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Heavenly Strings

For Centuries, Experts Have Struggled--Unsuccessfully--To Duplicate the Perfection of Antonio Stradivari's Violins

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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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