A beginner's guide to identifying a Stradivarius

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Figuring out the maker of an unknown violin takes a trained eye and a detective’s skill, says luthier John Dilworth. Here he gives his personal perspective on the clues and processes of elimination that help experts pinpoint an instrument’s origins. From the July 2010 issue

How we look at violins can be as personal and subjective as how we hear them. For most, the pleasure of looking at a violin is purely that – a pleasure, and an intuitive response to a graceful and symmetrical form. But for some it can be forensically analytical, just as acoustic scientists attempt to put tone into understandable graphs and formulae. Experts, dealers, makers and enthusiasts are all fascinated by the minute differences between one violin and another. So what makes them able to say, with some degree of confidence, who made a particular violin, or have the even greater confidence to say, ‘I don’t know’? Unless they are extremely lucky or preternaturally gifted, they have to work to acquire the skills that permit an understanding of the face of the violin.

For some, a photographic memory enables them to compare an instrument with just about every other one they have seen before. Before the development of photography, this was pretty much the only way that expertise could be gathered. When we look at the records and diaries of historical experts such as Count Cozio, John Betts and the Hill brothers, we see descriptive notes, sketchy diagrams, measurements and ‘code words’ with purely personal resonances. A century ago, the only way to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the various makers was to have a reference collection of actual instruments, as Tarisio and Cozio did. Today we can flit through a whole library of images on a computer file.

When you look at an instrument for the first time, there is a sort of mental checklist, unconscious or deliberate, that usually starts with ‘How old is it?’ It can be astonishing to hear someone state with conviction that an instrument was made ‘between 1760 and 1780’, say. How can you pick a couple of decades out of four centuries? With comparative ease, it turns out, if you have the historical knowledge and a practised eye.

Once the age is established… 

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