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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins
Neil A. Grauer
Posted: December 1, 1995
Heavenly Strings For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins

by Neil Grauer

To evoke the wonders of what transpires when a bow touches the strings of a Stradivari violin, musicians speak of the sound and tone in terms of light and dark; of color, texture, and emotion; of electricity, taste and temperament. And they speak of magic and mystery--especially mystery--for of Antonio Stradivari and his instruments, much remains unknown.

There is mystery about Stradivari's parents, birthplace, upbringing and physical appearance. There is mystery about when he was born and where his bones are buried. There is mystery about his materials and methods; about how he achieved the special qualities for which his instruments are celebrated. There is mystery about how many of them he made--and more important, how many survive. There is the mystery of where most of his creations spent their first eight or 10 decades, of the identities of the original owners who cherished Stradivari's handiwork for a century or more after his death.

The central mystery, of course, is that of genius--of how a semiliterate boy in Cremona, a tiny northern Italian city renowned for its musical craftsmanship, could have emerged as the greatest violin maker of all time. He was an artist of such skill, sensitivity and insight that his name has become a byword for the best, a superlative applied to designate excellence. To be dubbed "the Stradivari" of any field is to be deemed the finest there is.

"There's a very good analogy between, say, a Strad violin and a fine Cuban cigar, as opposed to an ordinary violin and an ordinary cigar," observes Earl Carlyss, head of chamber music at The Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for the past nine years, and for 20 years before that a member of New York's Juilliard String Quartet and a frequent player of Stradivari violins.

"You can make all kinds of analogies," says Carlyss. "Why would a person spend $150,000 for a Ferrari when he could get from A to B with a Pinto? It's the way you get there."

One could buy a number of Ferraris for what a Stradivari commands. Prices start at between $200,000 to $800,000 and have soared in recent years to as much as $3.5 million an instrument, depending upon its age, condition and history. And the history of some Strads is the stuff of romance; of fabled performers who played them; of disappearances, thefts and miraculous escapes from war, fire and flood; of sounds that have inspired poets and novelists, from George Eliot and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the last century to the late Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey and Prix de Rome winner Daniel Mark Epstein in ours.

Wealthy amateurs and collectors may own more Strads than professional performers. In 1981, an anonymous private collector in Singapore paid $1.2 million for the magnificent "Alard" Stradivari, named for its most famous owner, Jean-Delphin Alard, a distinguished French violinist of the nineteenth century. Since the approximate weight of a violin is just a pound, that collector spent about $75,000 an ounce for his prize. He probably could quadruple his money if he put the Alard up for sale today. Most concert performers cannot afford a Strad and must rely on the kindness of strangers--or more precisely, generous patrons of the arts or large corporations--for the privilege of playing them. Midori, the Japanese prodigy, has played a famous Strad known as The Jupiter, courtesy of the Fuji film and camera company, which paid $3.5 million for it a few years ago and loans it to her. If Fuji ever decided to sell "The Jupiter," it probably would fetch $4.5 to $5 million.

Apart from the phenomenal beauty and precision of Stradivari's instruments, what has assured their enduring superiority more than two and a half centuries since his death is a quality even more prized today than it was when he made them: their power. The finest of Stradivari's predecessors, and most of his contemporaries, produced smaller instruments with fairly high curved or arching backs that produced beautiful but thin tones, suitable for the church services or small chamber music ensembles that entertained the nobles who were their patrons.

With astounding prescience, Stradivari recognized that in time, greater demands for volume and sonority would be made upon the violin. Somehow he foresaw, if not precisely the symphonies and orchestras of the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then at least the likelihood that music was moving in that direction. Through constant experimentation--varying by a fraction of an inch the arching of one instrument's back, another's length, the overall dimensions of yet another--he created what Dutch scholar Dirk J. Balfoort called "the violin of the future," capable of producing not only delicate, sweet sounds but powerful, crystalline tones, strong and clear enough to perform brilliantly with the orchestras of today.

