Posted By on November 4, 2010

One of the violins in my stock has a certificate of authenticity from a previous dealer. “We certify . . .” it begins (note the royal we) that the violin sold by us (there’s that plural again) on the Third day of December, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine . . .” and so it continues. It’s a wonder the author didn’t go the extra mile and say “in the year of Our Lord” as well. A more perfect example of pomposity would be hard to find. It has photographs attached and is embossed with the dealer’s stamp and so on, and comes in an extra-thick card envelope, which is tied up with a little ribbon. Impressive enough to sell the violin. It states, without any possibility of doubt, that the violin was made by Giacomo Gavelli of Perugia in 1737.

Now, I’ve never heard of this luthier. He probably existed, but he has never been famous, and he cannot have been a prolific maker. So how on earth can anybody recognise an instrument by him? Nobody on the planet can have seen more than a handful, and most, like me, have seen none at all.

I had a professional dendrochronological examination done on this violin; hard science, and it gave a good positive date for the wood: the 1790’s. The instrument, therefore, must date from sometime afterwards. So much for the impressive certificate.

This kind of thing is astonishingly common. There was an authority in America who did this all the time, and very often the results would appear at auction. Here are a few more ludicrous examples from auction catalogues – if anybody wants I will supply the Lot numbers and sale dates . . . and the name of the certificate-writer.

An Italian Violin by Antonio Mirone Gemmellaro, Nicolosi, 1924“. Certificate dated 20th July 1987.

An Italian Violin by Eugenio Capriola, San Giovanni in Porta, last quarter of the 19th Century“,(this was unlabelled) Certificate dated 28th June 1988.

An Italian Violoncello by Francesco de Muzio, Chieti, 1870“, Certificate dated 3rd Feb 1988.

The hugely-respected writer of the certificates, now deceased, can have known as little about these luthiers as you do. The point is, if nobody knew about these makers, how could anybody question the certificates? The same authority often stated that other instruments were by well-known makers, but here, we could recognise the work – and almost as often found that his attributions were just plain wrong. These were seldom, if ever, included in the catalogues – the cause of much argument between us and the certificate-writer.

Perhaps I have been unjust, for there are many authorities who churn out certificates with dubious accuracy. So why am I now mentioning the subject? Because I have been asked – pestered, even – to write certificates, and since my book was published these requests have become more insistent.

And I think I will, too. If I’ve sold an instrument then my certificate will have no more significance than my receipt, which anyway guarantees the instrument. I think I’ll include my reasons for coming to my conclusions – my arguments, if you like. That’ll be unusual, but far more helpful than simply saying, in effect, “It’s genuine; take my word for it.” I’ll be very careful to include the words “in my opinion” . . . in the words of the late Jacob Bronowski, “Think it possible . . . that you have made a mistake . . . ”

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