss for hours on end the relative differences between one thing and another. Often an attribution (as in the case of my article on the Jacobean cittern discovered some years back) comes from what I term a “nexus attribution”, in which an object can be situated within a web of interrelated objects and correlations that mutually support themselves. These things can become the foundation of discussion and it is possible to have satisfying discourses about the similarities and differences that are found between things, though these are reliant on the experience of participants.

There is little point in saying “a reason why the Messiah is not by Vuillaume is because the edges are not like sausages” as an absolute criteria, unless the protagonists in the conversation have some broader knowledge of Vuillaume and Stradivari in order to understand that this is an unexceptional observation. Hence, making statements “The Messiah is genuine because…” is fundamentally and intellectually unsatisfying. It is unlikely that one can come up with unequivocal points of fact, because of the limitations of vocabulary, and for that reason within that context, notwithstanding that it is possible to run a two day conference on the Messiah and still have more to say about it, the Messiah is genuine because it just is – because you respect my authority, and that’s my view of it: With an awareness of the arrogance implicit within that statement, it is nevertheless, the most expedient way to deal with the vastness of the subject of expertise on a certain matter. This doesn’t make anything less true, in fact it is possible to arrive at self-evidently compelling conclusions. It is easy to apply comparative language when there are examples at hand, as for example this delightful day in the office with six fakes by the incredible George Wulme Hudson, each unified by style points, but aspiring to be different things. However, customers are looking for an answer, not a masterclass, and one cannot sell an instrument with a nexus of supporting examples in order to support its authenticity. At this point an analysis of remembered comparables is unhelpful. Hence when the client begins to trespass into the intangible, the expert tends towards an attitude of justification that the uninitiated may find bellicose, arrogant, dismissive, and ungenerous.

2016-02-17 20.29.15.jpg
The sheer glory of six George Wulme-Hudsons in a row on my sofa – fakes purporting to be everything from Testore of the 1710s to Bisiach of the 1920s, and unified by more minutiae than the obvious differences that separate them.

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One Comment

  1. Steve Jones

    Thanks Ben, I enjoyed reading that and will read it again. Just occasionally I have to forget my favourite mantra “nullius in verba”, because in this case I’m pretty sure you’re right. My pet demonstration of how certain things that are completely unprovable by objective means are nevertheless consistently revealed to perception (whether innate or learned is hard to say) is how we can picture a whole orchestra from a squiggly line, just by feeding it through a headphone. Psychoacousticians have very little idea how we do it and no analytical machine comes close (unless there’s been a heck of a revolution since I left the field!).


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