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What makes a Stradivari valuable?

An article from The Strad, September 1931, looks at the reasons for the high price of Cremonese instruments

Tuesday, 30 July 2013
Are the precious master-fiddles worth huge sums because they are old, because of their tone, because of their workmanship or because of their varnish?

The perplexed astonishment with which even the cultivated layman reads in the newspapers now and then that certain Italian violin masterpieces have been bought and sold for sums reaching fifty thousand dollars, or more, is a natural thing. Occasionally, the newspapers may exaggerate the price paid for a Stradivari. That the figures do sometimes run from forty to fifty thousand dollars is true. However, it is by no means every Stradivari that brings the above-mentioned sum. Many of them sell considerably more modestly. I know personally of several instances in which the top price has been paid; but the instruments involved were exceptional and outstanding in every way. I may mention one specific case in which an American collector owning a famous Stradivari, has been offered and has refused a sum that would stagger the reader’s imagination if I disclosed it here. Let me again emphasise that the violin concerned was of world-renown and of the finest distinction.

Fiddles seem to the average eye pretty much alike, the only patent difference being that one is or looks old and the other is or looks new. Most people have the idea that, other things being equal, an old fiddle is worth more than a new one, thus paying fitful, hesitant homage to the belief that the old masters knew their craft better than the modern ones. But that any violin, ancient or modern, should be worth fifty thousand dollars at all is consent matter for popular amazement, curiosity and, perhaps, disbelief.

The average man has heard the word “Strad.” as the name of that maker whose violins bring the highest prices. Perhaps he has also heard the name “Amati.” It is almost safe to assume that beyond this his information does not reach; that even the mighty master, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, is unknown to him. Nor do even the words “Strad.” and “Amati” reveal to him convincingly why the violin products of great craftsmen should fetch thousands of dollars.

What intrinsic value do “Strad.” and “Amati” violins posses that enable them to be traded about in the cold marts of the world for such fancy figures? Popular ideas on the subject are various and curious. Some believe it is age which accounts for it: a violin, they think, made two hundred and fifty years ago, for example, is more valuable than on made two hundred years ago, and incomparably more valuable than one made fifty or even one hundred years ago. Others go a step father and say it is age alone which can impart the beautiful quality of tone so much sought after by the great violinists. In other words, it is tone, they assert, which makes one fiddle worth a thousand dollars and another fiddle worth a hundred dollars.

Then there are those who fancy the secret of the commercial value of old instruments lies in the workmanship. Such violins, they conjecture, bring high prices because of their perfection of design, their impeccable modelling, their curves and angles and contours, which obey at once the laws of science and of aesthetics of utility and beauty.

Still others are of opinion that it is the varnish which adds all value to what would otherwise be just an ordinary fiddle. This varnish, they think, was the result of a mysterious, secret formula known only to an inner circle of a few masters of violin-making, an esoteric formula written down and carefully guarded from outsiders, but which has been lost with the death of the discoverers. If this formula were now known, so they believe, and could be applied to any violin, such an instrument would in the twinkling of an eye become a master-work and sell for a colossal price.

Where, in all this, does the truth rest? Are the precious master-fiddles worth huge sums because they are old, because of their tone, because of their workmanship or because of their varnish? Is the answer in any one of these elements, in a combination of them, or in all of them together plus other factors not yet mentioned?

Before I proceed to clear up this perfectly natural obscurity, it will be advisable to make some specific reference to those tremendous craftsmen whose violins do actually bring prices incredible to the uninitiated. Foremost comes that noble artist know vaguely to the public as “Strad.” His full name was Antonio Stradivari, or Antonio Stradivarius, to give the Latin appellation. The ne plus ultra of violin creating is embodied in these two words: “Antonio Stradivari.” His is the third and greatest name in that triumvirate of imposing innovators who face the violin as we know it today. Gasparo di Salo befan it, Paolo Maggini improved upon it and Antonio Stradivari brought it to the pinnacle from which every other maker, excepting one, represents retrogression. That one was Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, also called Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu or, familiarly among connoisseurs, simple “Joseph” This wayward genius, in moments of inspiration, created violins that equal some of the best of Antonio Stradivari. To catalogue more names would be only to confuse. In later articles I hope to make more vivid the individuality of other Italian master-makers. Two names are enough to remember for the present, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu, twin-gods who reign supreme in the Pantheon of violin-making.