Had it not been for Stradivari, Balfoort wrote a half century ago, "the violin would have become the victim of tradition, because it would in the long run have ceased to be able to adapt itself to the requirements of the times." Thanks to Stradivari, the violin has been able to remain "the Queen of musical instruments."

"Strad was the one who finished the form of the instrument," says Carlyss. "It has never changed since Strad's time...it ended with him. You couldn't improve on what he did.

"A great Strad allows you to express yourself on every level," Carlyss adds. "It has a range of possible expressiveness within it that allows the person to be totally at ease with what he wants to say with the music. I mean, you're dealing with colors, you're dealing with sounds and you're dealing with emotions. And the music has all these emotions going on with it. A Strad has the ability to translate the emotions aurally to perfection--the performer's emotions. And there's something about the sound that grabs the listener. A Strad is a Strad."

In 1902, the brothers Hill--William Henry, Arthur Frederick, and Alfred Ebsworth, scions of a British family that had been in the stringed instrument business for nearly 300 years--produced what remains the benchmark for Stradivari scholarship, Antonio Stradivari: His Life & Work (1644-1737). Expert luthiers (stringed instrument makers), restorers and dealers themselves, the Hills were uniquely qualified to write such a book. Having spent more than a half century selling rare instruments when such a trade was even more confined than it is today, they personally were familiar with virtually every Stradivari instrument then known to exist: 540 violins, 12 violas, 50 cellos--and two guitars.

Since the Hills, other experts have attributed additional instruments to Stradivari, who employed the Latinized version of his name, Antonius Stradivarius, on his labels. (Scholars use either spelling interchangeably.) Thus the accounting of existing Strads has been inching upward toward 700 or so, a number about which collectors and dealers politely debate. Because the sales of many Strads are conducted privately between a few discreet dealers and well-heeled collectors, the exact number of his surviving instruments is almost impossible to determine.

The Hills meticulously estimated that Stradivari made 1,116 stringed instruments during an extraordinary career that spanned seven decades, from about 1665, when he was 21, to the year he died at the age of 92 or 93. He was, they wrote, "an expeditious worker," with tremendous "industry and devotion to his art." They calculated that he was able to complete at least two violins or one cello a month, or an average of 25 violins or 10 cellos a year--and sometimes many more. In 1715, when Stradivari was 71, the king of Poland ordered 12 violins from him and sent his director of court music to Cremona to await completion of the instruments. The king received all 12 in three months.

An aged violinist who died in 1853 told one scholar that his teacher had known Stradivari and described him as "tall and thin in appearance, and invariably seen in his working costume, which rarely changed, as he was always at work." It is the only remotely contemporary physical description of Stradivari that we have.

What, exactly, is it that makes "a Strad a Strad"?

Talk to any expert and take your pick:

Is it the varnish? Yes, definitely, say some; it contained secret lost ingredients and Stradivari took its recipe to his grave. No, say others; the formula for the oil-based varnish Stradivari used was common knowledge among violin makers when he lived and has been chemically analyzed to a fare-thee-well today.

The filler or sealer? (See above answers for varnish.)

Perhaps the wood makes the difference. Yes, absolutely, say some; Stradivari selected his maple and spruce from local or foreign forests long since cut down and he treated it in a special, secret way. No, say others; equally fine wood is available now, easily obtainable, and the old methods for treating it can be duplicated.

Or maybe it is the arching of the violin's back; the elegant, masterly shaving of the wood to fine gradations of thickness and thinness; the carving of the f-holes; the placement of the internal bass bar and sound post. All have been subjected to meticulous modern measurement and acoustical analyses. Exact copies can be--and have been--made.

What about the impossible-to-duplicate effects of aging on that marvelous wood, varnish and filler, not to mention two centuries of playing? Yes, say some; that is what gives Stradivari instruments their extraordinary, unique sound; a sound that causes listeners such as poet Daniel Mark Epstein to envision "little cherubs with halos" fluttering about a Strad while it is being played. No, not quite, say others. "There are old violins that don't sound good," says Carlyss.

