Death of a Violin

Posted By on March 8, 2010

Somny violin

The old certificate for this violin, which has a fake Joseph Hill label, described it as “Kloz School” without bothering with a date. I suppose it was made in the late 18th Century, and probably in Mittenwald, which indeed does make it of that school. The extended Kloz family produced large numbers of instruments in that place and around that time. However this violin has very thick edges and its soundholes lack the delicacy that I would expect of a proper Kloz. It was never, therefore, worth a very great deal.

It must have been knocked, causing a soundpost crack in the table, sometime during the 19th Century. It has three old (rectangular) studs to repair the crack laid into the thickness of the table from underneath – a very old-fashioned repair, and an inadequate one, as shown by the later repairs consisting of further (square) studs glued over the top of the earlier ones. By the way, soundpost patches, the normal solution, were not in common use for cheap violins until surprisingly recent times, owing to the difficulties of clamping the patch inside a curved surface.


Somny violin

This second restoration was probably necessary because of further impact damage. There is a new piece of wood low down on the treble side at the edge. It’s clear enough from the inside, but very hard to see from the outside.

Somny violin

The repairer either re-inlaid the original purfling, or matched it perfectly. I have no idea who did the 19th Century repairs, but the second repairer signed his work. There is a pencil inscription Repd. by J. M. Somney, London 1914.

Somny violin

Now that’s interesting. Joseph Maurice Somney was born in the cradle of the French violin industry, Mirecourt. He worked for the foremost dealers of the day, W.E. Hill & Sons, from 1888 to 1910, before setting up on his own at 90, George Street, (off Baker Street), London. He was widely recognised as the finest restorer of his time. I remember when the collection of templates of instruments that he had repaired came up for auction in 1979. There were about a hundred and fifty of them, the majority being inscribed with the names of famous instruments by Stradivari, Guarneri and so on. And yet he worked on this comparatively insignificant violin too. He died in 1931.

So why have I now got this violin open again? Because it has suffered a third, and this time utterly catastrophic, fall. Somney’s repairs held firm, but the rest of it, particularly the bass side, has been smashed again. The neck-block has been wrenched out of position, crashing the fingerboard onto the table and causing huge cracks on both sides. The soundpost has cracked the back too, which is a shame, as it was a nice, honest, old Bavarian back. It’s had it. It would cost far, far, more to restore than it could ever be worth, so the reluctant decision was taken to throw this 18th Century instrument away. However the owner let me keep the bits, and I’m very grateful, as you never know what you’ll find when you open an old instrument, and because the head and pegbox are fine, and will join my collection of such bits and pieces.

Somny violin Somny violin

Saxon Cello

Posted By on February 17, 2010

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.

J. & H. Banks viola

Posted By on February 2, 2010

Banks viola back

I have a very original viola made by James & Henry Banks of Salisbury, made in 1808. It’s of the small-but-sounds-good model, having a back length of 15 3/8 in (384mm). An almost identical one (but dated 1803) is illustrated in Albert Cooper’s well-known book Benjamin Banks. It is a shock to realise that it was published over twenty years ago – it seems like yesterday. I knew Albert quite well. The last time I met him was at his home in 1997, in connection with a Pietro Guarneri violin (branded Tononi) that came my way – Albert had another, which I had seen in Volume 1 of his collection.

The Banks book is a godsend; a mine of information. However the bibliography is very brief and does not mention a superb article on the same subject by Betty Matthews, published in The Strad in November 1965. He may not have been aware of it until after his book was published, for old Strad magazines are not indexed. You can’t simply look up anything of interest, and the only way to be sure that something has not been published previously is to trawl through old issues. With one per month since May 1890, that’s a big task, even assuming you can find a complete run somewhere.

Banks viola back

It’s a pity, because some wonderful snippets in the earlier article were not mentioned in the book. There is much of interest in Matthews’ article, including contemporary opinions about the tone of Banks’ cellos compared to Forster’s. One of Banks’ sons (William) died in Madras. Oh, and the astonishing (and unsubstantiated) statement that only the inferior Stainer-model instruments were sent off to London to be retailed by Longman & Broderip (who were bankrupted in 1798) while the very-much-better Amati-model instruments were sold by himself. These latter models were apparently superior in workmanship and varnish. Also, quoting a contemporary source, that a “superior” Banks cello “fell into the hands of Longman & Broderip, who obliterated the maker’s name and put in their own. Afterwards Betts got hold of it, took out the latter name and put in his.” This was in the 18th Century, remember. There’s nothing new about fake brands and labels. Now, Albert’s book is far more comprehensive than the earlier article, but surely he would have included this stuff if he had known about it?