These twin-gods happen to have been not Frenchmen, not Germans, not Englishmen, but Italians. Just how and why Italy, in the person of these two and many other talented, if lesser figures, should have been chosen to be blessed for violin-making among all the other nations during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries must remain one of the mysteries of the divine caprices with the arts, though there will be those who glibly try to account for it. Never before nor after were such perfect fiddles created as came from the hands of Nicolo Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu in certain little Italian town.

Not very long ago, a charming young lady journalist was inspecting the violins of a collector of my acquaintance preparatory to describing them for a metropolitan paper. After she had examined the specimens with care and interest, she remarked: “You have shown me excellent examples of a Stradivari, and Amati, a Guadagnini and several others. I have often heard of Cremona fiddles; how is it that you have no specimen of a violin made by Cremona?” Imagine the embarrassment of the host as he tried to explain to the estimable young woman that Cremona was not the name of a violin-maker but of an ancient Roman town in the North of Italy, which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, became the home of one of the most famous schools of violin-making that ever existed upon earth. In Cremona lived Nicolo Amati, teacher of Stradivari, Stradivari himself, Stradivari’s greatest rival Guarneri del Gesu, and Stradivari’s greatest pupil, Carlo Bergonzi. It is honour enough for any town that within its walls there lived and worked, among a host of smaller lights, the four incomparable craftsmen, Amati, Stradivari, del Gesu and Bergonzi.

Stradivari, prince of them all, was born in the year 1644 and lived to be ninety three years of age, dying at Cremona in 1737, busied to the last at his beloved occupation of turning out superlative fiddles for an admiring world willing even then to pay handsome prices for them. Adequate remuneration for his unflagging industry enabled him to accumulate a snug fortune for his day; “rich as Stradivari” became a current Cremonese saying. Orders for violins, violas and violoncellos from kings, dukes, impotent prelates and the eminent virtuosi of the time testify to the general esteem in which he was held by the contemporary world. Of his personal life and appearance we know next to nothing. Only a few meagre words survive to tell us what he may have looked like. “He was tall and thin in appearance.” writes one Polledro, “invariably to been seen in his working costume, which raptly changed, as he was always at work.” Upon the wall of the house in Cremona where Stradivari lived, laboured and passed away, the modern Cremonese have placed a tablet bearing the following words: “Here stood the house in which Antonio Stradivari brought the violin to its highest perfection and left to Cremona an imperishable name as the maser of his craft.”

For long, there as uncertainty as to where Stradivari was ever a pupil of Nicolo Amati. The discovery of one of his early labels now assures us that he was. It reads as follows: “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolaii Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666,” made by Antonio Stradivari the Cremonese, pupil of Nicolo Amati, in the year 1666.” Stradivari was at this time twenty-two years of age. Seventy-one years later the maser was still at work. Seventy-one years of ceaseless, untiring turning out of enchantingly beautiful violins, ‘cellos and violas!

One of his last labels bore the proud caption: “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonesis Faciebat Anno 1737 Di Anni 93.” “Made by Antonio Stradivari the Cremonese in the Year 1737 at the Age of ninety-three.” The master’s touch was a bit trembling and uncertain, the draughtsmanship and execution betrayed slight lapses here and there, the varnish was more opaque than usual; yet with what pride his fluttering hand could inscribe that it was made in his ninety-third year! I have myself seen this notable instrument at the home of a friend in Brooklyn, though a vandal has mutilated and altered the original label changing the date to brogan it nearer Stradivari’s so-called “golden period,” thus trying to enhance the violin’s commercial value.

When we speak, therefore, of violins bringing into the high thousands, it is the choicest specimens of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu that are involved. Why indeed should not the outstanding examples of these two foremost geniuses be with such sums? Why wouldn’t popular opinion feel that its sense of values has been dis-equilibrated? Can precious, induplicable art works ever be really weighed in the same scale with gold? We poor humans have no other symbols for passing these masterpieces from hand to hand excepting coins of the realm, coins that could never outweigh the intangible and imponderable content of a superb Stradivari or del Gesu even if piled high as Pelion.

Surely, if the best canvases of Rembrandt, da Vinci or Raphael can run high into six and approach seven figures, an outstanding Stradivari or del Gesu for within their spheres and for their functions they are as sovereign, as inspired, fully as beautiful, and far more rare. A distinguished Stradivari or del Gesu delights not only the eye, but when played upon by such virtuosi as Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz and Elman, offers a feast for ear and heart as well. Not in vain did an old Italian creator inscribe upon the side of one of his violins: “When I lived, I was dead: now that I am dead, I live.” The greatest beauty is, we are told, not only that which is but which at the same time functions. Stradivari and Guarneri violin function for music, and at the same time fulfil the laws of static beauty.

