Over the years, Johnson's has received hundreds of calls from excited customers who have bought or been bequeathed an old instrument with a label proclaiming it a Strad, a Guarnerius, a Stainer, an Amati, or perhaps even a Maggini. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, dealers know that in these situations the chances of stumbling upon an unknown authentic instrument by one of these makers is next to nil. Very, very few undiscovered violins by the most famous makers have turned up in the last several decades, while over the past 150 years, literally thousands of commercial and shop instruments containing these fake labels have been made.
Though it is always a disappointment to find out that ones buried treasure has turned out to be cubic zirconium instead of diamonds, there is no reason to blame the makers of yesteryear for intentionally practicing deception. On the contrary, at the time when many of these instruments were made, it was crystal clear to the consumer that his purchase was only a copy. Particularly at the end of the last century, it was considered fashionable to own an instrument which had been intentionally aged with coats of an antique-type varnish and contained a false label "signed" by a famous maker. Customers who purchased this type of instrument were more interested in cachet than they were in actual quality. In many cases, how a violin looked was even more important than how it sounded. (In a sense, the packaging of these popular Strads by dealers of the time could be seen as a savvy marketing technique on the part of the Victorians.)
As many of these instruments were the products of cottage industries in Germany and France, they could be sold at much lower prices than instruments which were hand-made by a single craftsman. In order to meet the budget constraints of their clients, American dealers of the time could actually order different grades of these copies at varying prices; they could also buy in bulk.
Though the value of these instruments in today’s market depends on many factors (condition being primary), we have rarely come across one of these violins worth over $800 wholesale; the majority have fallen into the under-$400 range. Even over time, a cubic zirconium cannot be transformed into a flawless gem. In addition, it is seldom that a “Strad” comes into our shop in prime condition. Typically, the violin is in poor shape, and consequently, one has to allow for at least $300 - $500 in professional repair and/or restoration costs. Because these industrially-produced copies were used as relatively inexpensive “student” instruments by many players, repair and maintenance work was often done by amateurs, whose incompetence could greatly lessen or even destroy the value of the violin.
If you have a “Strad” in your attic, there is only one way to be sure about the current market value of the instrument: take it in to be appraised by a professional. And do not despair, even if you discover that your prize violin was not made in Cremona in the 17th century, as the Victorians have taught us, there are many levels on which an instrument can be enjoyed.
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