Guarneri del Gesù – the ‘Baltic’ of c. 1731

It has been over thirty years since a Guarneri of this quality has come to auction. Complete in all parts, made of exemplary tonewood, in excellent condition and covered in a stunning, deep red-brown varnish — the ‘Baltic’ is breathtaking.

By Jason Price February 1, 2023

The year 1731 was significant for Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. His father, Giuseppe ‘filius Andreæ’, had recently become incapacitated after an illness; early in 1731 del Gesù moved into the center of town; and, as if finally embracing his new position as one of three master makers in Cremona — alongside Stradivari and Bergonzi –– he increased his output and began making better violins than ever before.

Prior to 1730, the model and dimensions of Guarneri’s violins were more variable — the back length could be as long as 357 mm and the stop could be up to 200 mm as seen, for example, in the c. 1727 ‘Dancla’. Starting around 1731, del Gesù tended towards instruments of a shorter (350-353 mm) body length with a stop length of 190-193 mm. His sound-holes also changed: The lower holes became smaller which made the wings broader, and it was around this time that the ‘hatchet-shaped’ sound-holes we associate so much with the Guarneri style emerged. The ‘Baltic’ may well have been one of the first of a new series; its model — with exceptions and inevitable variations — endured for the next seven or so years until around 1738. The text to Peter Biddulph’s 1994 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art made this point eloquently: “The ‘Baltic’ model … marks a watershed in del Gesù’s development” and represents “the first fruit of new ideas, heralding a new phase in del Gesù’s career.”[1]

The maple that del Gesù selected for the ‘Baltic’ is stunning, with wide flames flowing across the width of the instrument. In the lower bouts, the wood is cut precisely on the quarter exposing the short, bright medullary rays that glisten in direct light.

Del Gesù had access to outstanding maple which was, in fact, often notably better than the more humble stock used by the world-famous Stradivari workshop for most of the 1730s. The maple that del Gesù selected for the ‘Baltic’ is stunning, with wide flames flowing across the width of the instrument. In the lower bouts, the wood is cut precisely on the quarter exposing the short, bright medullary rays that glisten in direct light. The sides are made of similar wood; the lower ribs, originally in one piece, are deeply flamed like the back while the upper ribs are more plain.

A dendrochronology examination performed by Peter Ratcliff dated the youngest rings of the treble and bass sides to 1713 and 1711 respectively. The two halves are unmatched but probably from the same tree. Guarneri, as many of his contemporaries, frequently joined unmatched halves to make the tops of his instruments instead of ‘book-matching’ a split billet. Significant correlations, some strongly indicating a same tree match, were found with other Guarneri violins including the 1732 ‘Posselt’ and ‘Armingaud’, the 1734 ‘Violon du Diable’ and ‘Haddock’ and the 1745 ‘Leduc’.

The ‘Baltic’ has two locating pins bisected by the purfling in the upper and lower bouts of the back. The Amati-school central pin, seen clearly on the inside back, is 182 mm from the lower edge. The thickness of the back is a full 4.5 mm at the location of the pin.

The scroll is the one element of Guarneri’s design that seems to have not yet advanced beyond his model of the late 1720s. The slightly egg-shaped volute of the ‘Baltic’ is most similar to the c. 1729 ‘Lady Streeton’ but also resembles the ‘Stauffer, Zukerman’ and the ‘Gibson, Huberman’ both of c. 1731. By 1733 del Gesù’s head model had changed, ironically returning to the style of his father from previous decades.

“The ‘Baltic’ model … marks a watershed in del Gesù’s development [and represents] the first fruit of new ideas, heralding a new phase in del Gesù’s career.”

The other important development that occurred around the time the ‘Baltic’ was made was the first appearance of del Gesù’s new label with its enigmatic and iconic IHS seal. It was modern, bold and broke with tradition. The label currently in the ‘Baltic’ is a facsimile reproduction that was inserted by W. E. Hill & Sons in 1939. Writing to Rudolph Wurlitzer on June 2 of that year, Alfred Hill remarked, “I note that the label it bears dated 1731 — the period is correct — is fictitious. I shall replace it [with] a much better reproduction.”[2]  The Hills weren’t the type to swap labels unnecessarily, but they would have wanted the ‘Baltic’ to be presented with an accurate and appropriate label. The quality and verisimilitude of the Hill facsimile is exceptional; they even went so far as to imitate the two short vertical pen strokes after the date — a typical but not fully understood feature of del Gesù’s labels. It is entirely understandable that this label had previously passed as original.

The ‘Baltic’ was selected by Peter Biddulph for his 1994 exhibition of twenty-five exceptional Guarneri instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is illustrated in the exhibition catalog as well as the two-volume monograph on the maker that followed. Two decades later, in 2012, it was put on display again at the Metropolitan Museum with the other instruments from the Lam Collection. The ‘Baltic’ is accompanied by certificates from W. E. Hill & Sons, Rembert Wurlitzer and Tarisio.

The ‘Baltic’ will be sold at auction on March 16, 2023. For more information:


  1.  Peter Biddulph, The Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesù (London: Peter Biddulph, 1998) p. 23, 29.
  2.  The Business records of the Rudolf Wurlitzer company. Stock card 8971, M272.

360 turn by Leonhard Rank and Jan Roehrmann.

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