Before reading this guide you might want to know that we have also written an article on finding the best first violin for you or your child if he or she is at the start of a musical career. For a violin to feel smooth you also need the sound of a warm violin string, so make sure to check our guide on the best strings too.
Experts can distinguish a Stradivarius from a copy by just looking at it for a couple of seconds. Of course, they have lots of years of experience and they know what to look for, so that is why it’s best to always consult them when you think you’ve found a Stradivarius violin. Nevertheless, here are some pointers to guide you when trying to identify a Strad.
You can find lots of violins that have the writing “Antonius Stradivarius Cremonenfis” on their label, but a huge number of them are copies of the original instrument. Some of them even go as far as writing where they have been made, in Germany or Austria, for example. But Antonio Stradivari was a luthier that worked in Cremona, Italy.
Even worse, some of these instruments are bad models that don’t get sold and the sellers stick a poorly-made label to them with the Strad inscription, in the hope of selling them faster. Fortunately, these poorly-made copies are easy to identify.
The other part of the inscription that appears on the label, “Faciebat Anno” means “made in the year” and it’s always followed by a single printed number, a 1, in the case of original violins. The rest of the numbers that form the year are handwritten. Toward the end of his life, Stradivari changed the label a bit and didn’t mention the year when the violin was made but he would mention his age.
It’s important to also notice the font of the text, as original violins use an old Roman font. Any other font used is a sign that the violin is a copy. Also, Stradivari lived between 1644 and 1737, so labels that have an older date than that are fake. It’s good to know, however, that good copies of the instrument aren’t worthless and they can still mean good money.
There are many theories that revolve around the idea that the wood used in Stradivarius violins and the uniqueness of this wood is what makes these instruments so great. That is why, with the help of dendrochronology, or the science of studying tree rings, experts can analyze instruments and determine their age, where the wood comes from and many other related details.
Those that used this science to study the wood of violins concluded, surprisingly, that there are many Stradivarius violins made from the same tree. So if you get a violin and it matches the same characteristics, you are a lucky person.
Western stringed instruments are usually made of spruce, and that is an easy-to-analyze type of wood. The unique patterns that appear in the wood rings are compared with those patterns found in the databases containing information about thousands of other violins. The result is a very precise one.
Using dendrochronology, experts can also determine the age of each piece of wood that makes the violin. That is how they can find out if the instrument was made during Stradivari’s life or not. There are, however, other ways of analyzing the wood of a violin, but they all require the help of an expert.
You can test the instrument using infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which is a complicated way of analyzing the chemical properties of the violin’s backboard. By comparing the results with chemical analyses from real Stradivarius violins, experts can tell if the instrument is real or not.
The master luthiers of those times didn’t have the wood that is used today, so they had to rely on their craftsmanship to produce quality instruments. They also prepared the wood by artificial means and treated the backboards with copper, iron or chromium for a better sound. Unfortunately, you can’t find if your instrument had the same treatment, but an expert can.
But before going to laboratories to test your instrument chemically or using advanced technology, you should listen to how it sounds. If you don’t know how to play it, find someone who does and ask them to help you with it.
Professional players that have had the occasion to work with a Strad say that the instrument has a certain sweetness to its sound and the notes are deep. Despite this, it is difficult to explain what makes a Stradivarius violin sound so well. But what is known is that the sound produced should be a strong and pure one.
Compared to other violins which don’t have a strong core and have too much surface noise, the Stradivarius sound is a rich and resonant one, no matter how high or low the frequency of the note played is.
For those with an experienced ear, when comparing a Stradivarius side-by-side with another violin the differences in sound are clear.
Performance and varnish
Another characteristic of Stradivarius violins is how responsive they are to touch. To analyze this aspect you need a player that has enough experience to know how to play the instrument faster, slower, or with more power.
Minor changes in the positioning of your fingers or in the pressure of the bow will result in great differences in terms of sound. When playing the instrument, it should feel a bit fragile, but it will surprise you with the power that it can output.
You should also look at the varnish and if it appears old enough, take a sample of it and have it analyzed. The results may surprise you. Many violins made in more recent times have a complex blend that is used as a varnish, but the Stradivarius violins are only covered in a simple coating made of oil and resin.
So make sure your violin has the original varnish, the label is authentic and the wood dates back to the 1700s. You will need a lot of expertise to find out if you possess a real Stradivarius or not, but the effort is worth it.