No laying down of aesthetic dogmas, however, can satisfy those who rightly point out that I have not yet explained why it is that the violins of Stradivari, del Gesu, Amati, Bergonzi, Guadagnini, and the next greatest old Italian masters, are superior to other fiddles of contemporary and later periods. Why is it not age alone that brings high prices? The answer is obvious: in the field of art, age without any other attribute invests in the object merely with antiquarian interest, nothing more. We have Italian violins that antedate by a century those of Stradivari; yet their monetary value is small for they not only lack most of the attributes of greatness, but also they cannot function in the hands of modern violinists. There are German, French and English violins contemporary with those of Stradivari yet they are comparably worthless. No, is not in old age that the answer lies, no matter how much it may have battered and scarred and cracked and smoked the fiddle.

What about the tone that the influence of years is supposed to sweeten? Does the connoisseur pay his thousands for a masterpiece because of its tonal superiority alone? Unquestionably the lapse of years will mellow and purify tone, but only (and here is the rub) only if the tone possessed distinction to begin with. Let us make no mistake: the violins of the great Italians had ethereal, indefinable beauty of tone almost as soon as they left their creator’s hands. Time has helped, certainly; but time has started out upon its work with the peerless, golden Italian tone.

The false idea of tone is not confined to laymen. Just another day, a venerable violin-maker of my acquaintance who, with naive honesty, writes upon his labels that the instruments were “built by Frank S.,” told me he was absolutely convinced that in a hundred or more years from now his violins will be so mellowed by time as to have a good tone, and hence, to be worth as much money, as the violins of the old Italians. He readily admitted that their workmanship excelled his, and that their varnish was, as he expressed it, “prettier”; but for him, as for myriads of others, tone was the principal thing, and age created tone. Honest, kindly Frank S.! I should not care to witness your disillusionment, your broken dream, if some miracle could enable you, a thousand years hence, to hear the tone of the fiddles you have so fondly “built”! And, by the way, dear Frank, did Phidias, Dante, Rembrandt and Beethoven merely build the product of their brain and heart, or did they create it?

Tone is a deceptive, elusive, relative, personal thing. There is such an objective quality as a genuine Stradivari, del Gesu, Amati, Bergonzi and Guadagnini tone, but one must be a tonal expert, with long years of sensitive experience, to detect it. People bring altogether too much fantasy, imagination, poetry even, to tone. I have watched with great amusement professional violinists at the home of one of my friends, who possesses many fine specimens of Italian violins, including two world-famous Stradivari’s label therein, play upon the instrument in hesitant scepticism, and then turn timidly to a colleague to ask: “Is that a genuine Strad.?” When assured the fiddle was genuine, they would again play upon the instrument and wander off into the unusual poetic ecstasies, raving over the “unsurpassable Cremonese tone,” etc., etc.

In Vienna, one of the foremost of present-day makers of the city told me that he was commissioned by a celebrated lady violinist to make a faithful copy of her Guarneri del Gesu, because she desired to give her instrument in occasion rest by alternation. One night at a concert in Hamburg she decided to play on the recently-made copy. Next day, the critics were unanimous in praise of the wonderful purity and carrying powers of her famous del Gesu!

I could mention a host of other stories to illustrate the absurd fiction about tone. Let the following suffice, the authenticity of which I can readily prove. Some years ago, the del Gesu of an aristocratic Englishwoman, a talented artist in her own right, was purchasable at a well-known New York violin dealer’s named Victor S. Fletcher, now deceased. Fletcher’s shop was the mart and the meeting-place of world-famous fiddles and world-famous fiddlers. A concert violinist and teacher, seeking a pupil’s violin for a small price, wandered into Fletcher’s, and with the remark that here was just the fiddle he was looking for. Totally ignorant of the tour name and value of the violin, the player tried it, and handed it back with the remark that the fiddle was a typical French copy, rough, woody and loud! This del Gesu is now in the hands of one of the greatest collectors of the world, who refuses to part with it at any price.

