How the violin trade works

Little is known about the Tyrolese maker, Mathias Alban of Bozen. That’s Tyrolese, not Italian. It is not known who taught him – there have been several guesses – but sometimes his varnish suggests that he might have been trained in Italy.

Before World War I, the Italian town of Bolzano was part of the Austro-Hungarian country of Tyrol. It was called Bozen. The population spoke German. Bozen did not become Italian until 1919, when it was annexed by Italy at the end of the first World War. At the time of its annexation Bozen had a population of 30,000 German-speaking people.

In the 1920s the city, along with the rest of the province, was subjected to an intensive Italianization programme under orders from the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. The German language was banished from public service, German teaching was officially forbidden and German newspapers were censored with the exception of the fascist Alpenzeitung. The regime massively favoured immigration from other Italian regions. The aim was to outnumber the local German-speaking population by tripling the population with Italian-speaking immigrants drawn from the old provinces.

Mathias Alban was born on the 28th March 1621 in St. Nikolaus in Kaltern, close to Bozen. Both places were part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, for this pre-dates the formation of Austro-Hungary, which took place in 1867. He died on the 7th February 1712, according to most authorities, in Bozen – still in Austria. That’s a very long life, and it used to be thought that there were two makers of the same name, father and son. George Hart, writing in 1875 states that the father’s work “is somewhat like Stainer’s, but higher and heavier in construction.” He then goes on to say that the son “has shown but faint marks of having been tutored by his parent in the art of violin-making.”

He is considered (in older textbooks) to be second only to Stainer in importance in the Tyrolese school of lutherie. Fridolin Hamma, as recently as 1948 , included Mathias Alban in his book on German violin makers.

Italian violins, though, are far easier to sell, and far more expensive than Tyrolese examples. Since the early 19th Century, therefore, Alban’s original labels have been removed and fake labels, in Latin, have been inserted. By 1850 most books about violins refer to him as “Matthias Albani” – a rather curious mixture of Germanic given name and Italian surname. And since 1919 frankly Italian labels have been put in. This accounts for the astonishing variety of labels illustrated in the textbooks – at least a dozen different examples are illustrated in the common dictionaries of violin makers, and I found nine more in old auction catalogues. All these labels are completely different – some are printed, some are written in ink. Those that are printed have completely different fonts. Those that are written have completely different handwriting. They’re all fake, of course. Genuine labels from this maker might well have been in German, in common with the labels of most other contemporary German-speaking makers, and less likely to have been in Latin.

I can remember selling a violin which was considered to be by this maker at auction, and which was described as Tyrolese. It had a label inside: Matthias Alban, geigenmacher in Bozen. I saw it again a few months after the sale, now described as an Italian violin, and with a label which read Matteo Albani fece in Bolzano. Now that’s just silly.

A Saxon Cello

Saxon Cello

Posted By on February 17, 2010 | Edit

18th century Saxon cello


18th century Saxon cello

This cello dates from the late 18th Century. It is truly eccentric. How unusual it is to see an old instrument that most emphatically is not modelled after Stradivari, Amati, Stainer or Guarneri. In my view, it’s rather refreshing, too. It is what’s called a lady’s size (I dislike the expression), being larger than a three-quarter but smaller than a normal cello. Its back length is 71.7 cm., but the upper bouts are a little wide in proportion, and the centre bouts seem rather short. The ribs are shallower than normal, too, so the total volume of air inside the instrument is considerably less than standard.

Now, the four models mentioned above seem to work best, most of the time, but even so it is astonishing how few utterly different instruments survive. This is utterly different. And it is a survivor. I purchased it from an antique dealer in 2004, at which time it was in absolutely original condition. Its table had never been removed before, and it had its original late-transitional neck. It sounded simply dreadful. In fact, its poor playing qualities were probably the reason for its little-used condition. I decided to have the neck replaced with a modern component, which may seem like cultural vandalism to some, but dealers have to be pragmatic, and something dramatic had to be done to make it sound and make it sell. The table was immensely heavy, and some judicious re-thickening was done. Of course a new bass-bar was fitted too. After the work was completed, it did in fact become, if not powerful, then surprisingly resonant and pleasant. The new neck meant that the string length became 68.5 cm – only a little less than standard.

