Rare Mezzadri violin surfaces in North York

The Toronto Star, February 27, 2014

By Joel Eastwood

Violin once played by Kathleen Szabo’s husband George is determined by Tarisio appraiser to be worth up to $100,000, but that just makes Kathleen’s decision harder.

Jason Price turns the 275-year-old violin over in his hands, cradling the aged wood, running his expert eye along its varnished surface.

“Fantastic,” he says. “Fantastic. That’s really a beauty.”

Across the table from Price sits Kathleen Szabo. That’s not what she wants to hear, because it makes her decision all the more difficult.

When she looks at the instrument, she thinks of her husband.

When Price, the appraiser who flew in from Manhattan the day before, looks at it he sees a rare specimen worth up to $100,000.

Szabo has kept this instrument in the bedroom closet of her North York house for almost 40 years. It belonged to her husband, George.

Now 84 years old and living alone, Szabo thinks it may be time to let it go.

“It’s a difficult thing to own and take care of,” she says.

George was a musician, the violin his constant companion.

“It’s so much a part of him, you cannot believe,” Szabo says, her voice wavering. “That’s why I have a problem with it, you know. It’s not the money, it’s him in there: in that violin. Can you understand that?”

Look closely, as Price does through his dark-rimmed glasses, and the instrument tells a story.

It bears the distinctive style of Alessandro Mezzadri, an Italian violin maker working in northern Italy in the early 1700s. Uncommonly, the back of the violin is beech wood.

“That’s extremely unusual for a northern Italian violin of this period,” says Price, scrutinizing the antique. “I’ve never seen a Mezzadri in beech.”

Price estimates there may only be 100 Mezzadri violins left in the world and he’s holding one in his hands now.

Price knows violins. Fifteen years ago, when eBay was first attracting attention, he founded Tarisio, an online auction house for selling musical instruments. His goal was to make auctions accessible to musicians.

Price made his first sale out of his Massachusetts dorm room. Now the company has offices in New York and London, and its appraisers travel across North America and Europe on the hunt for valuable violins, violas and cellos.

Tarisio’s appraisers come to Toronto twice a year. On Feb. 23, Price and Szabo are sitting on the second floor of a hotel on Bloor, across the street from the Royal Conservatory of Music.

“There’s a huge musical tradition here,” Price says. “Lots of people with European instruments.”

The hard part is separating the rare finds from the false positives. Potential sellers are first screened by phone to weed out contemporary or generic instruments.

In the early 20th century, German factories churned out violins modelled after the famous Stradivari design by the thousands. Price likens them to prints of a famous painting you’d buy at the art gallery gift shop.

“They’re not fakes, they’re not forgeries, they’re just the Stradivari model that, after 100 years of age, starts to look like it might be convincing to some people,” Price says.

With violins, it can be hard for the untrained eye to tell the difference between a run-of-the-mill instrument and a genuine specimen by a master craftsman.

When he first lays eyes on an instrument, Price runs through a mental checklist: what type of wood is it made of? How are the pieces put together? Where was it made? How old is it? Has it been broken and repaired?

“Usually, you know within a good 20 seconds what it is,” Price says. “And if you don’t know in that 20 seconds, it’s going to take you four months to figure it out.”

Authentication is key for an instrument to fetch top dollar.

Price says he has no doubt about the authenticity of Kathleen Szabo’s Mezzadri.

Using a miniature light and a small, circular hand-held mirror similar to the one used by a dentist, Price inspects the instrument for cracks and flaws. He lowers the light through the violin’s F-shaped holes and examines the inside.

“It does have some restorations inside,” Price said, estimating the repairs were done 120 years ago.

The clues of the craftsmanship are backed up by documents tracing the instrument’s ownership.

George bought the violin in Belgium during the Second World War, paying for it with English pounds and cigarettes. He was in the Royal Canadian Navy band, entertaining troops in the touring musical revue Meet the Navy. In London, he played the violin before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

George and Kathleen met after the war. They had independently immigrated to Canada as children during the Great Depression and met on a boat headed back to their native Hungary, where they studied at a music academy in Budapest.

Six years later, they returned to Toronto and settled in North York, where they had two sons. Kathleen was a piano teacher. As an itinerant musician, George played his violin in several orchestras, at bar mitzvahs and social events across Toronto.

George’s last performance was on Nov. 7, 1976. He had just finished playing a show with the Ice Capades, a figure skating troupe, at Maple Leaf Gardens when he died of a heart attack in his car. He was 51.

Decades later, the violin is Szabo’s link to her husband.

“It’s the way he held it, it’s his feeling for it,” Szabo says.

She is reluctant to let it go. Perhaps the time has come.

“It’s been played,” Price says, noting the worn strings.

“Even the cat has played it,” Szabo says, recalling how one of their cats would yowl along when George was practising his scales.

“He waited every day for that violin to come out and he would accompany it,” Szabo tells Price.

“The cat and the fiddle,” Price says, chuckling.

During the appraisal the instrument is never played.

Szabo does not think she can let the violin go, even as Price draws up the paperwork. She has turned down an offer before. She walks out of the room, consignment contract in hand, to get a coffee and talk it over with her son.

Fifteen minutes later, Szabo returns, and signs the document.

The violin will be packed into a secure crate and shipped back to New York. Minor repairs will be made: sealing cracks, fitting it with a new set of strings. Then it will be catalogued, photographed and publicized in the run-up to a bimonthly online auction.

It will be auctioned off on May 8, with a starting bid of $65,000. Price says it may sell for as much as $100,000, maybe even more.

It’s difficult to gauge the selling price because of the rarity. For comparison, there are about 600 Stradivarius violins still in existence.

A few days later, sitting in her living room, Szabo explains the heartbreaking farewell.

“I had a hard time coming home from there. I really did. Very difficult. Very emotional for me.”

But the time has come for the violin to be passed on and played again.

“We can’t keep holding it. It’s just not right,” she says. “Somebody should be enjoying this instrument.”

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