Matthews (and Albert) noted that Banks’ business was much more than just stringed instruments – keyboards, woodwind, guitars and music were a large part of it. Albert noted the astonishing regularity and prodigious output of Benjamin Banks after 1770, and noted that an instrument branded B. Banks dating from 1789 was almost identical with another made by James & Henry dating from 1809. Benjamin died in 1795, and he suggests this similarity in styles proves that the same people were involved in the construction of all the instruments. Benjamin had ten children – not uncommon in the 18th Century – and three of them were instrument makers. After the old man’s death the business was carried on by two of his sons, James and Henry. At the time of his father’s death James was thirty-six years old, and he had been an accomplished maker for nineteen years. His partner was his brother Henry, who was twelve years younger. Both Matthews and Cooper point out that Henry was far more involved with pianos.

An older brother, also called Benjamin, was an instrument maker, but he was not involved with the family business after 1780, when he moved to London. Much later, when James & Henry moved to Liverpool in 1811, he seems to have re-joined the business there. how do i backup my iphone to icloud His instruments are rare. I have never (knowingly) seen one.

So it seems as though my viola was probably made by James Banks. Aware of the commonplace fraud with labels, as mentioned earlier, he branded his instruments in plenty of places – on the blocks and the centre linings. Curiously I could not find an image of the lining – brands anywhere, so here are my efforts.

Banks viola back
Banks viola back

I found it difficult. My camera automatically focussed on the top of the instrument rather than inside it, and it’s not easy to get the lighting right. My viola, by the way, also has its large original label, but hey, everyone knows what they look like.

I have to add that my viola has a repaired soundpost crack in the back, (which, however, is quite invisible from the outside) and some old neck-block damage. So it is not worth much, even if it is lovely.

Richard Tobin? Well, School of . . .

Posted By on January 17, 2010

English violin

Look at this. It’s just gorgeous. I bought it at a regional auction where they had all sorts of junk, and the pre-sale estimate was £500/800. Some violins just stand out for their quality. Apart from being amazed by the beauty of the varnish it was immediately apparent that this was most carefully and tastefully constructed. The scroll and pegbox were outstanding. There was no label, but it had two different numbers stamped into it – probably old dealer’s numbers – one on the button (217) and one by the end-pin, which looked older and had been made with a bigger die (94). It was in essentially fair condition, although showing signs of long neglect, with the neck loose and the fingerboard adrift and so on. The strings were very old gut, and the pegs were of those nice old English boxwood design with large pearl dots inset into the ends.

There was, I think, only one other bidder, a local antique dealer, and he chased me up to several times the estimate, but still far less than I was prepared to pay. A bargain.


English violin

After the sale the other bidder asked me what I thought it was, and I told him that it was English, circa 1840. He asked why, and I told him about the pegs and pointed out that the linings were butted up against the corner blocks and that the bottom block looked rounded. But apart from that I had no good answer – that’s just what I thought it was. It felt something like a Fendt to me, although there were one or two features that were not quite right for either Bernard Simon or Jacob Fendt. Oh, and the button was not right at all, looking, if anything, German.

English violin As I had now paid for the violin, I asked the auctioneer if they could tell me anything at all about where it had come from. It took a few days for them to reply that it was formerly the property of a minor public school, having been used by the music teacher. It had probably not been played since before the war. Perhaps the numbers had something to do with a school inventory.

On getting the violin home I compared it with a genuine violin by Bernard Simon Fendt, and became certain that it could not be by the same maker.

English violin

In Colin’s workshop the front was removed. It was immediately apparent that this was not the first time that this had been done. The neck had been forced into a shallower angle by a poor workman at some stage, and the button had been clamped to suit – which explained its inconsistent appearance. The same bodger had made a muddle of a bass-bar crack repair. It needed to have the neck re-set, new top and bottom blocks, the bass-bar crack repaired properly and a new bass-bar. The bottom rib needed reinforcing where somebody had tightened a chinrest clamp too enthusiastically and it needed a little attention to the edges and so on. Also the original pegs were too worn to be useable, and had to be replaced. By the way, this does not contradict my statement that it was in essentially fair condition. There is nothing at all amiss with the back, and the damage described is pretty much normal for a violin over 150 years old. Maddeningly, there were no clues to the maker inside: no helpful brands or signatures. Perhaps the earlier workman had removed any such signs, for the underside of the table was oddly clean.