It sold quickly, and six years on I was pleased to re-purchase it.

It’s Saxon, of course – the arching is of that type that rises almost immediately from the edges, all the way round, to the same extent, and then flattens right off in an even plateau. The arching is frankly naive. It is covered in a good-quality spirit varnish, mostly yellow, I’m told. But look at those soundholes! Very close to the edges, very sloping, and very long. At first glance they seem so out-of-proportion that one might assume that the entire cello has been reduced in size – but not so. The arching, primitive as it is, has not been compromised, and the ribs have not been cut down. And it is well-made, too – the purfling shows unusual sophistication, in that it is made up of five strands of wood, not three. I can’t find anything like it in any textbook. I’ve no idea who made it.

18th century Saxon cello

Perfect for someone small who wants a good-sounding, mellow, characterful and different cello for chamber music.

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A Pochette

There was a time when it was essential for upper and middle class women to be able to dance. Hard to imagine now, but for most of the 18th century European society would know exactly what was expected, and more prosaically where to put its legs, if the band struck up a bourée, or a rigaudon, or a forlane, or half a dozen other dances.

There were dancing teachers, of course. In fact it was not an uncommon profession, for the demand was urgent. They had to be able to play the music and demonstrate the dance steps. This required a small instrument; in fact a pocket-sized instrument. It was also necessary for it to be very quiet: houses were crowded, and not everybody needed dancing lessons.

Carved head of pochette

The Dancing Master’s Kit, or Pochette, fitted the bill perfectly. The strings are roughly the same length as those of a violin, and similarly tuned, so any fiddle player can use it. Having such a tiny soundbox means it can never be noisy. The term “Kit” tends to be used by the English: “Pochette”, a French word, was used in mainland Europe. In modern usage pochette can mean a wallet, but it’s any small pocket.

Inexplicably, there was a rush of fakes that flooded the market in the 1990’s. They were superficially convincing, but were generally easy to spot because the details were incorrect and because of indifferent workmanship. This isn’t one of those. Incredibly, the very narrow purfling around the edge of the table is not painted on, but is actually inlaid. It’s just a single strip, but it really does protect the front from creeping edge cracks.

The back is in two pieces, which is rather unusual. Such small instruments tend to have one-piece backs (the fakes always do) and quite commonly the backs and sides are all carved out of one bit of wood. The back here is of beech, with an obliquely-cut knot at the bottom. Because the two halves are matched the knot appears heart-shaped.

Back of pochette

There’s a repaired crack through the knot, because it’s structurally weaker here and because this is, after all, perhaps over three hundred years old. This has proper ribs, and they are of plainer beech. The table is of wide-grained pine. Neither the front nor the back have any overhang: they are flush with the ribs. Well of course they are: there’s less to get snagged when taking it out of a pocket. The ebony fingerboard is of a later date, but the ivory saddle and end-pin are probably original.

I’m unhappy with the pegs. They have what looks like teeth-marks on them. This is perfectly OK. When pegs become hopelessly jammed people do sometimes use their teeth to grip them, but these marks are too regular, and look intentional. The pegs are later.

Now . . . where did it come from? Pochettes were made all over Europe.

It isn’t English. It’s festoon outline discounts that, as do the soundholes and head. At first the head looks French. It’s an odd mixture of adult hair-do with baby’s face, and similar finials can be found on some pardessus-de viole and larger viols, also quintons and occasionally violins. However most of these have running decoration along the outside edges of the pegbox, whereas this is plain. Some makers from Prague made similar finials – Hulinzky, for example. I’m sure it’s not Italian. Italian pochettes tend to be of the straight-sided variety, and their pegboxes are not like this. I don’t think it’s Flemish either. I suppose there must be exceptions, but I’d expect a Flemish pochette to have soundholes shaped like the letter C.