Even great artists, knowing that they are playing upon fine, genuine Italian masterpieces, react differently to the tone of the instruments, apart from the fact that one may be a “Stradivari” player and the other a “Guarneri” player in the sense of preferring the violins of one or the other maker. What one artist may like may not appeal to another artist. Nor will they trust their own judgement of tone. Before buying the fiddle, they will ask the opinion of friends about the tone, play it in a concert hall, and eagerly ascertain how other auditors react. How can so elusive and personal a thing as tone, upon which no two people agree, ever be the touchstone of monetary value in appraising a violin? True tonal experts may be countered upon the fingers of both hands. Such men can distinguish tone in the absolute. Such men do understand the real Italian tone. Such men know what the great master-works posses unapproachable tone. All others had best cease to talk of tone, on penalty of making wild asses of themselves.

A final word on tone, to show the dangers inherent in too much frothy chatter about it. What shall we say of a magnificent Stradivari or del Gesu that simply will not sound as it did when it left the master’s hands, due to the inexpert tampering of repairers through the decades? Are we to condemn the instrument for the sins of the criminal repairer or the well-meaning but ill-advised one who, under the guise of “improving” the tone, has jarred the delicate balance of the violin? In answer, the true connoisseur will say: “This instrument has tone, plenty of it, and of the purest Italian character. It is simply a matter of expert adjustment. That it does not sound as it should makes not the slightest difference. The tone is there, awaiting only an expert’s touch.” Your true connoisseur knows that a tiny sound-post or bridge adjustment, or a new base-bar inserted by an expert will invariably work unbelievable miracles in tonal restoration. Again, the fine instruments are so sensitive that a slight variation in the thickness of a string will impair the tonal quality. I have watched the eminent virtuoso, Bronislav Hubermann, at one of the large New York violin shops try G string after G string on his Stradivari violin, and discard them all until he found just the right one. Are we, therefore, to hasten to subtract thousands of dollars from the value of a violin because it wants the touch, of a true expert’s hand to make it blossom with tonal loveliness? It is altogether possible that the tone of the violin just as it rings may appeal to someone as ideal. Let us, then, forget about the tone as the sole criterion of value, remembering, however, that tone does matter, and matter mightily; only, one must be of the chosen few if one is to talk about it with some semblance of scientific reason.

Does the secret of value lie solely in the supremacy of workmanship to be found on every square inch of the outside and inside of a Stradivari or del Gesu? No, for a French master like Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, or Nicholas Lupot, produced many violins, in specific and meticulous copy of Stradivari and del Gesu, that in respect of workmanship can rival the products of the two notable Italians. Yet the price for even the best Vuillaume or Lupot is many thousands of dollars or del Gesu lie in workmanship alone.

What about the famed Cremona and Venetian varnish, so wrapped in legend and mystery? If we could discover the ancient formula, would we, by applying the Amati, Stradivari, del Gesu, Montagnana or Gobetti varnish to any other violin, be able to raise its standard of value to the rarefied twenty, thirty, forty and fifty thousand dollar class? Scarcely a year passes without our reading in the newspapers either that the actual varnish formula of Stradivari has been discovered written down somewhere, or that a crack-brained fiddle-maker of our own time has hit upon a varnish formula equally as good which, when applied to any violin will make it ring with a pure Italian tone. Deluded mortals! Stradivari’s varnish secret will never be unveiled, precisely because it never was a secret at all. The Cremonese and Venetian formulae were common property in Cremona and Venice at that time, a federal rather than an individual tradition. That is why neither Stradivari nor any other Cremona and Venetian maker thought it was necessary to confide in them to paper. Suppose they had done so, would we be any better off for the knowledge? Any one who has ever tried to varnish fiddles knows that the art of it does not only lie in ingredients and proportions, but also in the tremendously difficult technique of their application. Stradivari and del Gesu used the same ingredients; yet their technique of application was an individual matter, and produced individual results. Herein, the great Cremonese and Venetian makers have excelled for all time, most likely; the technical deftness of genius is non transmissible.

Just what is it that Amati, Stradivari, del Gesu, Bergonzi, J. B. Guadagnini in his best work, Montagnana and Gobetti added to their instruments by their varnish? Obviously, there was first beauty for the eye. Only those who have been privileged to see and study the varnish of the masters can tell of the ravishing loveliness that it pours upon the wood, the transparency, the infinite depth, the sparkling of a thousand shimmering shafts of light. But this is not all. Varnish can strangle tone or it can glorify and lend it power and ineffable beauty. The wood of a violin must breathe like a human being; the Cremonese, Venetian, and other fine Italian varnish permits this. Varnish must be flexible, resilient, pliant, so as to coax and caress and strengthen tone. These attributes we find in fullest flower in the works of the Italian giants.