So, what was Stradivari's secret?

"In my view, there is no secret," says Carlyss. As a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, the Library of Congress "resident" chamber music ensemble, from 1966 to 1986, he played all three Stradivari violins in the Library's collection. "It's like saying, What's the secret of Rembrandt? The Strads are works of art. They're the epitome of baroque art. The genius used in making these things is genius. And even if they copy it--and they can copy it--they still can't imitate it. It's just like imitating a Rembrandt. You can do it, but it's not the same."

That hasn't stopped people from trying--for more than 250 years. Every so often, someone proclaims the discovery of Stradivari's "secret."

In 1984, Professor Joseph Nagyvary at Texas A&M University, a specialist in biophysics and biochemistry, announced a recipe for recreating Stradivari's varnish: Boil one pound of shrimp shells in powerful lye for 24 hours, strain it through cheesecloth, then rinse the residue thoroughly with water and dissolve it in vinegar until it attains a syrup-like consistency. This, he contended, would duplicate Stradivari's varnish, which Nagyvary believes was made mostly of chitin, the polymer found in the bodies and wings of insects. (Shrimp shells also contain chitin.)

In 1986, Nagyvary claimed that a microscopic fungus growing in the wood used by Cremonese violin makers was responsible for their special sound. Long soaking of the logs from which the violins' wood came made it especially receptive to the particular qualities of Stradivari's varnish, he said. On the other hand, in 1988, William Fulton, a retired aerospace engineer and now secretary of the Violin Society of America, suggested that wood destined to be made into violins should be subjected to ammonia fumes for several weeks to duplicate an eighteenth century smokehouse treatment.

In 1991, Mayne R. Coe, a retired organic chemist in Jupiter, Florida, received U.S. Patent 5018422 for what he believed was the secret to Stradivari varnish: tung oil. He claimed Italy started importing tung oil around the time Stradivari and other violin masters in Cremona began establishing their reputations. He cited other research that suggested the violin makers colored their varnish with a red dye called dragon's blood resin, extracted from the rattan fruit from India....

You get the idea.

Whatever it is that makes a Strad a Strad and merits the enormous prices they fetch can be applied in almost every respect, including current market value, to the violins of Stradivari's contemporary--and, amazingly, next-door neighbor--Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744).

More than 50 years younger than Stradivari, yet neither as productive nor as meticulous, Guiseppe Guarneri (the "del Gesù" stems from a symbol for Jesus he put on his labels) nonetheless created incredible instruments as prized today for their power and expressiveness as Stradivari's finest works.

Guarneri was a member of a violin-making clan whose house was one door down from Stradivari's on Cremona's Piazza San Domenico. Between Stradivari and Guarneri lived Carlo Bergonzi, Stradivari's best pupil, whose violins also command high prices today. It was as if Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael all lived on the same block.

Down the street and around the corner in one direction lived Niccolò Amati, Stradivari's teacher; around the corner in another direction lived Francesco Ruggieri, yet another notable luthier. Stradivari and Guarneri were the megastars in a galaxy of superlative seventeenth and eighteenth century violin makers, whose serendipitous residence in Cremona has given the name Cremonese to all the stringed instruments produced in that time and place.

Itzhak Perlman, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne Sophie Mutter, Midori, and Joseph Fuchs, at 95 the oldest professional concert violinist in the world, play Strads (although Menuhin also owns a del Gesù); Jascha Heifetz preferred del Gesù, as do Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman (even though Stern, as did Heifetz, also owns a Strad). With only about 250 to 370 del Gesù violins known to exist (or about half the number of Strads), the best of them fetch as much as any Stradivari.

Not every Strad is a Strad, so to speak (or every Guarneri a Guarneri, since four other members of his family made violins). Not all of them fetch millions. Of the 700 or so Strads known to exist, only about 50 are concert-quality instruments. The others have various defects--cracks, new backs or bellies, botched repairs by clumsy craftsmen. Practically all have been modified to some extent over the centuries to accommodate a particular violinist or to increase their carrying power: perhaps a longer finger board, a bigger bass bar inside, or a reinforcement of the belly.

