Ifshin Violins

by Richard Ward

Almost every day we get calls, e-mails and visits from folks perhaps just like you who have an old violin that has a paper label inside with a famous name like Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati, Stainer and others. Usually, these violins have been in the family, sometimes for generations. The instrument may have been found in a thrift store or at a garage sale. Often, when they look inside the violin, they spot the little paper label and get excited. Perhaps this rather worn little wooden object might be valuable. After all there have been articles in the press about a Stradivarius that sold for over a million dollars at some auction. Thoughts of early retirement arise. The fact is, there are millions of violins like this out there, many still hiding in garages, closets and attics. Almost none of them have a great deal of value, and they often need costly repairs that are beyond the instruments value.

In the latter 19th. and early 20th. centuries, there were thousands of mostly anonymous violin makers in eastern Germany and western Bohemia around the town of Markneukirchen, involved in the violin trade. At that time, there was a huge demand for musical instruments especially in this country. There was no TV, radio, movies or recordings to provide entertainment, so people had to create their own. Next to the piano, the violin was the most popular musical instrument. If you look at Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs of that era, you will see page after page of violins selling from about $2.00 to over $80.00. To meet this demand, a small area in the state of Saxony turned out something like 200,000 string instruments a year for several decades ( up to WW1). Most of these violins had reproduction labels of the great Italian makers of the 17th. and 18th. centuries and this is what confuses everyone who is not involved in the violin world. These labels were not meant to defraud anyone, but only to indicate the model the violin was based on. You can also think of them as a form of decoration. Over the years, as the instruments get some age and wear, and the labels darken, the confusion increased. One clue that may be useful: After 1891, anything exported to the United States were required to have the country of origin indicated somewhere on the item. The German and Bohemian instruments will usually have "made in Germany", "made in Czechoslovakia" etc. on the label. Before that, there was no such requirement. The best instruments from that area often were labeled with the name of the maker or workshop. The Ernst Heinrich Roth, Heinrich Heberlein, E.Reinhold Schmidt and others made excellent quality instruments that are in demand these days.

The town of Mirecourt in France was also a large center of violin making, especially in the early 20th. century. Many of the less expensive instruments will also have reproduction labels of the masters, but at the top you will find the inscription "de Apres" or "copie de".

We will be happy to look at your garage sale or attic "treasure" and let you know how much it will cost to put it into good playing condition. Just remember, it may have great sentimental value to you, but the commercial value will probably be something quite different.