By Lenny Cavallaro
Ipswich, MA, USA
Stewart Pollens is one of the world’s foremost authorities on both stringed and keyboard instruments. He served as Conservator of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for thirty years (1976-2006), and has published extensively. His most recent book, Stradivari (Cambridge UP, 2010), has garnered outstanding critical acclaim. Mr. Pollens is the founder and director of Violin Advisor, LLC, a consulting firm that advises musicians, collectors, and investors about the acquisition of valuable instruments. Stay Thirsty was fortunate to speak with Mr. Pollens at his New York City home.
Stay Thirsty: How expensive are the best violins today? Figures like $10 million for the “Kochanski” Guarneri in 2009; $15.8 million for the “Lady Blunt” Strad last year, are they for real?
Stewart Pollens: Absolutely! Since the Great Depression, when violin prices went down for a few years (though they ultimately rebounded), prices have steadily increased for virtually all sectors of the violin market, not just for the big names—Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati. On my company’s website, ViolinAdvisor.com, I have graphs of average yearly auction prices of several makers. Over the last 25 years or so, Stradivari violins have increased in price by about 10% per year, compounded. When I get around to averaging in the recent auction price of $15.8 million for the “Lady Blunt” Stradivari violin, that 10% figure is going to go up considerably. This record price is not truly in line with many of the great Strads of the period because of its condition, which is as near to “pristine” as a violin of that period can be. The “Lady Blunt” was apparently never a “player’s instrument,” and from what I have heard, it is not even a particularly good sounding violin. There are many factors that affect the price of violins—provenance and condition being among the most important. Tonal quality is often a matter of taste—an instrument that appeals to one player may not suit another. However, a particular violin that has passed from one virtuoso to another over a two-hundred year period must certainly have something going for it in terms of tonal quality and playability.
Stay Thirsty: Are Stradivari and Guarneri violins worth all those millions of dollars?
Stewart Pollens: I believe they are. A number of violin makers working today claim that their instruments are as good as those of these storied makers. Even if I did not dispute this claim, the instruments they are making are little more than dimensional and cosmetic copies of particular Strads and Guarneris. The originals have served as the prototypes for thousands of makers for hundreds of years, and so we must admire and respect them for that. On the other hand, copies will always be copies. Anyone can sit at a keyboard and retype Moby Dick, but that will not make the person a great writer. The price of virtually everything is based upon perception. It costs only a few hundred dollars to mine and refine an ounce of gold, but today it is selling for about $1,700 an ounce. Unlike gold, diamonds, real estate, stocks, and bonds, which are in almost unlimited supply, there are only around 600 Stradivari violins and about 150 Guarneri del Gesú violins.
Stay Thirsty: In that case, how do you explain the results of the “Frits” study, in which violinists who tested modern instruments against two infinitely more expensive Strads and a Guarneri preferred the contemporary fiddles?
Stewart Pollens: This so-called “blind study” that was recently published and reported in various newspapers and magazines is highly flawed and essentially meaningless. First of all, the violins in the study were not played by distinguished soloists who are accustomed to playing great violins, but by contestants in a violin competition, by two of the judges, and by section players from a symphony orchestra. The violins were each played for ten minutes in a hotel room, which is not nearly enough time to become familiar with an instrument, nor is this a very good acoustical environment to evaluate a violin. Moreover, when the violins were handed back to the musicians a second time, half of the players did not select the same instrument as their favorite. Furthermore, the fact that this research was conducted in part by violinmakers causes me to question its validity.
About twenty-five years ago Itzhak Perlman acquired the “Soil” Stradivari violin, which previously had been owned by Yehudi Menuhin. Around the time he acquired the violin, I was asked to photograph it for an upcoming exhibition in Cremona, and I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Perlman. I inquired whether he was enjoying his new violin, and he responded with a convoluted story about a fish merchant who had a truckload of fish that he decided to sell. He sold it to another fish merchant, who sold it to yet another merchant, who in turn chose to dispose of it. Before purchasing it, the last prospective buyer climbed into the back of the truck to inspect the fish. Upon exiting the truck he exclaimed, “These fish are rotten,” to which the seller replied, “Yes, but they are not for eating. They are for buying and selling!”
I was surprised to hear this, and even more surprised to learn that within a short time Perlman was using that violin on a regular basis. So what happened? Presumably he had some adjustments made; perhaps after playing it for a while, he discovered how to extract a better sound from it. Evidently, it took some time for the violin and Perlman to become acquainted—more time than a few minutes in a hotel room.
I should also point out that when virtuoso violinists shop for a violin, they not only play it in a concert hall, but also generally bring along an associate who sits in the hall and listens to the sound. They will often exchange places so the violinist can hear how the violin projects. In making a decision about a violin, violinists invariably experiment with different strings, or they may have a new bridge made, the soundpost adjusted, or even go so far as to have a new bass bar installed or the neck reset. One can’t tell very much about a violin in ten minutes.
Stay Thirsty: How do we know these rare instruments are authentic? Haven’t there been some cases of fraud over the years?
