World of many fiddles

EVERY week, one of the world's most respected violin dealers, Charles Beare, is asked for an opinion or valuation on around 25 instruments. Every week, two or three of them are not what they are thought to be.

Forgery is rife in the violin world. Modern imports from foreign factories can be turned into '19th-century' instruments, inferior violins 'upgraded' with misleading labels and forged certificates of provenance, and bits of old wood are used to construct 'old' instruments. Even the contents of vacuum-cleaners are emptied into soundholes to give the instruments dust.

Older instruments are prized for their superior sound quality. Skilled forgers stand to make tens of thousands of pounds from each sale. Even at the lower end of the market, one Birmingham dealer duped customers into paying hundreds for violins worth a fraction of the price - until Trading Standards officers investigated his business earlier this year. He admitted 45 charges under the Trades Descriptions Act.

Roger Hargrave, a British violin maker and a brilliant copyist, once had to convince the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna that he had made a 'Guarneri, 1714' that it was selling. Some time after the instrument had left his workshop in Bremen, Germany, the Hargrave stamp had been removed and a Guarneri inserted. The difference in price: pounds 150,000 against pounds 7,000.

But forgers generally keep off the 'old masters', such as Stradivari and Guarneri. Genuine ones can fetch more than pounds 1m, but are too well-documented. Copying a 1920s or 1930s model is much easier because forgers do not have to worry about ageing.

The pitfalls for anyone buying a violin are described by Brian Harvey, formerly Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Birmingham, in Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and the Law published by Oxford University Press this month. Professor Harvey describes how forgers alter labels and provenance certificates, faking or swapping them for genuine ones from instruments that have been destroyed.

To age an instrument, forgers darken the wood with acid - which can weaken the instrument - or rabbit urine. 'But that smells awful,' said one maker. 'The violin has to be hung out in the sun to get rid of it.'

There are usually some giveaways. The varnish, for example, can show a pattern of artificial 'distressing' untypical of genuine wear. But the best forgers know the most frequent points of contact, where to simulate worn varnish; they know that chinrests were only introduced in the 19th century, so that there is likely to be a mark on older instruments. The wood should look darkened with age, but the bass bar is likely to have been changed at some stage, so it should look newer.

Mr Beare says that he looks first at the back, the outline, the wood and the quality of the varnish. 'That's where the messages are.' Developing a good eye is more use than scientific equipment, he says. For example, dendrochronology, for dating the wood, offers no guidance if a forger has used old wood.

If anyone is caught out they can console themselves with the thought that faking has been going on for almost as long as 'straight' violin-making. Professor Harvey relates how, in 1685, one Tomasso A Vitali complained to the Duke of Modena that he had been deceived into buying an Amati violin. Under the Amati label was another label with the name of Ruggieri - 'a maker of much less repute'.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)