It is well-known that Antonio Stradivari constructed over 600 violins. About four hundred fifty are known or accounted for, so the obvious question is: where are the rest? Does anyone really know? I may be the only one who does.
The Messiah Strad
The authenticity of the Messiah Strad became questionable back in 1998 but not without good reason. Count Cozio di Salabue (1755-1840) - one of the greatest violin collectors of all time - is one of my heroes. Luigi Tarisio (1790-1854) too. If you're reading this, you must know both of these famous men - famous and very popular among musicians who care and may even be passionate about violins - the mystery of their origin and construction. It has been said that chess, like women, is a great mystery. So too, are violins, especially the great and priceless Stradivarius "Messiah," the Messiah Stradivarius, housed in a British museum, which I believe to be a fake (the violin, not the museum). As a further curiosity, it is intriguing that the Count Cozio here in play was the son of another Count Cozio - Carlo Cozio (1715-1780, give or take), Count of Montiglio and Salabue. Carlo was a chess player after whom the Cozio Defence is named. Chess players know what that is. Where were we? Sure, it's quite possible that Don Antonio constructed a "Messiah" violin - an instrument that has been called near-perfect - sometime during his golden period (1700-1720), 1716 to be exact. Nevertheless, that violin and the one on display in the British Ashmolean Museum are probably not one and the same. It was supposedly sold by Paolo Stradivari (Antonio's third son) to Count Cozio (in 1775) who later sold it to Tarisio (in 1827 ??), who never parted with it but whose relatives, after his death, sold it to (French violin maker) J.B. Vuillaume (in 1854). Stewart Pollens, at that time a conservator with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, did a fairly thorough examination of this famous fiddle - at the invitation of the Ashmolean - which led him to conclude that it (the violin on display) could not possibly be the "Messiah." These findings were first published way back in 1998, to the great consternation of the museum directors (and others). Any further research pending and also to be conducted by Mr Pollens was suddenly stopped - probably by interests which had a great deal to lose, had it ever been conclusively proved that the thing inside the glass case was not actually as old as it had to have been in order to bear the Stradivari name. Remember, this priceless instrument passed through the hands of the greatest violin copyist in history - Juan Bautista Vuillaume (1798-1875). It is fairly well-known that he made no fewer than ten copies of this famous "Messiah," one of which Henryk Szeryng gave to the principality of Monaco (via Prince Rainier III). In any case, to me, the Ashmolean "Messiah" just looks fake, period - I would guess even to the untrained eye. I have a photo of it posted here on a separate page. Just look at it. Never completely trust an authority or expert who has something to gain by declaring an artifact to be genuine.
It is anomalies in the provenance of an instrument (the history of ownership) that sometimes lead a person to conclude that a fair amount of skepticism is warranted. As far as can be ascertained, the chain of title for the "Messiah" is as follows:
Antonio Stradivari (1716-1737) Paolo Stradivari (who acquired it via inheritance and sold it in 1775) - Cozio (1775-1827 ?) - Tarisio (1827-1854 ?) - J.B. Vuillaume (1854-1875) - Delphin Alard (1875-1890) - W.E. Hill (1890-1891) - Robert Crawford (1891-1897) - Ernest Niccolini (1897-1904) - W.E.Hill (1904-1913) Richard Bennett (1913-1928) - unknown (1929-1930) - W.E. Hill (1931-1939) - Ashmolean (1939-present)
In addition, there are certain serious inconsistencies between the Messiah descriptions jotted down by those who saw it and handled it originally (especially Count Cozio) and those given by the latest owner/dealers, namely W.E. Hill and Sons, who actually took the violin apart. These inconsistencies gave rise to the strong suspicion that the Hills had fooled around with the instrument - altered it, in other words. They had everything to lose by admitting to such gross and unconscionable interference with a gem like the "Messiah" so they always denied it. Furthermore, the construction itself does not bear certain stylistic earmarks of any Strad of the same period - the "F" holes and the corners, for instance. The description given by Count Cozio included a mention of a patch under the soundpost which patch is not present in the violin purported to be the Messiah - the one in the museum. Neither is the patch mentioned by the Hills - they examined the violin thoroughly - remember, they even took it apart - so they could not have missed it. There is also a serious question about the letter "G" found in the pegbox in the violin in the museum. That "G" was not there originally and, in any case, would have been the wrong letter to have inserted in the pegbox. The "G" is shorthand for "grande," meaning that the violin pattern used for this violin was the large model, which this violin is not. It has been conjectured that the Hills inserted the letter to make it look more authentic - they had no idea what the letter stood for when they did this, if, in fact, they were the ones who did. If you wish to immerse yourself further, please go to Soundpostonline (dotcom, of course) and from there go to their archive page. On the archive page insert the word "Messiah" in the search box and read all the articles referenced or just read the sections having to do with "Letters." That should suffice. Having said all this, I need to also tell you that an interesting hypothesis has been advanced by Toby Faber, author of Stradivari's Genius (2004). In Chapter Sixteen of his book, Faber speculates that the famous violin may have been constructed (at least partially, if not entirely) by one of Stradivari's sons, namely Giovanni Battista Stradivari. Giovanni died in 1727, a full ten years before the old man - at age twenty four. That would at least explain why Antonio could never part with the violin - too much sentimental value. Here are a few links that articulate (with much greater scholarship and authority than I could ever possess) other misgivings about this celebrated violin: (pending) The question then is: Where is the real Messiah Strad?
Are there any other precious violins out there? Certainly. Amati, Guarnerius, Maggini, Stainer, Gagliano, Goffriller, Kloz, Hornsteiner, Lupot, Storioni, Testore, Ventapane, Rocca, and Guadagnini just to name fourteen good brands.
I know where to go - all I need is a few intrepid bankrollers to help me with expenses. If you're one of these people, look me up for any questions. I promise absolute discretion. Photos of any precious finds will be posted here immediately - before the newspapers get them.