With more and more instrument forgeries finding their way on to the market, how do experts, dealers and buyers stay wise to deception? Femke Colborne finds out

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This article was first published in the December 2010 issue of The Strad

How do you tell a Stradivari from a forgery; a Guarneri from a phony; an Amati from an amateur? It’s a question that has occupied luthiers, dealers and players all over the world for centuries, and it continues to challenge even the most experienced professionals today. Advances in technology in recent years have led to a number of new techniques for identifying fake instruments, but as the knowledge of the experts has improved, so has that of the fakers.

Faking in lutherie and dealing can be loosely divided into two main categories. The first is where a maker deliberately sets out to make a copy of an expensive instrument, painstakingly forging every detail in order to deceive dealers or buyers. The second is where certain unscrupulous dealers take an instrument, stick a fake label in it and then pass it off as an older, more expensive model. It has also been known for crooked dealers to add their own personal touches to an instrument, adding ageing or changing parts to deceive potential buyers.

According to Florian Leonhard, a London-based restorer and dealer of fine violins, the second breed of fake is more dangerous. ‘Where a maker has copied an instrument – say, for example, he tried to copy a Stradivari – it’s usually a clear-cut case,’ he says. ‘When you’ve seen 300 Stradivaris, you just know. But then you have dealers who use an old instrument that was made as a copy and to which they add features in order to deceive a client. They will distress an instrument, add ageing, retouch and re-varnish, and sometimes the instrument is already 150 years old. Those are the dangerous fakes – it requires a bit more skill to spot them. You have to see through many layers of faking and distinguish between repairs and reworkings.’

‘There are more experts today, because more people are travelling and willing to learn. There are more fakes too, but our knowledge is better’ – CHRISTOPHE LANDON

When it comes to spotting fakes, today’s dealers have several advantages compared with those operating in previous centuries or even as recently as 50 years ago. Perhaps the most obvious is that they are able to travel more easily, and therefore to accumulate more knowledge and experience. 

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Christophe Landon

‘You get to see many more instruments these days,’ says Christophe Landon, a violin maker and dealer based in New York. ‘Fifty years ago there were only about six experts in the world – there was a monopoly of knowledge. There are more experts now, because more people are travelling and willing to learn. There are more fakes too, but our knowledge is better.’

New technology has also made it easier for experts to communicate with each other and share their knowledge. ‘The violin market is very complicated,’ says Landon. ‘No one person would know all the makers – there are too many. So we talk to other experts. I remember when we had no fax machines and no internet. These days, if I’m not sure about an instrument, I will show it to one of my colleagues. Our collective knowledge has become tremendous.’

Digital photography and database software have also made it much easier for dealers to record what they have seen and keep comprehensive archives. ‘Now I have a digital camera and I take 50 pictures of every instrument I see,’ says Landon. ‘Every week I take 500 pictures – there’s no way I’d remember everything otherwise.’ Leonhard agrees that digital photography has made things easier for dealers. ‘Any expert always needs photographic references,’ he says. ‘We can store a lot in our brain, but we can’t always go through 10,000 instruments in our mind. A computer database helps us, and having digital images means I can type in features and find things more quickly.’

In the past few years, there have been important advances in a number of scientific techniques that can help shed light on the physical properties of instruments. Perhaps the most prominent of these has been dendrochronology, the process of determining the age of wood by analysing the patterns of tree rings. But according to Christopher Reuning, a dealer and restorer based in Boston, it is not always conclusive. ‘It can tell you a number of things,’ he says. ‘If the tree was cut down after the instrument was allegedly made, then the instrument can’t have been made by that maker. But dendrochronology can’t prove; it can only disprove – the tree can be much older than the instrument, because the maker might have used older wood. Dendrochronology is often used to confirm what you already think and to ensure that you’re not making a mistake.’

Arguments over the usefulness and authority of dendrochronology reached a head in the late 1990s with the claims and counterclaims over the date of the ‘Messiah’ Stradivari. American expert Stewart Pollens asserted that the ‘Messiah’ could not be a Stradivari, based on findings by two German dendrochronologists that suggested that the outermost tree ring of the violin was formed in 1738, a year after Stradivari’s death. But a dendrochronological analysis by British maker John Topham contradicted those findings, dating the outermost tree ring to 1682. Many prominent dealers always had their doubts about Pollens’s claims, and in 2001 a group of US scientists presented new research that backed up Topham’s dating of the outermost ring (see The Strad, April 2002).

Another emerging technology is varnish analysis. Research by scientists in Paris has shown that Stradivari used a very simple recipe of oil and resin to coat the wood of his instruments, so if any other chemicals are detected as major constituents, it is likely that the instrument is a copy. However, varnish analysis is a very new technology and cannot yet be entirely relied upon. ‘I increasingly use dendrochronology, and for some cases wood analysis,’ says Hieronymus Köstler, a dealer and maker in Stuttgart, Germany. ‘Varnish analysis will also be quite helpful in future, but the techniques are not refined enough today.’

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Florian Leonhard
Photo: Laura Vuoma

So has all this left the fakers quaking in their boots? Not exactly, according to Michael Sheibley, a luthier in Pennsylvania. Sheibley says that makers are still producing copies good enough to fool most dealers – and he reckons he is one of them. ‘It goes on all the time,’ he says. ‘In the past, experts didn’t have the kind of equipment that is available today. But there are different levels of experts, and some of them are easier to fool than others.’

‘I’ve done things that have alarmed experts,’ he adds. ‘One day I went to an expert with a case of violins I had made. He was not able to identify them, and it took me ten minutes to convince him that I’d made them. He and his colleague stood there wondering how this could happen. Let’s call it a gag – these experts are not the experts people think they are. I have, in the past, enjoyed putting egg on their faces for my own self-gratification.’

Sheibley says that although technology can determine certain things, the best experts have seen so many instruments over so many years that they can simply rely on their own experience and instinct. ‘You have to smell it,’ he says. ‘You have to have it ingrained in your being.’ 

Other experts agree that there is no substitute for experience. ‘Recognition of a maker’s work is the most important thing,’ says Reuning. ‘An expert should sell on his or her own conviction. You should make a decision based on what you really believe. Someone who is a real expert will form an opinion based on their personal knowledge.’

Köstler agrees. ‘The most valuable safeguard is an understanding of originality and knowledge of the historical background and construction of instruments,’ he says. ‘Scientific tools can be time-consuming and difficult to use. Technical analysis or dendrochronology are of course very important, but you need to know a lot to use these tools.’

Leonhard also says technology can only do so much. ‘Nothing replaces the experience of having seen originals,’ he says. ‘You have that in your mind, and then you compare. You try to place the instrument in a school, looking at things like the colour of the varnish, the f-holes and the age. You have to know all the makers very well to know whether an instrument is fake, because many things could match and it is hard to prove. In a good fake, I will often see many features of the maker. There are a multitude of things that add together and they all have to be right – the inserts, the scroll, the channelling, the inside work.

You are like a doctor trying to diagnose a patient with a rare tropical disease – there are so many boxes that have to be ticked to get the right diagnosis. The brain is still the best resource.’