Front of pochette


I reckon it’s Bavarian. The varnish looks Bavarian – Augsburg perhaps, or Nuremberg. The soundholes are squeezed within the outline, but being vaguely flame-shaped are more likely from there or from further east, for example Vienna. These soundholes are quite strongly similar to those of a maker called Ernst Busch, who worked in Nuremberg in the mid-17th century. Well, perhaps it is that old. Also the very architectural tailpiece, which I think is pearwood, may well be original and is, to my eye, more Germanic than anything else.

Surprising Wood

Here’s a really beautiful violin. I bought it from an antique dealer. He told me it had come from a house clearance. It was in an old case together with a really nice tortoiseshell-mounted bow. The label looks completely original, somebody famous, and it’s dated 1905.
So it has all the ingredients of a fake. However, we have to check.
The fingerboard was very worn & actually furrowed &amp which means that somebody played on it a great deal before it was put away. That’s a good sign. It has glamorous wood in the back with a very wide figure, and matching wood in the ribs. The varnish is red-gold and it has rather short corners. Also it’s very neatly made, with widely chamfered, almost flat internal linings, typical of Italian workmanship. The age: well, yes, that’s about right. Patina is hard to copy, and the varnish wear on this violin is just that: genuine wear, not artificially aged. There are no fake scratches or rubbed areas. The button, so often overlooked by copiers, is carefully finished too . . . so far so good.
A significant clue is the purfling. The black lines are really thin, the filling of the sandwich being very much thicker. Now, that’s characteristic of the maker named on the label. So is the scroll, and so are the careful edges. Now then, what next?
			Italian violin by Bisiach
Dendrochronology. If that shows the wood in the table dates from after the date on the label, why then of course this must be a fake. I suppose I was hoping for a date of around 1895, something like that . . . so the result astonished me. Peter Ratcliff’s unambiguous result is that the wood of the treble side dates from 1646 to 1723, and the bass side from 1651 to 1727. The wood is absolutely indistinguishable from that used by, for example, Carlo Bergonzi and Guarneri del Gesu. Had this front been on a classical violin, dendrochronology would not have been able to tell the difference.
			Italian violin by Bisiach
OK, now here’s what the label says: Leandro Bisiach, Milanese fece in Milano, anno 1905. I should add that the label is contemporary with the instrument & nobody’s stuck it in later.
Well, did Bisiach have old violin-making wood? Yes. He was probably the only “modern Italian” maker so equipped.
Leandro Bisiach was a pupil of Riccardo Antoniazzi, who was himself a pupil of Enrico Ceruti, the last of the line of the great Cremonese makers. Bisiach was an excellent businessman, as well as a meticulous researcher and maker. Bisiach’s workshop later employed Antoniazzi, as well as his four sons, and Sgarabotto, Ornati, Garimberti and Sderci, among others. It’s widely recorded that Bisiach was the sole successor to the great Cremonese tradition of violin making. The real clincher, though, is that Leandro Bisiach had acquired workshop contents that had belonged to various old Cremonese masters (see Pardo Fornaciari, Arte Liuteria). To quote from the dendrochronological report:
“The overwhelming nature and type of wood that correlated with the front of the Bisiach, i.e. wood used almost exclusively by classical Italian makers of the early to mid 18th century, strongly suggest that Leandro Bisiach had been fortunate in acquiring old stock of tonewoods from predecessors, possibly via the Antoniazzi line. As a result, the piece he used on this violin displays a typical growth ring pattern found on spruce bellies of many Italian classical instruments. This situation is by no means the norm as most so called Modern Italian violins, or Italian violins of the very early part of the 20th century tend to have been made within 15 to 25 years of their dendrochronlogical date.”