"All these elements combine to produce an instantly recognisable effect; that of a very rare and beautiful Gagliano viola. So it is quite a shock when you turn the instrument over. Alessandro's f-holes are usually distinctive; long and steeply inclined across the front, with slim curving wings, exemplified by those of the Sotheby's example. The f-holes on this instrument appear to have been cut by 'del Gesù' at his most extravagant. And this is where the story takes a sinister turn. After the first shock, you start to focus on the dark shadows around the f, which are more than the usual accumulation of rosin and dust. That is not so surprising, but the retouching conceals something else; someone has been at work here with the filleting knife, someone who turned a fine, original and rare instrument by a comparatively little-known maker into what might be, and indeed has been, sold as a unique and priceless work: a Guarneri 'del Gesù' viola.
Until quite recently it was accepted that 'del Gesù' made only violins. That did not stop several over-excited charlatans in the past claiming to have cellos or violas by the master. The quest for a 'del Gesù' viola has been a faker's charter. As far as the forger is concerned, it is much easier to make a convincing copy of something which does not exist, strange as that may seem. It is unlikely that your fake 'del Gesù' viola will ever have to stand direct comparison with the real thing. And rather than start your fake Guarneri from scratch, how much easier to execute a little surgery on a good classical instrument by a less recognisable maker, already covered with fine old varnish – the most difficult thing to forge.
The culprit behind this has left his fingerprints all over the scene of the crime. Apart from the familiar-looking retouching varnish around the f-holes, where new wings have been grafted in and the upper half has been extended upward, a glance at the scroll clinches the matter. The original has been chopped off, and what the viola wears now is a pretty good approximation of what a 'del Gesù' viola scroll might have looked like. The original scroll of the sister Gagliano viola shows us what was originally on this instrument, and it is as quirky as one would expect from Alessandro, the top edges of the pegbox fluted but the back surface left flat, like a Testore. The actual volute is eerily like Gofriller's work, emphasising the other similarities of varnish and outline.
But this would not do for a 'del Gesù' and the handiwork of the replacement scroll on this viola is familiar and unmistakable: it's that old chancer John Lott. The label too, which is a clever reproduction of the 'del Gesù' ticket, is exactly like those Lott used for his violins. Lott was a wonderful violin maker, with a superb eye, a spontaneous and crafty hand and a good few bottles of varnish. Taken together, just like the various elements of Alessandro's distinctive style, all these points add up like a genetic sequence. John Lott could and often did carve a 'del Gesù' scroll with panache and authenticity – and not always for his own instruments. Although he made many violins, violas and even cellos in the Guarneri style, there are several instruments abroad which Lott and others 'upgraded' in this way. But I doubt if many violin makers in the mid-19th century would have hesitated to do this kind of thing given the chance; the evidence is all too common. Lott's work, though, is quite familiar and relatively easy to spot.
The story becomes more interesting in this case, since there is evidence that Lott succeeded not only in spoiling a fine old viola, but also in foisting it on to an unsuspecting customer. The viola is accompanied with a letter from a highly respected expert describing it unambiguously as a Joseph Guarnerius. On 19 January 1874, just over a year before he died at the age of 76, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume wrote to an old customer, Monsieur Fau of Castres. In it he states that he has finally decided to sell him his 'famous Joseph Guarnerius viola… of splendid aspect and distinctive tone'. The bill, which is also still with the instrument, is dated 29 April 1874 and gives the price of FF4,000. That is quite a sum. A few years earlier, Vuillaume had sold the fabulous 'Dolphin' Stradivari violin of 1714 for what later proved to be a slightly inflated price of FF6,500.
In the letter Vuillaume refers to the instrument as a 'Quinte', a term I am unfamiliar with (though later in the letter and in the accompanying bill he calls it, more conventionally, 'un alto'), and mentions the low ribs as the only slight flaw. The recipient, Fau, was an established collector and client of Vuillaume's. In 1865 Vuillaume had offered him the 'Messiah' at a price of FF10,000 but was refused. Fau did own the 'Castelbarco' 1697 Stradivari cello and a 1716 violin which bears his name, however, and the Hills bought the 'Diable' 'del Gesù' from his family in 1910. Fau's aim in buying this viola would seem to have been to complete a quartet of classical Cremonese instruments."
Faking It, John Dilworth, The Strad, September, 2002, London