English violin

On pages 136 and 137 of The British Violin there are pictures of a violin that might be by the same maker. The varnish looks identical and the scroll is very similar to mine, although the instrument in the book is of a different model. That one was made for Arthur Betts in 1837, and the text states that, with several makers working for Betts, the true maker of their instrument may never be known. However, one of the men who supplied Betts was Richard Tobin, and that possibility fascinates me. Tobin was born in 1766 and died in 1847. His work is often unmarked, and, apparently, generally varnished by whichever dealer he was making for. Tobin is noted for the neatness of his work, and the beauty of his scrolls. Also he is noted for the particular care he took with his pegboxes. The British Violin states that he used a Forstner bit for these – but that cannot be correct, as Benjamin Forstner, an American, patented his invention long after Tobin’s death, in 1874. Nonetheless, Tobin pegboxes are unusually clean, with very flat bottoms and straight sides . . . exactly like the pegbox on my violin.

The British Violin further states that “The very finely-cut nicks of the soundholes are a useful recognition point”. Thankfully, the soundholes of my violin have not been interfered-with, and the original nicks are indeed tiny.

English violin

How I wish there were a pencil inscription inside, like the one illustrated on page 67 of that wonderful book.
English violin

More on decorated instruments

Posted By on December 31, 2009

The Royal George cello

Photo courtesy Sotheby’s, (thanks Tim)

A friend read my last entry and mentioned another painted instrument, the famous “Royal George” cello by William Forster. The cello is certainly magnificent, and it maddens me that it is not in the V & A museum.

I first saw this wonderful instrument in the summer of 1986, when it was loaned for an exhibition by the excellent Galpin Society. The exhibition was held in one of the galleries at Sotheby’s, and, as I worked in the musical instrument department there, I was a little involved. At the time it was known that William Forster had made two cellos for the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) in 1782, but as there was no proof that this was one of those the date was put cautiously as circa 1790. It would have been a beautiful cello with no decoration, but this had the royal coat of arms (with a lot of gold and blue) painted in the upper bouts of the front, and the Prince of Wales feathers in the lower bouts. Around the ribs, in lettering that can only be described as heraldic, ran the legend Liberty and Loyalty. A former employee of W.E. Hill & Sons told me who had restored it: Harold Hearne in 1951.

One wonders why Forster bothered. It probably had something to do with the fact that he had the royal warrant – he was proud of being ” . . . Violoncello . . . maker to their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland . . . ” (The Duke of Cumberland, incidentally, was not the butcher of Culloden, but a younger brother of the Prince. He later became King of Hanover.) I do not know if the Prince of Wales played the cello (as our present-day Prince Charles did, as a child) but there is not much wear on the instrument. As always, decorated instruments tend not to be taken seriously for playing, and this was no exception. However it is difficult to underestimate the national importance of the cello: the flamboyant and spendthrift Prince of Wales, he of the Brighton Pavilion, was hugely influential: his father was periodically mad, and he became regent before the old king died.

I became reacquainted with the Royal George in November 1990, when it came up for sale at Sotheby’s. Apparently it had been sold at Christies in 1903 for 52 guineas (£54.60p) and later for £120 at Puttick & Simpson, although I don’t know the date. Aware of its importance, and with about eight weeks to go before the sale, I wrote to the keeper of furniture and metalwork at the Victoria & Albert Museum (who, bizarrely, was in charge of their musical instruments) pointing out that their magnificent collection consisted mostly of decorated instruments, and that this was likely to be affordable. And unique. And of national importance, and of no relevance in any other museum. But this is England, and of course there wasn’t enough money; of course they needed far more time; of course there was no room for it; of course, of course, of course.

It didn’t sell at the auction, which was not surprising, as cello buyers were put off by the decoration. I suppose what maddened me at the time was that one of my duties, after an auction, was to help with the inevitable paperwork concerning export licences. Because a good, but comparatively common, Ferdinand Gagliano violin had sold for over the government’s limit, it required a Department of Trade export licence. Why? There are hundreds of Gagliano violins, of no importance to Great Britain at all. It’s just that it was expensive, and expensive art attracts the attention of the authorities. Nationally important, rare, yet inexpensive art does not. website tech info If the Royal George had sold, it could have left the country with nobody in authority raising an eyebrow.

