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.