The measure of an instrument


Appraiser: A consultant for Sotheby's auction house encounters many a phony "Stradivarius" but not a lot of authentic Serbian gusles.

April 12, 1999|By Charles Leroux | Charles Leroux,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Like many a mother, Charles Rudig's mom sent him to take piano lessons. Young Charles, however, spent much of his lesson time under the piano staring up at the bottom where he could clearly see the instrument's construction, "the good part," as he puts it.

He's still looking inside instruments, now as a consultant for Sotheby's, the auction house. He has come to Chicago to do free appraisals of musical instruments. From a smallish leather case, Rudig produces the tools of his trade -- a tape measure, a slender goose-neck flashlight for illuminating the insides of instruments, several magnifying glasses of varying power -- and places them on a table over which a black cloth has been spread.

For two days, he sits at the table looking at instruments, one at a time, 15 minutes for each, with a break at midday for a sandwich. He sees people with plans for the riches they hope to realize -- or maybe just wanting to show off an instrument their mother or grandfather, now dead, once made sing.

"These can be," he says, "intensely private moments."

For much of his time, it is one German violin after another, as though the Hamburg Symphony was on parade.

Lorraine Mayer gingerly opens a case and lifts out her violin. Someone has told her it was by Maggini, an early 17th-century Italian maker.

Rudig scans the violin quickly and says, "It's a commercially made German violin from around 1890. There's no way to know who made it. These German makers never signed their work "

He picks up the tape measure. "The back is 14 3/8 inches in length," he says. "That's enormous. Violinists like an instrument no longer than 14 inches."

As gingerly as she had opened the case, Mayer says, "The label says Stradivarius."

Antonio Stradivari, the finest maker of violins the world has known, made beautiful instruments with a lustrous finish and sound in his shop in Cremona, Italy, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. When one of his instruments comes on the market, it sells for anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars into the millions.

Mayer's instrument will not fetch that. "The fiddle is worth about $200," Rudig tells her, "less than it would cost to buy the wood to make one. It's nicely made, probably sounds wonderful, but I'm sorry to say it's not a sought-after antique, just an old violin."

As for the label, about 80 percent of all violins carry some form of the Stradivarius label: "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonis Faciebet Anno [date]," which is Latin for "Made in Cremona by Antonio Stradivarius in the year [date]."

It appears in violins made in Czechoslovakia or China, made in proportions Antonio never knew, made yesterday -- Rudig saw a catalog for new violins that offered several choices of antique label with the default option being the Stradivarius. Only rarely is the misleading label intended to defraud. It seems to have been more of an homage from the makers to the master.

But, Rudig says, "People see the word Stradivarius; somebody tells them the fiddle is worth a lot of money, and their hopes soar."

Sometimes they should know better. In one violin brought to Rudig for appraisal, the words "made in Cremona" are written in German. Rudig says just one word: "Preposterous."

A woman brings her daughter's violin, another German cheapie. "These were probably the least expensive violins in the shop when this one was bought new," Rudig says, "but they were a tremendous value because of their sound." He looks inside at the label and launches into a lengthy, fascinating lecture about the proper way to clean dust from the inside of a violin. Swish rice around in there, but not cooked rice.

"Someone actually did that," Rudig says. "They forced clumps of boiled rice through the f-holes. The rice hardened and wouldn't come out. "

Next comes Dan Wisk with a violin his grandfather gave him 32 years ago, bearing the label of an obscure French maker. "German," Rudig says, but he doesn't put the violin down. He stares at it like someone trying to recognize a face at a high school reunion. He gets out a magnifying glass and notes aloud small details that argued one way or the other for its being either French or German.

"I'm warming up to this fiddle," he says finally, declaring it French-made in the early French style, which was derived from an earlier Germanic form and often crafted by German artisans who had emigrated to France.

"It's worth $12,000," he said. "But that's only after restoration to fix the top, which is in pretty bad condition. Restoration would cost around $6,000. Right now Sotheby's is holding musical-instrument auctions only in London. You'd have to pay shipping costs, insurance if you wanted it, costs for photography, etc. The instrument might bring $2,000 at auction, since only a dealer or a restorer might take a chance on it in its current condition, and you'd realize maybe $1,200."

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