Can you tell a fake instrument from the genuine article?

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

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 inst
rument, 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.’

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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