Some of the alterations have been made skillfully; others, as the Hills wrote, have been performed "in the most drastic and barbarous manner." Consequently, says Frances Gillham of Christie's in London, the value of Strads fluctuates considerably, depending on these and other factors.

"They're very variable," Gillham says, "and they fall into different categories. The most highly sought-after violins are the ones that fall into what is called Stradivari's 'Golden Period,' from 1700 to the mid-1720s. There are some years that people get particularly excited about. I mean, 1716 is a year when he produced some of his best instruments."

Yet with perhaps only 10 Stradivari instruments on the market at any one time, says Charles Beare of instrument restorers J. & A. Beare Co. of London, even the less desirable Stradivaris cost "not much under half a million dollars."

Some musicians believe Guarneri del Gesù's violins are more powerful than Strads and easier to play because they are less temperamental. Others, while acknowledging the greater effort required to get the best out of a Strad, feel Stradivari's instruments have more versatility of tone.

Robert Mann, founder of the Juilliard Quartet, told an interviewer in 1991 that playing a Strad was like riding a great thoroughbred racehorse. "What a wonderful thing to ride that horse to its fullest potential. But," Mann warned, "it is also a horse that is very taut, that's very supersensitive, overreacts, and can be unstrung easily--more easily than the ordinary horse that just doesn't have those other marvelous qualities.

"That's the way it is with a great Stradivari violin," he continued. "It has great potential, but it also has greater possibilities for disaster, like squeaks, like going out of adjustment. You're on your greatest mettle and have to use your resources to control the instrument. The rewards are great, but it's not an easy task."

The best-known American amateur to own a Strad was the late Jack Benny, who saw tremendous gag possibilities in possessing such a valuable fiddle, given his comedic persona as a vain tightwad who fancied himself a great violinist.

Benny, who studied violin as a child, had made his scratchy playing a running joke for years. In 1955, however, he began taking lessons again at the age of 61 in order to perform in benefit concerts for symphony orchestras and other worthy causes, including the drive to save New York City's Carnegie Hall. His old friend Isaac Stern noted that Benny was a superb sight reader of music who had a good ear and an excellent sense of rhythm, albeit limited abilities at fingering and bowing. On rare occasions, he could pull off a performance that even Stern admitted was astonishing.

In the remaining 18 years of his life, Benny raised more than $5.9 million for charity by performing with symphonies all over the United States and in Canada, England and Israel. Proudly displaying his 1729 Stradivari, for which he had paid $16,000 in 1957, Benny would tell his audience, "It's a real Strad, you know. If it isn't, I'm out one hundred and ten dollars. The reason I got it so cheap is that it's one of the few Strads made in Japan." Or he'd say, "This is a genuine Stradivarius. You can always tell because it has the name of the maker inside. Here it is right here. 'Antonio Stradivari, area code 213.'"

In 1972, two years before he died at the age of 80, Benny wrote that he had been told his Strad had risen in value to $50,000. He wistfully wondered if it would ever be known as the "Benny Strad." Now it is. Bequeathed by Benny to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it easily is worth 10 times what it was when he died--not a bad return for the penny-pincher he portrayed.

During Stradivari's lifetime, the king of Poland was far from his only royal customer. Unlike so many geniuses whose greatness goes unsung while they live, Stradivari was recognized by his contemporaries as the best in the business. In 1682, a Venetian banker, Michele Monzi, ordered a complete set of instruments from Stradivari to present to King James II of England (these Strads, alas, have disappeared); King Charles III of Spain also commissioned Stradivari to make six violins, two violas and one cello for his orchestra, and innumerable aristocrats and high-ranking ecclesiastics throughout Europe were among the deep-pocketed patrons willing to pay top filippo (a silver coin then used in Lombardy) for Stradivari's creations. His prosperity and parsimony were such that a common expression in Cremona then--and today--is that someone is "as rich as Stradivari."

