New technology has makes it easier for experts to communicate with each other and share their knowledge.
Digital photography and database software have also made it much easier for dealers to record what they have seen and keep comprehensive archives. Florian Leonhard, a London-based restorer and dealer of fine violins says ‘Any expert always needs photographic references.' 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 analyzing 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.
Another emerging technology is varnish analysis. Research by scientists in Paris has shown
|Varnish Sample from an instrument by Antonio Stradivari|
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.’ According to Florian Leonhard, a London-based restorer and dealer of fine violins, 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.’