Does the Society Own A Stradivarius?

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by Bill Schuette


I recently noticed an old violin placed in the new parlor display at the Sauk County Historical Museum. Wondering how old it was, I got a flashlight and looked inside through the f-holes. Much to my surprise, I was shocked to see the following inscription: "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1719"! Could it be? What are the odds? Could some benefactor have donated a violin to the Sauk County Historical Society without knowing its true origin? An original Stradivarius violin would be worth millions!

Antonio Stradivari was born in 1644 and ran an instrument-making shop in the village of Cremona, Italy. There he produced some of the world's most perfect violins, which today's professionals still seek more than 250 years after their debut. It is said the "magical" sound produced by a Stradivarius is a product of the type of wood used in construction, the varnish applied to the instrument and the talented hand of a master carver.

Knowing little about violins, I did some research and learned that not all instruments with a Stradivarius label inside were produced in the 16th century. According to the Smithsonian, thousands of copies were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries, imitating the great masters of Italy. It was not uncommon for these cheap reproductions to include a label inside that indicated it was modeled on the design of a Stradivarius. It was a tribute to the great master and not meant to deceive. Purchasers of these instruments knew exactly what they were buying. But the Smithsonian article also indicated that such a label might be authentic. Only an expert examination could determine its true provenance.

I contacted an expert instrument dealer in Milwaukee, a man who the Smithsonian article had recommended. The expert advised, "...your violin appears to be a common factory, commercial German instrument from circa 1900." He went on to write, "They are found in Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Wards mail order catalogs from that era, costing $1.50 to $5.00." (Between $30 and $90 in today's currency).

So my foray into the world of musical instruments ended in disappointment. Oh, well, the Society was rich for a day. We thought we owned a violin, but several days later it turned out to be just a fiddle.

There was a small silver lining however. Our violin has an estimated value of between $300 and $500, quite an appreciation over the past century.