The third time I met the cello was at the splendid BVMA exhibition in 1998. There it was, now catalogued, correctly in my view, as made in 1782. Perhaps its fate is to be exhibited endlessly, but not permanently – for it is not yet in a museum, as far as I am aware.

Decorated Instruments

Posted By on December 17, 2009

Violins are handsome objects, no question about it. Lots of writers have gone into ecstasies about the outline, the varnish and the subtle arching and so on. Most of a violin’s form is necessary. Its general shape and size are defined by what is practical and what makes the best sound – it must have a waist so that the bow can be used, for example. The possible exceptions to this “form-follows-function” rule are the corners and the scroll. There have always been experiments with guitar-shaped violins – violins without corners. Stradivari himself made one (there may be more) and it sounds very well. Joshua Bell used it for his recording of the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Much later, some respected French makers, most notably Chanot, revived the form. But it has never caught on.

The scroll, which can provide so many clues about the maker, is sometimes referred to, in old literature, as a hook – for that is all the function it has. I think it is a pity that nearly every violin copies this form of ornament. Certainly it can be very attractive, but it still seems rather unimaginative to stick with this renaissance design. Some Bavarian and Tyrolese makers, including Stainer, often used a stylised lion’s head, which works well enough, being about the same weight as a scroll and still functioning as a hook to hang the violin with. And I have seen a really superb piece of 18th century carving, a magnificent bird of prey’s head with an arched neck. The feathers were carefully worked all along the back of the pegbox, and the line of the curved neck was continued into the creature’s hooked beak – from any distance it was the same shape as an ordinary scroll. It was inset with beautiful polished stone black eyes.

Why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? Because players simply won’t buy it, that’s why. The innate conservatism of the market forces new makers to follow the established practice, even in matters of decoration.

The seventeenth century Italian maker Antonio Mariani quite commonly inlaid the backs of his instruments with purfling parquetry. It does not affect the sound at all. It was a purely aesthetic consideration, and it evidently sold satisfactorily to his clientele at that time. But it wouldn’t work today – buyers shy away from any such ostentation. A few years ago I sold a really beautiful old violin with an intricate and subtle design of purfling inlay in the back – it was uphill work, though, and I found myself saying “don’t worry, it’s in the back, nobody will see it when you’re playing . . . ” as though it were something to be ashamed of.

Painted stradivari

In October 1974 Sotheby’s sold an early Strad with a rather fine painting of a lion on the back. (They said it was a lion; it looks more like a tiger to me.) It was quite nice, actually, and here is a very poor photo-of-a-photo to give you an idea. The painting disguised several cracks in the back, of course. It was very cheap. After the sale the paint was removed and the back restored as well as could be done – and of course, without the decoration, it was taken as a serious instrument, and subsequently sold for a far higher figure.

Soundpost cracks – should they matter?

Posted By on December 7, 2009

I have just been shown a very beautiful smallish Italian violin, dating from around the middle of the 17th century and attributed to Andrea Guarneri.  It has an old and slightly ambiguous certificate and a recent unambiguous dendrochronology report.  The table can be definitely dated to 1630, and the report adds that, as the edges outside the purfling have been replaced, another ten lines of grain may have been lost, so perhaps the table dates from 1640.  So far so good.

The back, in one piece of quite beautiful slab-cut maple, has a soundpost crack, which however, has been neatly repaired ages ago.  The owner knows that the violin’s value has been hugely affected because of this, and indeed is pleased about it  for making the instrument affordable.  But why should it lower the price so much?  After all, it’s not going to influence the sound at all.  It’s the softwood front of a violin that vibrates and makes the sound.  Pianos, haprsichords, harps, guitars, mandolins  .  .  .  all have pine or spruce soundboards, like bowed stringed instruments.  Violin backs tend to be made of glamorous maple just because it’s glamorous. These may be in two pieces either because the maker didn’t have a single piece big enough, or because of aesthetic considerations – in other words, the maker thought it looked nicer.  But a two-piece back is, in effect, a manufactured crack, and a great big one, albeit one which does not affect the value.