This exalted artisan emerged from humble--indeed, obscure--origins.

Precise facts about Stradivari's life are few. Cremona claims him as a native son, and certainly it is the only place he is known to have lived, but tireless searches by scholars through the city's ancient census lists and musty parish registries, as well as those of the surrounding villages, reveal no record of his birth or baptism, and even raise questions about the identity of his parents.

Like Shakespeare, Stradivari produced many masterpieces, but left behind little personal documentation. His life was his work, and it is largely through his works that scholars have been able to deduce, in Sherlockian fashion, what little is known of his life.

That he was a continually experimenting workaholic and perfectionist is evidenced by the incomparable beauty of his instruments, the precision with which they were put together, the large number he is estimated to have made, and the minute variations in each one.

That he was a poorly educated but savvy businessman is evidenced by the few surviving letters he wrote to patrons. The handwriting is clumsy; the sentences full of errors, omissions, transpositions, and words of Cremonese dialect; yet also replete with expressions that reveal Stradivari to be a surprisingly obsequious tradesman, as probably befitted the period: "I beg you will command me, and kissing your hand, I remain," or "not wishing to weary you further, and kissing your hands and making obeisance."

That he was close with a lira can be deduced not only from his persistent use of all-purpose, sometimes typographically flawed labels, but from his quibbling over the expenses for his first wife's funeral ("Deducted altogether 8 lira from the present bill," he wrote at the bottom of it), and the fact that at the age of 85, he had no qualms about buying a used grave to serve as his own--and even appropriated its original owner's tombstone. He simply had the previous family's name and coat-of-arms partially effaced and his own name carved on it.

That he desired female companionship is shown by the fact that he waited little more than a year after the death of his wife of three decades to get married again--to a woman 20 years his junior. He fathered 11 children, two daughters and nine sons, two of whom, Francesco (1671-1743) and Omobono (1679-1742), also became violin makers but left little of their own work to posterity.

When he died on Dec. 18, 1737, Stradivari was interred in one of the small chapels in the Church of San Domenico, across the plaza from his home, in the plot he had purchased from the descendant of a family of minor Cremonese nobles. By 1869, the church had fallen into such disrepair that it was demolished. Whatever bones were found in its crypts, presumably including Stradivari's, were gathered up in a jumble and dumped in an unmarked plot outside the city, thus rendering his final resting place unknown.

Stradivari's narrow three-story house, with its rooftop seccadour, or flat terrace, where he had hung his newly varnished violins to dry, remained intact until 1888. Then it was converted into a cafe and billiard parlor. It was torn down in the 1920s. Cremona, which remains a center of violin making, has sought to make amends for these indignities by naming a major thoroughfare for Stradivari, proudly preserving one of his wonderful violins and a few meager artifacts from his workshop in city museums, and holding an annual violin festival.

Without actual documentation, the generally accepted birthdate for Stradivari is 1644. The Hills deduced this from the fact that during the last decade of his life, Stradivari evidenced pride in his vigorous longevity by stating his age on some of the labels he inserted inside his violins. The first time he probably did this, in 1727, he wrote on a label that the instrument was "d'anni 83," or made during his 83rd year, and all subsequent notations of this sort point to 1644 as the year he was born.

It is these small labels, most of them pasted on the inside of the instruments' backs, directly under the f-hole, to which are attributed the first documentary evidence of Stradivari's presence in Cremona, his training, and some of his personal characteristics. The Hills once saw a 1666 label on which Stradivari identified himself as an "Alumnus Nicolai Amati," or as a pupil of the celebrated Niccolò Amati (1596-1684), whose fame as a master violin maker he soon would surpass. Since children between the ages of 12 and 14 usually were apprenticed to such masters, the Hills deduced that Stradivari's parents (whoever they were) handed him over to Amati between 1656 and 1658. The 1666 label is the only one on which Stradivari ever associated himself with Amati, and as to how--or even if--the young Stradivari ever demonstrated an interest in violin making, nothing is known.