Stewart Pollens: Until someone invents a time machine so that we can turn back the clock and see when, where, and by whom the violin was actually made, we must unfortunately depend upon old-fashioned expertise. This not only requires a good eye and memory, but also coming into contact with many violins over a long period of time. Labels, we know, are of little value in authentication, because for centuries violin dealers have been removing original labels and replacing them with those of more prestigious makers or those having greater name recognition. In studying late-seventeenth century guild records in Florence, I counted over thirty families of stringed instruments makers—yet only one of these makers—Giovanni Carcassi—is a name widely known today. What happened to the violins made by the rest of them? They were most likely relabeled to render them more attractive to buyers. This has been going on for centuries. Indeed, there was actually a case of fraud adjudicated in Modena in 1685, involving a violin that had an Amati label pasted over the original one by Ruggieri.
Recently, a scientific test termed dendrochronology has been used to date the spruce wood that is used to make the tops of violins and other musical instruments. Dendrochronology involves measuring the widths of each of the year-rings of an instrument’s top and comparing them statistically against various master chronologies. Some of the Alpine spruce chronologies extend back before the violin was even invented and up to modern times, so if a match can be found, we have a pretty good idea when the violin was made, or at least, we know that the instrument could not have been made before the last dated year-ring.
This was the case with the famous “Messiah” violin, which I examined and had dated back in 1999. Dendrochronology indicated that the tree used to make the top had not been chopped down until after Stradivari’s death, which proved that he could not have made it. Prior to having the dendrochronology test done, I discovered the provenance that had long been used as evidence of this violin’s authenticity was fictional, and that a critical inscription in the violin’s pegbox, ostensibly in Stradivari’s hand, was added in the 20th century.
I have recently begun doing dendrochronology myself, using various statistical programs and master chronologies downloaded from the International Tree Ring Database. I have discovered that this technique rarely provides an unambiguous date, which leads me to suspect that some of the dendrochronological reports that are being prepared for the violin trade are not reliable. I have an article about this in my website, StewartPollens.com.
I started my company, Violin Advisor, LLC, primarily to assist buyers in authenticating and assessing the condition of fine violins prior to purchase. Strangely, I have been doing more advisory work for dealers than for buyers. They, too, need to know the truth about the instruments they sell, especially as they are liable in the event an instrument is later proven inauthentic.
Stay Thirsty: While Antonio Stradivari is universally regarded as the greatest violinmaker who ever lived, many recognize Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú as his equal. How do the two “giants” compare, and why do some violinists actually prefer the latter?
Stewart Pollens: I broadly characterize Stradivari’s instruments as “heavenly” and Guarneri’s as “earthy.” Obviously, we need a little of both in our lives! Many of the great violinists have owned and used both, though some virtuosi are associated with a particular maker or instrument, such as Paganini and his beloved Guarneri violin, known as the Cannone. In fact, Paganini also owned and played instruments by Stradivari. If one is lucky enough to afford to own both, one can make the choice according to the repertoire one is playing or one’s mood.
Stay Thirsty: For many years, people believed the “secret” of the greatest violins was the varnish. You, however, have rejected this notion.
Stewart Pollens: There’s a long-standing myth about the importance of Stradivari’s varnish. A few years ago, I was one of the co-discoverers of the formulation of his varnish. It turned out to be one of the simplest and most basic varnishes known—a simple oil varnish made with linseed oil and pine resin. The coloring matter in the samples that I analyzed was primarily red ochre (iron oxide), though my counterpart in Paris identified cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) as the pigment in the one sample he examined. The analytical techniques I employed in identifying the organic constituents included gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy. Now that the varnish has been analyzed, violinmakers claim the true secret is some chemical used to impregnate the wood. That will be my next project.
Stay Thirsty: What else are you working on at present?
Stewart Pollens: My current projects include a handbook for musical instrument conservators (which is nearly completed), a book on Bartolomeo Cristofori (a keyboard instrument maker working in the Medici court who invented the piano), and research into the tuning temperament favored by the eighteenth-century Spanish composer, Padre Antonio Soler.
Stay Thirsty: What have been your most rewarding experiences with both stringed and keyboard instruments?
Stewart Pollens: My most rewarding experiences with the violin have been listening to my wife, Stephanie Chase, play; also, organizing the Guarneri exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1994. Regarding keyboard instruments, it was working on recordings of the earliest known piano, built by Cristofori in 1720. I made these while Conservator of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The most memorable recordings featured pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski playing the earliest known music written for the piano: the sonatas of Lodovico Giustini, published in 1732. For this project, I did restoration work on the original piano, as well as action regulation and tuning.
[Photos graciously provided by Mr. Pollens from the violin exhibition that he organized as part of the American International Fine Art Fair in Palm Beach, Florida (Feb. 3-12, 2012), and from his home, staring through a copy of Galileo’s telescope he recently made.]
Introductory music composed by Lenny Cavallaro (Sonata #1 in D minor for Violin and Klavier).