Several years ago, Stephanie Culp Smith received an old violin that had belonged to her late grandfather when he was a boy. Smith’s mother had discovered the instrument while cleaning out the man’s attic. The violin was inside its case, sitting in an old wooden cradle. The family knew little about it.
“I had no idea what to do with it,” says Smith, who lives in Pennsylvania. “I was going to get rid of it.” Then she came across a label inside the instrument that said: Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis; Faciebat Anno 17. “I thought, now is this worth something?”
Smith went online to research the name Stradivarius. “I was finding all these things—it’s worth this, it’s worth that,” she says. She also learned that in August, authorities helped recover a Stradivarius violin that someone had stolen from the violinist and teacher Roman Totenberg 35 years earlier. She contacted a few appraisers and told them about her family’s find.
Unfortunately for Smith, stumbling across an old violin in a grandparent’s attic is a cliche, appraisers and musical instrument experts say. The experts say they get weekly or even daily calls about finds like Smith’s. People find them in attics and crawl spaces, under beds and at garage sales.
Phillip Injeian, who helped recover Totenberg’s instrument, says he used to get inquiries almost daily from people who thought they had found Stradivarius violins. Now, thanks to the publicity around that recovery, he says he gets as many as 10 inquiries per day. “I can spend all day and not make a dime here just answering people,” he says. “It really gets to be a bit tedious.”
Stradivarius string instruments, made by Antonio Stradivari in the 1600s and 1700s in Cremona, Italy, are widely considered to be of the best quality. One sold at auction in 2011 for nearly $16 million, a record for a musical instrument. Only some 650 true Stradivarius violins exist, musical instrument experts say, and each is more or less accounted for. They don’t simply turn up.
“Most of the Stradivariuses are known and documented. It would be highly unlikely that something comes up that is not known,” Injeian says. “Most things have provenance and certification,” he adds, comparing it to tracing back the ownership of a Rembrandt.
Injeian isn’t the only expert fielding such inquiries. Stewart Pollens, who has written two books about Stradivarius instruments and was a longtime conservator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says, “Every time there is a story about a newly found Strad or discovered Strad or any article on the violin basically, I get a flurry of emails and phone messages from people, mostly who have something in the attic or the basement or that they inherited from a grandparent who came from Europe or something like that.”
Rhiannon Nachbaur, who lives in British Columbia and owns a violin school and shop, says around 10 people a week contact her “who believe they found the next Stradivarius that will make them millions of dollars.” So many people have reached out to her that she has written on the subject to help people figure out for themselves the authenticity of their instruments. The Smithsonian Institution also used to receive several inquiries per week until it published information online about fakes, a spokeswoman says.
As the Stradivarius name became well known, imitations and replicas hit the market. “They were copying Stradivariuses almost immediately after his death,” Injeian says. “There are some copies that are of excellent quality and then there are what we call really industrial copies.”
Confusingly, many of the imitations bear Stradivarius labels, as Smith’s does. “Most of these instruments were not made as fakes, per se,” Pollens says. “These instruments were churned out in the 19th and 20th century, mostly in German factories.”
The Smithsonian says “thousands upon thousands” of inexpensive replicas were made in the 19th century, when “the purchaser knew he was buying an inexpensive violin and accepted the label as a reference to its derivation. As people rediscover these instruments today, the knowledge of where they came from is lost, and the labels can be misleading.”
Telling a fake Stradivarius from the real deal isn’t too hard, instrument experts say. For example, three words inscribed on Smith’s instrument raise a red flag: Made in Germany. The Smithsonian says the U.S. government required those labels on imported goods.
The experts also say they can spot phony Stradivarius violins from their shapes. “It’s like telling the difference between a school bus and a Ferrari,” Nachbaur says.
For violin owners who want more scientific proof, experts can compare chemical analyses of the instrument’s varnish to those of true Stradivarius violins and use dendrochronology on the instrument’s wood to establish how old it is and where it came from.
Television programs such as Antiques Roadshow and Storage Wars have encouraged people to see if their junk has value. Indeed, one Storage Wars episode featured an old violin, but an appraiser said it was worth only a few hundred bucks.
One person who emailed Nachbaur said he or she bought the violin at a yard sale along with a steel guitar for $35, and that it looked as “old as the hills.” In another email, an Iranian man named Amir said his father had purchased the violin from a friend, who had bought it from an Englishman decades earlier, when the government had apparently expelled foreigners and forbade them from bringing out their belongings.
A third person emailed about a violin with a Stradivarius label that, according to family lore, had been owned by "Spaniards" generations ago. Nachbaur’s verdict: “It’s a complete piece of junk.”
The truth is often hard to swallow. “Because that name is so famous, it kind of clouds people’s perceptions,” Nachbaur says about potential Stradivarius instruments. “I’ve had to really temper my approach…. Nine times out of 10 they almost become hostile and argumentative…. There is a lot of anger and resentment if someone calls and realizes it’s not the winning lotto ticket.”
That’s not to say that stumbling upon a true Stradivarius is impossible. Last year, investigators in Milwaukee found a stolen one in an attic. “There’s always a potential [to find] one that’s been hidden somehow, maybe in some collection or an instrument that had been stolen and hasn’t surfaced in maybe even 50, 100, 200 years,” Injeian says. That’s what happened when the former girlfriend of a violin thief brought the instrument to Injeian for appraisal. He says within minutes he knew it was Roman Totenberg’s missing instrument.
The authenticity of even the most famous Stradivarius violin is up for debate. Years ago, Pollens questioned the origins of the Messiah Stradivarius, kept at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, which in museum publications experts have called Antonio Stradivari’s “crowning achievement” and “the most valuable musical instrument in history—probably worth more than £20 million,” or $30.4 million. Pollens believes the Messiah contains a fake inscription and that the tree rings indicate the instrument was made after Stradivarius’s death. (A museum spokesperson points out that a separate analysis contradicts Pollens’s claims.)
Though Stephanie Culp Smith’s violin may not be worth much money, Nachbaur says it’s the way the violin sounds to its player that makes it valuable: “Maybe you’re out 50 bucks at the yard sale, but put some strings on it and give it to a kid to play in school.”