Between 1660 and 1665, however, when Stradivari was 16 to 21, he had his own labels printed, evidently having so excelled as a pupil in just a few years that he was ready to seek patrons and sell violins on his own. Yet, since few Strads from the 1660s and 1670s survive, it is presumed Stradivari probably remained an employee of Amati for nearly 20 years, striking out entirely on his own only after his teacher died in 1684 at the age of 88.

Stradivari's parsimony in using all-purpose labels has bedeviled collectors for centuries. When he started out, he shortsightedly listed the date of manufacture as "166_," to which he would add the appropriate year of the decade in ink; in the 1670s and 1680s, he simply scratched out the second "6" and wrote "7" or "8" over it. Even though he had new labels printed in 1690, he continued to use the "166_" labels as long as they lasted, simply changing the last "6" to a "9." When he did use the new 1690s labels he did so even though the printer botched up his first name, "Antonius" on some of them, putting in the "u" upside down so it read "Antonins." Once the eighteenth century dawned, he had new labels printed that simply said, "1___," and then filled in the rest by hand.

Stradivari's blithe tampering with his labels unfortunately made it easier for unscrupulous dealers to later alter genuine labels to make it appear as if certain violins had been made during supposedly more favorable periods of Stradivari's long career.

As he aged, Stradivari seemed to grow increasingly productive. His violins took on a broader, more substantial appearance and the colors of his varnish darkened. Only toward the very end of his life did Stradivari's work begin to betray his years. Shakily carved sound holes and irregular purfling show that his hands were beginning to tremble. (Purfling refers to the thin strips of dyed maple inlay just inside the rims of the belly and back, used to supply lovely accents to the instrument's appearance and, more important, to protect the outer edges from splintering as the violin vibrates.) Failing eyesight is evidenced in the placement of one f-hole 1/16th of an inch higher than the other on a 1736 violin, made when he was about 92. Sandpaper marks are clearly visible on another 1736 fiddle. But only his powers of physical dexterity had declined. His principles of form and construction remained undiminished.

For Stradivari, each violin offered an opportunity for experimentation, however slight. The arching under the bridge and on the back was always different, if only minutely; the thickness of the f-hole swirl would be altered, as would the shapes of the C-curves, the bigger bouts, and the sides and corners. Once all 78 or so parts of the instrument were assembled, they combined to give each violin, viola or cello a unique voice, "never to be matched, any more than a given diva's lovely singing can ever be heard from anyone else's throat," wrote John Hersey in his 1991 novel, Antonietta, which told the tale of the travels of a fictional Strad.

Similarly unique is each Stradivari's outward appearance, due in no small measure to the waves of the wood's grain and its age rings. Minute variations also can be seen in the points and design of the purfling. And there is uniqueness in what Hersey called "the only part of the violin that will contribute nothing to its sound but will make its appeal to the eye alone: the head on the end of...[the] neck."

"If a violin is to be a work of art," wrote Hersey, "it must have sensual bouts, a stunning back, perfect purfling, and, above all, a head with an exactly symmetrical scroll that dares to challenge the ingenuity of God's own designs: the snail's helix, the whorls of a fingertip, the poised lips of breaking waves, the glowing swirls at the shoulders of thunderheads in summertime--and, more to the point, the delicate convolutions of all the human ears that will listen, one day, to the finished violin's song."

Although Stradivari was widely renowned as a violin maker during his lifetime, his instruments were not the most popular with many musicians of the period. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the majority of professional and amateur violin players preferred the higher tone produced by the violins of Niccolò Amati or the Austrian violin maker Jakob Stainer.

"There exists a letter to Mozart from his father, who advised his son to purchase a Stainer or an Amati violin, not a Strad, because a Strad is 'strident,'" says René Morel, one of the world's top Strad dealers.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the flexible, yet incisive; powerful, yet clear tone of a Stradivari violin was found to be ideal for either the intimacy of the chamber music salon or the vastness of an orchestra's auditorium. His status as the supreme violin maker was at last assured--and the demand for his instruments, as well as their romance and mystery, then tenaciously took hold.

