Fake or Fortune: Is it a real Stradivarius?

Every year we have dozens of people getting in touch to tell us they think they’ve found a priceless Stradivarius violin. Before you get excited, here are the facts you need to know. Benjamin Hebbert writes: 

Stradivarius is a famous kind of violin, and something that everyone knows about. Whether you have read Sherlock Holmes mysteries or watched episodes of the BBC series about the antiques dealer Lovejoy, you will know that there is a mystique about them. Sherlock Holmes found a genuine Stradivarius in a pawn shop up Tottenham Court Road, and the violin world is fuelled by legends of Stradivarius violins found in the strangest of places.

If you’ve ever watched The Red Violin, one of the most remarkable things about the film is that every little sub-plot within the story comes directly from one story or another that exists in violin lore. Over the years genuine violins have been captured by pirates, dug up from strong boxes buried in the ground and other equally prestigious instruments have been retrieved from the graves of former owners. One unfortunate owner brought his violin to the battle of Waterloo, only to have his head removed by a canon ball. During the Korean war, an American GI retrieved a violin from a village hut, only to discover he had hit the jackpot: Some things are stranger than fiction.

So what are the brutal facts? Antonio Stradivari lived in Cremona from 1644 to 1739 and as a craftsman with a single studio and a few assistants. There are about 600-700 violins, 60 cellos and 12 violas that survive (as well as a hotchpotch of guitars, mandolins and a harp). His work was always very highly valued, even in his lifetime, so the idea that he made very many more than what survives is very unlikely. His survival rate compares well to paintings by artists who enjoyed similar fame and status. As a result, it is unlikely that there are many unknown Stradivari violins that have escaped expert eyes. Sometimes instruments that were sold 100 years ago re-emerge, but when this happens they are already documented and there is normally very strong evidence that the instrument is a good one. Essentially, as the late expert Bob Bein put it “If your grandparents had a Stradivari in the attic, everyone in the family would know about it!” –    if it comes as a surprise to you to find a violin labelled Stradivari, the likelihood of it being real are more than a million to one.

If your grandparents had a Stradivari in the attic, everyone in the family would know about it! – Bob Bein

Stradivari’s importance is that he subtly refined the shape of the violin, and his achievements created the ideal model that has been sought after for most of the time since his death. In turn some expert makers of the nineteenth century studied his work in order to make instruments of their own that look very much like a genuine Stradivari. These work well, and can be worth a very good amount of money in their own right as they are sought after by professional musicians. After that there are the replicas.

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The best way of thinking about factory-made Stradivari copies, is to think of the modern-day collectibles market for replicas. If you buy a Star Wars light-sabre from a memorabilia shop it is obviously not the same one that Mark Hamill used when he played Luke Skywalker: The light-sabre prop that he used in Star Wars – A New Hope sold  at auction to Ripley’s Believe it or Not in 2017 for $450,000, but it goes without saying that a replica that you buy off eBay, or from a memorabilia shop for under $100 will never – ever have a value that remotely approaches that of the real thing. By the same token a replica made as a homage to Stradivari is of a Stradivari model, and connects the owner to the mystique and interest of the world that includes genuine Stradivari violins, just as a Harry Potter fan may own a plastic reproduction magic wand a Hogwarts scarf.

Just like the modern replicas market, “copies” of famous old instruments came in a variety of models, not just Stradivarius – there are Amatus, Guarnerius, Stainer (Amati and Guarneri) as well as a number of lesser names that frequently appear on these labels. Some of these are so cheaply made that they have no value in today’s market, because there are cheap factory-produced Chinese violins that are better than they can ever be. Exceptionally they can be worth a few thousand pounds. Just occasionally a copy can be worth more, but those fine master copies are still one-in-a-million to find, so just like the real thing they are unlikely to turn up in a thrift shop or an attic.

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Ultimately, replica violins were made in their millions in factories in Germany, France and Romania throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They could be sold for as little as a couple of dollars by mail order through businesses such as the American catalogue company Sears Roebuck. Markneukirchen, a large village in Germany produced so many musical instruments of this sort for the American retail market that that the United States established the only consulate outside of a major city within the village in order to administrate the musical exports that came from it.

Sears Roebuck Stradivari model
A 1920s Sears Roebuck catalogue advertising a “Stradivarius Model Violin” with case, bow and accessories for a mere $6.45 with shipping.

Lastly, us violin dealers and experts see hundreds of these things every year. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm when you see another one, but if you are reading this blog, it may be the only violin you have ever owned. One thing we can never account for is the history and heritage that comes with an old violin and the hands that have touched it. If it came to America in the 1870s it could be from a first generation immigrant who found a bit of money to buy it after they got settled. Even famous violinists start with modest instruments. We can never put a price on nostalgia, but if the violin has a story to tell, it’s up to you to figure out how valuable it is to you.

There are relatively few experts that can authenticate a Stradivarius and it has to be examined properly, not in photographs to see if it is real. Most violin shops have the skills to recognise the thousands of fakes and replicas and a few good photos are helpful for eliminating instruments with obvious characteristics of one sort or another.

If after reading this, you think you might have something that is better than average, email us via the following link: violins@hebberts.com although you may well be better off finding a local shop and soliciting their opinion first of all.

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