A March 2007 article by a London dealer states that “Any 18th-century Italian violin of quality may well cost £50,000. So how do string players afford to play them? The answer is that the vast majority cannot.” (Gig Magazine 2007 – Simon Morris)

Well, perhaps they can, if they are not prejudiced against repaired cracks in the back, for the violin in question was sold for less than one fifth of this figure.  The proud owner has an early Italian instrument which sounds as you’d expect.  Its value will increase, too, at a rate rather better than inflation.  It will probably never be worth the same as an uncracked instrument of similar quality, but it will sound just as well.

A rare antique porcelain vase with a repaired crack is not worth so much as an uncracked example, but it will hold flowers just as well.

Violins – why colour matters

Posted By on November 15, 2009

I must confess immediately that I am colour blind.  Not just the usual red-green confusion, but something far worse, or so I’m told – for how would I know?  Of course, I’ve grown up with the inability to match socks and so on, but it has rarely mattered.   As a child,  everybody else in the family car would be yelling with joy about a field of poppies that were quite invisible to me, but so what. domain tech info   Oh, and much later I remember being taken on a trip to New England in the autumn, the point of which was entirely lost on me.

It didn’t matter at all until I was old enough to drive, at which time I went through two sets of reds, and the problem was most urgently diagnosed.  Now, it’s OK to drive during daylight hours, as I can see if it’s the top or the bottom light which is lit, but I try to avoid night driving – doesn’t matter what colour it is, it looks just like all the other lights to me.  I was over fifty, which is to say that I’d been driving for thirty years, before it came out in conversation that stop lights are apparently in some way different from ordinary side lights – or is it indicator lights?   Nobody had ever told me before.

Being colour blind was no problem cataloguing violins at Sotheby’s – I simply asked anyone passing what colour the damn thing was.  Violins tended to be red-brown or golden-brown, bows were usually chestnut-brown.  Expensive violins might be “red-brown on a golden ground” or some such.  Now, as a dealer, I am less called upon for this style of work and colour blindness has been no problem.

Or so I thought.

On the 30th August 1996 I purchased, at auction, a beautiful and well-preserved violin by Olivier Marissal, dated 1933.  Olivier’s dad (Auguste) had been an apprentice of Joseph Hel, in Lille, and my violin was in every way gorgeous, and sounded magnificent after a decent set up.  What I paid for it is my secret, but I was disappointed when it didn’t sell during the first year.  I’ve forgotten how much I was asking – it seemed very reasonable – but I lowered the price.  After two more years, and several dozen more players trying it, I lowered the price again.  Then, three years later, I had the bridge, fingerboard, tailpiece, soundpost and of course strings changed.  Sometimes it is possible for a violin to remain unsold because the price is not high enough – I will add more on this subject another time – and my new increased price reflected the amount of money I had spent on it.  It’s a quite beautiful violin, remember.  It sounded, well, different, oh, alright, not so good, but sometimes that doesn’t matter either.  I suppose I’ll have to explain that as well, but not now.

It still didn’t sell, and two years later (in 2004) I had the set up changed back to what suited it best.  And I lowered the price.  Twice.  Last summer, in desperation, I lowered the price of this beautiful instrument again, to a level far below what I had paid for it.  It still sounded magnificent, indeed it still does, and here it is, right next to me in November 2009, still unsold.  “God that thing’s a vile colour” remarked my partner, as she passed.

Marissal violin So I am having a clever man, with colour vision, do some subtle work which, I am assured should enable me to get rid of it.  Is it sacrilege?  After thirteen years I don’t care.  Being colour blind, I don’t care.  Those with ordinary vision may care, but they care enough not to buy it.
A very poor – 1996 – image of it.  Apparently it’s vile.

Here’s a true story.   Just after I’d started life as a dealer I was asked to look out for a viola by Charles Buthod for a client.  Within two months a different client asked me to sell their Buthod viola.  Joy, I thought.   I phoned the prospective buyer with the news.  “How big is it? he asked.  I told him.  “Perfect”  he said, “now what are its widths? Again, they were fine.  After checking the rib depths in various places, he had me measure the body-stop and the string length.  All was fine. “What about the condition?”  he asked, and I told him, truthfully, that there was nothing at all the matter with it.  Finally the crunch question “How much is it?”  When I told him he whooped with joy, it being less than he’d dared hope for.  He said he’d be straight round, and within the hour he arrived, and I showed him the viola.  He never put a bow across it.  “But I wanted a red one”  he said.


Posted By on November 13, 2009

accommodation .