Virtually all of the Strads now have names attached to them during the nineteenth century or later. On the rare occasions when the original owner was known, the moniker alluded to that individual, such as the "Tuscan," made in 1690 for Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Often the name is that of a famous musician who once owned the instrument, a royal or mythical title denoting its superiority, or a combination of both. Hence the "Hercules Ysaÿe," a 1732 Strad that was simply known as the Hercules until it became the pride and joy of Eugenè Ysaÿe (1858-1931), a famous Belgian violinist. Frequently the lineage of a Strad's ownership can be traced back 175 years--but rarely more than that.

No finer example of the murky origins of some celebrated Strads can be cited than the case of the "Betts," which turned up out of nowhere in 1820. A poorly dressed man is said to have entered the store of Arthur Betts, a violin maker in London, and offered him what initially was thought to be an imitation Stradivari, so pristine was its condition. Betts bought it for little more than a pound sterling, and then was astonished upon closer examination to find that it was a genuine Strad, made in 1704. The history of the violin prior to 1820 remains unknown. After considerable peregrinations about Europe and the United States, the instrument was purchased by Gertrude Littlefield Clarice Whittall, a wealthy widow and doyenne of Washington, D.C., society, who donated it and four other Stradivari instruments to the Library of Congress in the mid-1930s. There the Betts and its siblings have delighted audiences at annual concerts ever since.

Stories abound of Strads emerging from dusty attics or dank castles, but most of such tales are bogus. Many of the would-be Strads are cheap imitations churned out in Europe or Asia for more than a century. A few are remarkable copies made by exceptionally skilled luthiers of the past who sought to honor Stradivari by emulating him. One such well-known instrument is a copy of the 1716 Strad known as the "Messiah," made in 1851 by Joseph Rocca, a fine Italian violin maker.

The number of recognized experts in Stradivari instruments is even more limited than the supply of Strads themselves. Only about 10 or 12 dealers of international reputation in the United States or overseas, including those associated with Sotheby's and Christie's, are qualified to judge whether a violin, viola or cello came from Stradivari's workbench. Sometimes even the experts disagree. Potential purchasers often are advised to obtain certificates of authenticity from three or more experts to satisfy their own concerns--and those of insurance companies.

How do the experts know a purported Strad is genuine? Experience is the only teacher, according to René Morel, in whose New York shop Strads are either in for repairs or up for sale fairly regularly. "If a person knows the Stradivarius, he doesn't have to question," says Morel in a thick Gallic accent undimmed by more than 40 years in the United States. "He takes it in his hands, he looks around it, and he knows it's a Stradivarius. The analogy to this is that if you open a book, and if it's in a language you can read, you read it because you know. If you don't know it, that's it. It's a book with print, but you can't read it. To an expert, it's easy.

"Stradivarius had a very special signature in his art of craftsmanship," Morel adds. "In other words, at the end of a letter, someone signs the letter, and each and every one of us, we have our own little way of signing our name. In the hand of Stradivarius, it's there. It's in the way he handled his tools, the way he finished the instrument. That's his signature as a craftsman."

Every once in a while, a Strad miraculously appears--or reappears, saved from a mysterious disappearance or disaster. In this century, two tales of recovered and redeemed Stradivaris are especially extraordinary.

In 1936, a 1713 Strad owned by Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman was stolen from his dressing room at Carnegie Hall while he was on stage playing his Guarneri. The Strad seemingly vanished forever.

Not quite. Fifty-one years later, Huberman's Strad suddenly reappeared when Marcelle Hall, widow of a strolling violinist, gambler and convicted child molester named Julian Altman, revealed that the violin her husband had used for nearly half a century was the stolen Huberman.

