A Voller Brothers copy of the ‘Vieuxtemps’ Strad

This copy of the 'Vieuxtemps' Strad by the Voller Brothers includes some obvious mistakes, possibly to warn experts

By Benjamin Hebbert May 4, 2013

The Voller brothers, William, Charles and Alfred, became infamous in the violin world after being implicated as the makers of the fake ‘Balfour Stradivari’ at the turn of the 20th-century. It was one of the great scandals to rock the London trade and propelled the Vollers to fame as England’s greatest violin forgers.

Undoubtedly much of their activity formed a kind of sport, producing copies of second-tier Italian works that they floated onto the market in order to outwit the experts, protected in part by the murky ethics of turn of the century violin dealing. They produced in the process some remarkable copies of Milanese and Neapolitan work, as well as less known makers such as Antonio Gragnani or Carlo Guadagnini, and ambitious elaborations of Francesco Stradivari. However, many of their works were correctly labelled and sold through reputable dealers, and often their finest efforts were reserved for making precise copies of famous instruments. Both John Hart in London and Rudolph Wurlitzer in New York openly engaged the Vollers.

Exceptional examples of the Vollers’ work include their facsimiles of the 1691 ‘Red Cross Knight’ Stradivari, in which they reproduced the initials of an 18th-century owner branded into the back of the original. Likewise their copy of the 1701 ‘Circle’, ex-Nachez violin incorporates the compass marks on the back that give the original its name.

vieuxtemps_hebbert_vertical2

A side-by-side comparison of the 1897 Voller copy with the original Vieuxtemps Stradivari as it appeared in 1898 when published in Fridolin Hamma’s Alt Geige

This copy of the 1710 ‘Vieuxtemps’ Stradivari is an example of the brothers’ finest copying skills. The violin was made for Hart & Son, as indicated by its label, “Exact copy of ‘The Vieuxtemps’ Stradivari, Date 1710. Hart & Son. Makers. 28 Wardour Street. W. 18 London”. It was made in 1897 after Hart had bought the ‘Vieuxtemps’, which was regarded as one of the finest-sounding Stradivaris in circulation. This copy is one of several that Hart commissioned in the 1890s, each a testimony to great instruments that passed through his hands, including the 1745 ‘Leduc’ and 1735 ‘d’Egville’ Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ violins, and the 1704 ‘Betts’ Stradivari.

Exceptional examples of the Vollers’ work include their facsimiles of the 1691 ‘Red Cross Knight’ Stradivari, in which they reproduced the initials of an 18th-century owner branded into the back of the original. Likewise their copy of the 1701 ‘Circle’, ex-Nachez violin incorporates the compass marks on the back that give the original its name.

The claim to be an exact copy is hardly exaggeration. The choice of wood for the back of the violin is phenomenally close to the original and captures the subtle change of figure across the lower bouts. The sudden widening of the grain of the belly towards the edges is emulated with very good effect by adding wings of broad-grained wood in the lower flanks. A curved scratch just left of the fingerboard is faithfully reproduced, as are large blemishes beside the purfling at the widest part of the lower bout and above the top treble corner.

The Vollers appear to have been constantly vigilant against being discovered as forgers and particularly nervous when making copies of famous instruments, hence the contents of their letter postmarked 21 May 1901 concerning the notorious ‘Balfour Strad’, days before Balfour & Co put the violin on the market for £1,000 (they later doubled the price): “I should strongly advise you not to sell the so-called 1692 Strad, which you bought in at Putticks, as a Genuine Strad. You know it is only a clever ‘Fake’. If you do [sell it] I should think you could be prosecuted for conspiracy,” signed famously, “One who knows who made it”.

64296_label Voller Brothers
Conscious of the ethical knife-edge upon which they operated, and probably protecting themselves from the threat of litigation, the Vollers frequently incorporated obvious mistakes into their work. Their Gagliano copies often have pins in them, when an original should not, and similar sleights of hand are seen on this ‘Vieuxtemps’ copy. Here, the lower of the pins on the back is directly under the purfling, emerging on both sides, while the upper pin sits below the purfling. This inconsistency is fundamentally un-Stradivarian and contrasts with the two pins neatly bisected by the purfling on the original. The scroll, though a masterly copy in some respects, including superb reproduction of the wear to the back of the volute, lacks the black edges that are essential for a genuine scroll of this period. The deeply cut centre line running along the back of the pegbox is neither a feature of Stradivari’s work, nor is it typical of the Vollers’ technique. Once again, this was possibly a warning to any expert to look again at the violin, or a safeguard if accused of conspiracy in a court of law.

Today Voller instruments are prized in their own right not just as clever copies but as fine concert instruments worthy of the many professional musicians who play them.

Further reading:

The Voller Brothers: Victorian Violin Makers, John Dilworth, Andrew Fairfax, John Milnes, BVMA, 2006

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