Know the history
Sometimes, no matter how much you examine a violin, you can’t know for sure when it was made and by whom, unless you know something more about all the violins made in certain periods, or about the style that each maker had. There are some experts that will, in an astonishing way, say that a certain violin was made between 1750 and 1770 for example.
It might seem impossible to know for certain if an instrument was made in a certain decade, but experts will know, by comparison, how a violin should look like, depending on when and where it was created. They also have an experienced eye.
Once you decided upon the age of the instrument, its “nationality” should come up next. Again, knowledge of violin history is key here, as different makes from different countries approached violin making in a different way. That is because they each had to use different materials, and that influenced the way they saw the instrument, its weak and strong points. After you decipher the country you need to dig deeper and find the city it was made in, and eventually the family and maker.
The label doesn’t always tell you what you want, but if you catch a glimpse of how fake labels look like you will have a better knowledge of what to avoid from the start. You don’t want to analyze a violin too much if it turns out to be a big fake.
The shape and color
One of the first impressions that will help you determine the age of the instrument and after that if it’s a fake or not is the shape of the instrument and its color. Violins that have a red tint will be the ones made after 1700, as red varnishes only started to be introduced in the world of violin-making after that year.
On the other hand, if the instrument is brown or has a yellow-golden color it either made before the 1700s or probably after that. When discussing the shape, it’s important to look at the center bouts. You don’t want them to be curving inward in an arc that’s well-regulated. This shape would be of an Amati-style violin.
Instead, you want the violin to have a stiffening in the middle section, and the upper corner to have a tightened radius, as this represents the Stradivarian style. This will help you date the instrument to either a date before 1690 when Stravidari actually created the instruments or after 1720 when others tried to copy his style.
Furthermore, another detail to pay attention to is the outer arcs where the upper and lower bout meet. You want that corner to have a sudden swerve and not an almost straight line.
Look at the arching too
Unfortunately for those looking for veritable Stradivarius instruments, they are not all the same, and that makes things a lot more difficult. Stradivari had different periods in his violin-making career, and although sometimes he preferred creating the violins in a certain way, he also changed the design quite often.
This can also be said about the arching of the violin. Around the year 1700, he liked a certain shape really much. He produced many flat full-edged violins during that period. Unfortunately, besides this period, there is no certain style that Stradivari adopted when creating his violins when it came to arching.
This is an aspect that most people don’t think about. Although violins look to be all the same in terms of length and breadth, there are small differences. For example, the Amatise outline is a bit narrower than usual, if we’re talking about early builds, and a lot wider if we’re looking at violins made in later periods of Amati’s life.
Because Stradivari started making violins right after Amati, his violins follow the first wave of Amatian models, the narrower ones. In terms of length, Stradivari only built long models in the 1690s, so there aren’t many of those. If you find long violins made before or after that period, it’s sure that they weren’t made by him.
Judging by all the information we wrote until now, it’s clear that there are certain aspects that will disqualify a fake violin right from the start. But seeing them is the more difficult part. A long build may also represent the work of some early 19th-century German violin makers, and although not as valuable as Stradivarius instruments, these ones can still be valuable.
Once you have analyzed the entire body, it’s time to have a look at the f-holes too. Again, Stradivari followed the steps of Andrea Amati when creating the f-holes. Amati used to make them large, with tiny pointed wings, and some large nicks. Stradivari went on to widen the wings, making the circles a bit smaller and he simplified the nicks.
Those that make fakes often forget about small details like this, so a fake with f-holes that are unspecific to Stradivari is easy to recognize. Then again, Guarneri did a similar style of f-holes, with wide wings and small circles, but he used a broad open cut for them. Pay attention to these small details.
There are certain books and catalogs that will show you all the different styles that each violin maker had, from the f-holes to the arches and the overall shape of the body. Make sure to at least have a read of some of these catalogs before you start looking at real violins.
Again, something that sets a certain maker’s style apart is the way the purfling was made. The materials used in this process will tell you a lot about the violin, as this is rarely something the makers change in their instruments. For example, ebony is a rare material that was only used by a handful of violin makers.
Whalebone is the same and it was more often found in certain regions. The same thing can be said about the interior of the instrument – once the maker used a certain wood there, the models will consistently use the same type of wood.