Even with all this, it is not the varnish alone that tells why the towering peaks of the violin universe will command record prices. If not age, not tone, not workmanship, not varnish, not any of these alone decides, what does? Will the possession of all these things together be conclusive? No, not even the possession of all these things together. As we have been careful to point out at the beginning, there are Stradivari and del Gesu violins whose maleficent destiny has caused them to be so mishandled throughout the years as to bring them within the ten, and even the five thousand dollar category. The fiddle elect of the gods and of collectors must have all the attributes above enumerated – and something more. It must have perfect preservation, and it must be an outstanding and characteristic example of its creator’s products at certain of the great periods of his development.

Let me be more concrete. One of the most celebrated violins of the world is “Le Messie” Stradivari, the so-called “Messiah.” Fascinating in itself is the story of how it received its name. An uncouth Italian peasant, called Luigi Tarisio, who died in the year 1854, conceived a passion for the old Italian violin masters that sent him in burning search throughout his native and other lands for specimens of their work. He has been described by one who knew him as a man of common appearance, looking what he was, a peasant speaking French indifferently, dressing badly, and wearing rough, heavy shoes. Our greatest violin treasures were unearthed by Tarisio in the ancient churches and chapels, garrets, cellars, pieces of frayed furniture, what not, of rural Italy. He established business relations with, among others, the Brothers Silvestre, violin dealers, of Lyons, and with the great French master, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume.

It is told of Tarisio that on one occasion, after he had disposed of some of his fiddle jewels to a London dealer, the latter took him on a walk in one of the English capital’s most fashionable parks. Observing the imposing equipage of an aristocrat approaching, the Englishman hastened to call Tarisio’s attention to the splendour. Tarisio shrugged his shoulders indifferently and remarked: “I had rather possess one fine Stradivari than twenty such equipages!” To this man we are immeasurably indebted for having brought to light, and hence caused to be preserved, many Italian master-works that might have been destroyed or carelessly impaired by owners ignorant of what they possessed.

Whenever Vuillaume or the other French dealers would show Tarisio some Italian gems they were particularly proud to own, he would mystify them by telling of the wonders of a certain Stradivari he had at home. “Ah!” he would say, “just wait until you see that one!” They waited – visit after visit repeated itself and still the Stradivari was not forthcoming. The dealers became sceptical that no such dazzling Stradivari existed as Tarisio had described it. The truth was that he feared for himself, feared that if he brought this violin to Paris his own avarice would tempt him into parting from it, the thing he least wanted to do. Again and again he came to Vuillaume and the other dealers, bearing various instruments, but always the long-awaited violin was missing. Vuillaume began to jest with Tarisio: “You will never bring it, I fear. No matter. I shall continue to wait for it – like the good Jews for their Messiah!” Here was a name for the fiddle, if ever it should come – Messiah! Le Messie, in French. But it never came; it had to be fetched. After Tarisio’s death, his remaining collection of instruments was bought in its entirety by Vuillaume. The day arrived when Vuillaume travelled to Tarisio’s native village to claim his own. From there, the sister of Tarisio took him to an isolated farm near Fontenate, Italy. Here Tarisio had kept his sacred violin aloof from the world for thirty years. Vuillaume himself later told where and how he downed it – in the bottom drawer of a battered piece of furniture which he opened only with difficulty. Here too, lay the Guarneri del Gesu that later became the world-famous “Alard.”

It may well be imagined that he was right when he afterwards recounted how he could only stand in silent, reverent transfixtion, his eyes glued to these two matchless violins. Vuillaume was a scintillant luminary in his own right in the history of violin-making; and now genius was saluting even greater genius, knowledge and mastery bowing adoringly to even greater knowledge and mastery. It must have been a moment without its like in the history of violin adventure!

The biography of the “Messiah” before it came into the hands of its present fortunate owners, the Messrs, Hill, of London, was briefly this. Count Cozio di Salabue, who developed a profound love for the instruments of Stradivari, purchased in the year 1775 eleven violins from Paolo Stradivari, a son of the master by his second marriage. In this group was included the famous “Messiah.” For fifty years it remained without being played upon until it was sold to Tarisio. We have seen that Tarisio kept it isolated for thirty years. When it came to Vuillaume in 1854, he kept it carefully in a glass case in his shop until it was sold to Mr. E. Crawford for two thousand pounds. From Mr. Crawford it passed into the hands of the eminent violin connoisseurs and dealers, the Messrs. Hill, of London.

