There's a fine line between copying an instrument and forging a masterpiece. Alan Coggins offers a humorous perspective on the perils luthiers face when interpreting past masters
Copying the works of acclaimed artists or craftsmen has been a practice carried out for centuries and is considered to be a tribute to the masters, as well as an important way to study techniques and refine skills. Unfortunately the fact that copies, especially accurate copies, exist can often end up leading to confusion and sometimes even deception.
In violin making the term ‘copy’ has a very wide range of possible interpretations. It could mean that the maker studied the original for three months and made a copy based on 434 separate measurements, 178 colour photographs (including 37 internal images), 7 plaster casts with corresponding laser-cut arching templates, comprehensive UV varnish analysis and a full CT scan. On the other hand, it may just mean that the instrument was made using the measurements from a poster in The Strad that another violin maker gave him in the pub a few years ago.
The term ‘modelled on’ is generally used when the maker started off using the measurements from an old poster but for some unknown reason the body ended up being slightly longer, and then a little too much wood was taken out around the C-bouts so the arching went a bit peculiar… and the f-holes certainly weren’t meant to look like that… ‘Loosely based on’ is a useful generic term applied to instruments that have diverged so far from the original that they can’t even qualify as ‘modelled on’. The phrase ‘loosely based on a violin’ is commonly abbreviated to VSO (violin-shaped object).
Violin makers are generally an insecure bunch who need regular praise — they especially enjoy demonstrating how clever they are by producing realistic and convincing copies to impress the uninitiated (in other words, players). Of course violin makers are also very honest people and would never dream of doing anything illegal — the very fact that they have chosen the profession of violin making shows they have no interest at all in making money.
Unfortunately these clever copies are sometimes passed off as genuine which means that they now become classed as fakes or forgeries. The significant criterion in defining a forgery is a clear intention to deceive. The road from copy to fake is quite an easy path to follow because there are always people looking for old instruments at bargain prices, and dealers hate to disappoint a customer. But once an instrument has been passed off as genuine it is a difficult and painful process to reverse… and it ultimately ends up costing someone a lot of money (strangely enough, very rarely the vendor).
This situation is further confused by the long-standing convention that any instrument that cannot be confidently and definitely attributed to a non-Italian country of origin will invariably be described as ‘possibly Italian’. Of course it may also be ‘possibly Icelandic’ but this term is not so often seen.
To help bring some order to this state of affairs, many people are now pinning their hopes on high-tech solutions such as dendrochronology to detect fakes and forgeries. These scientific methods can be very useful — for example, dendrochronology has recently been able to definitely assert that the ‘Messiah’ violin could be the work of Antonio Stradivari (that is, unless Vuillaume somehow managed to pick up some nice old wood).
Hopefully this brief overview of the subject will allow readers to approach their next purchase with less trepidation. Of course the only way to be absolutely certain is always to buy your fake direct from the maker.
Picture: notorious Victorian fake, the Balfour Stradivarius
Read The Strad's article on telling the difference between a fake instrument and the genuine article.
Audio: Put your ears to the test - can you pick the Stradivarius violin?