19 Oct 2013

We all know that people lose their heads over violins – the prices paid at auction for Stradivaris and del Gesus are now eight figures and rising.

Why do violins fetch record prices at auction?

Pretty much any violin with a maker’s name which sounds Italian or ends in a vowel benefits by association. If a violin has been played, commissioned, or even sneezed on by a famous performer, take the valuation and double it – the Gregg Alf/Joseph Curtin copy of Ruggiero Ricci’s del Gesu just broke the six-figure “glass ceiling” for auction prices for contemporary violins.

The Titanic violin sold today for £900,000. But what would it have been worth without the Titanic connection?

Few violins have stirred up so much interest, in spite of the fact that a) it’s patently what the trade calls a VSO (violin shaped object) and b) its sole owner was a doomed jobbing musician playing on a cruise ship (this was Titanic bandmaster Wallace Hartley, not, as some people seem to think, Leonardo di Caprio).

What is the Titanic violin?

It’s surprisingly difficult to get comprehensive photos of the Titanic violin, of the sort that violin experts would use for identification, but from what’s available online it can only be one of two things, Schönbach or Caussin workshop. The slightly incautious photos of the rib mitres show that they extend to the tips of the table and back corners, indicating that they were filed off after completion of the body. This would point in the direction of a Schönbach cottage industry fiddle. When money is to be made, such fiddles are disingenuously referred to as “Berlin” or “Dresden”, and that seems to be the velvet cushion which the Titanic marketing machine has chosen to use. The double purfling is a further indication of the violin’s humble origins. The varnish looks interestingly pitted, probably antiqued when new, and it bears a striking resemblance to Caussin Workshop varnish (Mirecourt/Vosges circa 1870). Caussin pioneered this type of antiqueing, using acid and hot metal, but I suppose a few weeks of seawater would do a similar job. A clear image of the back would be a clincher in this case, though the lack of blackening in the pegbox steers me towards Caussin.

How much is the Titanic violin really worth?

What would such a violin fetch at a violin auction without the Titanic fanfare? It’s in a sorry state, with a few table cracks and possibly worse damage to the back. £300 would be very optimistic, even for Caussin Workshop violin. A battered Schönbach box would be lucky to get £100 on Ebay.

The only items of value here are the case and the tailpiece. It hardly needs to be pointed out that both are eminently transferrable!