It has been great good fortune to see the “Messiah,” and I may testify that it is in as perfect condition today as if it had been made a week before by Stradivari. To this moment, it retains its fresh, haunting beauty. Time and good fortune of falling into the hands of reverent care-takers have been merciful to it; and we can now see what a Stradivari looked like when Antonio handed it to its first proud professor.

Let us now bring the “Messiah” into our own discussion. If we must speak of it in terms of dollars, this violin will command as much as any fiddle ever created by the spirit of man. What gives the “Messiah” its pre-eminence? First, of course, comes its genuineness. We have not heretofore in our comment stressed the point of authenticity as an element of value, because it would only confuse the reader at the present stage. In a later paper we shall have more to say in upon this subject. Suffice it then to remark here that in indisputable authenticity lies the primary element in the value of the old Italian masters.

Suppose, in the second place, the “Messiah” had come down to us imperfectly preserved. For example, suppose it had numerous cracks and patches, a false side and varnish scanty and worn thin. Each of these defects would bring its monetary value lower, according to the magnitude of the marring. Suppose, again, the “Messiah” sound-holes were not as Stradivari had left them but had been misshapen by the carelessness or ignorance of repairers during the course of the years. This, too, would lower the commercial value of the violin, for it touches not only the matter of aesthetic design, but will materially alter the quality of tone. Another illustration: supposed the “Messiah” head were not genuine, but had been taken from some other, even from a very fine Italian violin; this would reduce monetary value by many thousands of dollars. The head on the “Messiah” must be the original one made by Stradivari specially for that instrument if it is to be considered as it is, an outstanding exemplar.

This point about the head may seem to the reader somewhat over-refined and subtilised; yet it is an important element of value. True enough, the authenticity or non authenticity of a head does not affect the playing qualities of a violin; and so, from the viewpoint of a violinist, it should have no bearing on the desirability of an instrument. But the connoisseur who makes prices because he pays for them, looks at a violin also with the eyes of an aesthete, a beauty-lover. To him, the head is an integral part of the violin’s loveliness, as much as the head of one of the apostles in da Vinci’s “Last Supper” would be for the connoisseur of paintings. How rightfully the great critics of painting like Fauré, Berenson and Bode would feel touched to the quick if an apostle’s head on the da Vinci canvas was removed or had been painted over by someone else! If the true violin connoisseur beheld a false head on the “Messiah,” all of the charm of the violin would be gone for him; its harmonious, unified, homogenous beauty would vanish. Part of its soul would have fled. He would be offered thousands of dollars less for it than otherwise (and it would certainly be offered for less), or, if more sensitive to create beauty, he would not care to own it at all. Remember that this represents merely the collector’s point of view; but it is the collector who is the final determinant of the money value of old violins.

 

Let me now sum up the reasons thus far advanced for ascribing the “Messiah” some incredible value in dollars and cents. We have seen that it is genuine Stradivari in all its parts: back, top, sides, varnish, interior and head and that is has reached us in a state of practically perfect preservation. As for workmanship, the “Messiah,” like quite a number of other Stradivari that I have been privileged to see, is faultless in care and beauty of finish and design.

Even all of the foregoing attributes would not enable the “Messiah” to command its numberless dollars and cents if it were not a foremost “period” example of the Stradivari of 1716. A Stradivari or del Gesu specimen must always be the best of its particular “period” if it is to be considered among the peaks of the violin world. The “Messiah” belongs to Stradivari’s “golden period,” roughly from about 1699 to about 1720, during which he created the noblest of his masterpieces.

Must we bandy about a specific number of dollars and cents when talking of the finest products of the Italian masters? If so, then a fiddle will bring fifty thousand dollars and more if it be genuine, perfectly preserved, a characteristic example of the master’s golden period, unimpaired in tone, profuse varnish and impeccable in workmanship. With these essentials as guide-posts, those who are so minded may gad about pencil and notebook in hand, on a world-tour of fiddle inspection and jot down such sums as twenty, thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars. The end is not yet.

 

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Tone is a deceptive, elusive, relative, personal thing
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