NPR: Can You Pick The Strad?

National Public Radio ran a great story on January 2 about a recent study on the conventional wisdom regarding old and historical violins. The results were fascinating. Old violins are treasured as great art of historical value, as they should, but otherwise they are just that: historical artifacts. Their value derives from their historical importance and rarity, not because the sound that can be produced when using them is unmatched in quality by newer instruments. Some sound great, many don't and all are different. The same goes for new violins, too. 

Remember, Stradivari's violins were new once, too.

You can listen to it here.

In a double-blind test by professional violinists, most couldn't determine — by sound alone — which violin was an original Stradivarius and which was a modern instrument. Above, a 1729 Stradivari known as the "Solomon, Ex-Lambert."

From the piece:
They gathered professional violinists in a hotel room in Indianapolis. They had six violins — two Strads, a Guarneri and three modern instruments. Everybody wore dark goggles so they couldn't see which violin was which.
Then the researchers told the musicians: These are all fine violins and at least one is a Stradivarius. Play, then judge the instruments.

Joseph Curtin, a violin-maker from Michigan, was one of the researchers. "There was no evidence that people had any idea what they were playing," he says. "That really surprised me."
Curtin says of the 17 players who were asked to choose which were old Italians, "Seven said they couldn't, seven got it wrong, and only three got it right."

The lesson that can be drawn from this is that there is nothing inherently superior about an old violin. If it is a great instrument now, it was when it was built. For a violinist looking for an instrument, it should be noted that antique violins are more expensive for no other reason than the fact that they are antiques, just like furniture or any other decorative art. It is possible to obtain a new master crafted violin which will sound and respond every bit as well as an antique fine violin. 

Recommended Books on Violin Making

I compiled a selection of books that are available on Amazon.com that are terrific, reasonably priced resources for anyone wishing to know more about violins. They represent both the latest and seminal works on violin making. There are also many large format volumes that include full size photographs and drawings that are available elsewhere. Two sources for these books are Amati Books and Howard Core.