The provenance of a great violin, viola or cello plays heavily into its value. But how that is proven is difficult – and no job for an amateur.
The challenges and sometimes great triumphs of tracking the provenance and value of art and antiques has been the subject of extensive media coverage and even movies. The 2015 biographical drama, “Woman in Gold,” tracks the story of an elderly Jewish refugee and Holocaust survivor as she and a young attorney reclaim a Gustav Klimt painting of her aunt (Adele Bloch-Bauer), stolen by the Nazis in World War II.
But for anyone purchasing a fine stringed instrument, perhaps one that was improperly documented if not entirely misappropriated by malevolent forces, the due diligence process is severely impaired.
Many fine violins, cellos, violas, basses, pianos, and other instruments in Europe were looted by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and never recovered. For more on that read below. But even instruments not subject to war and cataclysm can be difficult to document. We’re not talking about average instruments here. We are talking about the highest quality, fine stringed instruments for sale; fine violins, violas and cellos crafted by fine violin makers and certified by reputable and renowned experts that an instrument is what it is being sold as.
Why due diligence matters – and is challenging
At the outset, it needs to be established that the process of identifying the history and value of a fine stringed instrument needs to be undertaken by a professional appraiser. Sometimes an experienced violinist can help figure some of this out, but even then, an objective and trained researcher is still a good check on what is found.
There are several physical clues on when and how a violin was made: the woodgrain, varnish, and the shape, style, and size of the violin. The label, found inside the instrument, can be a defining characteristic, however it can also be fake (many instruments said “Stradivari” meaning ‘in the style of Stradivari,’ a critical and usually damning distinction).
The sound of an instrument might be its greatest strength. But because a violin or cello or any other instrument is also a product of its player, sound is an unreliable marker of the instrument and its history.
Documentation that includes bills of sale, reliable papers showing chain of ownership, and photographs can be very defining. But photography wasn’t invented until the mid-19th century, hundreds of years after the creation of many of the finest of instruments. Meanwhile, written documentation very often was lost in wars, through owner disorganization, and in the settling of estates.
Without documentation, there seems to be a matter of faith in storytelling that sometimes makes up for a lack of evidence. Vintage violins by the Klotz family of luthiers, who crafted fine instruments in the early 1700s in Mittenwald (Bavaria), typically sell in the $15,000 to $25,000 range, according to StringsMagazine.com. But one particular Klotz is believed to have been owned by Mozart as a teenager, and was the instrument through which he composed several concertos, so it has a much higher valuation. The story is hearsay, dependent on what Mozart’s sister said at the time, with no written documentation.
What was lost in World War II
Paintings are unique in their appearance, while violins are much less so. This impairs identifying instruments in the way art can be.
A pernicious aspect of what happened to untold numbers of fine stringed instruments is tied to a program of the Nazis that began in the mid-1930s. They literally had a unit dedicated to looting the homes of Jews who either fled Europe or were abducted and murdered. Called Sonderstab Musik, this team of organized criminals systematically cataloged and inventoried what they took. In France alone, survivors claimed 8,000 pianos that were missing. As reported by National Public Radio, instrument dealers resold instruments from the Nazi storehouses “on a large scale” without checking provenance or providing documentation.
So while it is possible that many important, fine instruments from the 17th and 18th century workshops of Mittenwald, Cremona, Venice, or Paris may indeed still exist, proving where they came from, who owned them and who played them most likely is lost to the ashes of war.
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