Hall told police that as her imprisoned spouse lay dying of stomach cancer in 1985, he urged her to "do something about that violin. That violin is important." Returning home, she looked inside the canvas cover of the violin's case and found yellowed newspaper clippings about the theft of Huberman's Strad. Altman, who had been jailed for molesting one of Hall's granddaughters, claimed that in 1936 he had purchased the instrument for just $100 from an unnamed friend who might have been the thief. "Maybe for once in his life he told the truth," Hall told The New York Times in May 1987, once the Strad had been positively identified.

Altman, who had been a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, later made his living as a performer at ritzy social events, even entertaining such luminaries as then-vice president Hubert H. Humphrey and then-president Richard M. Nixon with the stolen Strad.

Lloyd's of London had paid Huberman $30,000 when the violin was stolen and thus was its rightful owner. After Charles Beare of London authenticated the recovered instrument, Lloyd's put an $800,000 valuation on it, authorized Beare to refurbish it, and ultimately sold it in 1988 for what Beare says is a "confidential" sum of "over a million dollars."

An even more astonishing story of the loss and recovery of a Strad involves the "Red Diamond," a 1732 violin that radiates a special glow due to the extraordinary ruby-colored varnish Stradivari had applied to it.

On Jan. 16, 1953, as a violent rainstorm pelted Los Angeles, Sascha Jacobsen, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, was driving along the coastal highway to Pacific Palisades, the Red Diamond in its case beside him. His car stalled near Santa Monica and water from an overflowing stream began to surround the vehicle and fill it up. Seeking to escape the flood, Jacobsen grasped his violin case, stepped from the car into the rising waters and struggled through the torrent to higher ground. The Red Diamond was swept from his arms and out to sea as he barely made his way to safety. He watched, helpless, as the violin case floated away.

The next day, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, Frederick H. Sturdy, was walking along the beach of the Bel Air country club and spotted a violin case stuck in the sand. Inside the case he found slime, sand, water--and the pieces of a violin. By amazing coincidence, Sturdy was a friend of Alfred Wallenstein, music director of the Philharmonic. When he learned the following day of Jacobsen's disaster and the loss of the Red Diamond, Sturdy immediately contacted Wallenstein. Identified as the lost Strad, the salt water-logged and sand-encrusted violin parts were entrusted to Hans Weisshaar, an outstanding luthier. Over the next nine months, Weisshaar painstakingly restored the violin, returning it to its "former glory...both in tone and appearance," Jacobsen later wrote in appreciation. He told friends the Red Diamond sounded "better than ever."

In 1971, a few years after Jacobsen's death, the Red Diamond was sold at auction by Sotheby's in London for $67,600--far more than it was insured for at the time of its ocean ordeal. The violin was put on the auction block by Sotheby's again in 1985, with an asking price of more than $1 million, but was not sold at that time. A few years later, an anonymous collector purchased it privately for an undisclosed sum--surely paying as much for the magic of its reincarnation as for its other exemplary attributes.

Clearly, more miracles are associated with Stradivari instruments than simply those of their enduring beauty and tone.

With the number of Strads so limited and their prices so astronomical, musicians who cannot afford them or lack wealthy patrons must look elsewhere for their instruments. The sources are many and the quality of the violins, violas and cellos is excellent. In this century, the late Simone Fernando Sacconi, once with the Emil Herrmann Co. of Manhattan, was considered perhaps the greatest contemporary violin maker; other respected modern violin-makers include Isaak Vigdorchik, Luiz Bellini, Helmuth Keller and Leandro Bisiach Jr., who produce (or have produced) instruments that are justly praised for their craftsmanship and sound. Perhaps they are making the Strads of the twenty-second century.

Nevertheless, none of these latter-day luthiers can hope to recreate what Stradivari wrought nearly 300 years ago, even if they possess immense skills, use the choicest woods, the finest varnish, and precisely copy the dimensions and details of his instruments. As William Dana Orcutt writes in the Library of Congress' 1938 publication The Stradivari Memorial: "What other makers lack is simply that something which cannot be imitated, which cannot be analyzed, which cannot be explained--that gift of consummate genius which delivers its message to the world through the finger-tips of those few children of God anointed among their fellows as chosen for that purpose."

-Neil Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).

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