How can you tell if the label in your violin is original?
by David Bonsey
An original label in a violin by Peter Guarneri of Venice 1734, showing the paper’s “laid lines.”
This is an important question in the evaluation of a violin from the 18th or 19th century. The recognition of an original label is an essential part of authenticating an antique violin, and the presence of an original label will naturally enhance a violin’s value.
In addition to my day-to-day work with fine instruments, the experience of working in an auction house for twelve years has enabled me to observe thousands of antiques. I’ve been able to learn from experts in other departments about furniture, decorative arts, rare books, and other material from the Classical era. I’ve gained first-hand knowledge of wood carving styles, varnish varieties and aging tendencies, as well as important characteristics of rare books and manuscripts. I find myself drawing on all of this knowledge in a violin appraisal.
Laid Paper Violin Labels (pre-1850)
Labels on classical instruments from before around 1850 were mostly made of laid paper. Handmade in a laborious process, laid paper uses linen fibers taken from recycled rags. The rags were sorted according to color, then broken down into fibers and set into a water bath. The wet fibers were then put into a wire sieve which allowed the water to drain out and the fibers to dry. The imprint of the wire sieve formed lines called “chains” or “laid lines” on the surface of the paper. This resulting grid of intersecting lines is especially visible when dust settles on the labels placed between the high ribs.
The printing was also done by hand with lead type, set with pressure onto the paper. Because laid paper has a certain natural resistance to water, little ink would run on the paper surface, and the printing typically possesses a crisp, clean outline.
Wove Paper Violin Labels (post-1850)
A paper label that dates after around 1850 is typically made of wood pulp that has been mashed into a sheet by machines. This “wove” paper will not exhibit laid lines or chains, and the type figures typically appear less sharp, with a fuzzy outline. To control the ink from running, the paper was sized with a coating of alum to make it more water resistant. Because the sizing was acidic, it made the labels less stable than those made of laid paper. These labels are also more prone to curling and browning.
Three Questions a Violin Appraiser will Ask
The label above appears on this Italian Violin by Pietro Guarneri, Venice, 1734, Auctioned for $165,900
1. What color is the label?
An original antique violin label will change color as it ages. The reaction of the paper against the wood, along with any other atmospheric changes, causes the paper to darken. Both the wood and the label should be a similar shade of brown.
2. What do the edges of the label look like?
The edges of the label itself should blend in cleanly to the wood surface. If there is any curling at the edges exposing lighter-colored wood underneath, it probably means the surface was treated to look old after a false label had been inserted.
3. Has the label been removed at any point?
An original label may be removed for repair, regraduation of the back, or even for transfer to another instrument. This is incredibly common, so it is an extremely rare and wonderful occurrence when I find an instrument with an original and undisturbed label!
Are you wondering what your antique violin is worth? It’s free to set up an appointment with an appraiser or to send pictures and a description of your instrument using Skinner’s auction evaluation form.