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Exclusive: Three luthiers challenge the authenticity of ‘Titanic violin’

The maritime and military historian Daniel Allen Butler, an American expert on the Titanic, mistrusted the recent British ‘discovery’ of a violin played on the tragic ship. He sought the views of three expert luthiers and presents them below in a slightly abridged article. Those who wish to know more can contact him at danielallenbutler@gmail.com.

Titanic-Violin

 

 

A violin alleged to be the instrument played by Wallace Hartley as the Titanic
sank is to be made available for sale at public auction later this
spring, and placed on display in Belfast, NI’s City Hall in April.

As soon as the story broke in mid-March, I questioned the validity of the
claims made about the “Hartley violin” in an open letter to Andrew
Aldridge and his colleagues. One of the points I brought up was the
lack of information about who did what testing and verification
procedures; I also drew attention to the lack of participation by professional
musicians, musicologists, and instrument makers in the verification
process. Later statements by Aldridge & Son indicated that such
individuals have participated, although, as with all of the other
“experts” allegedly involved in the process, no names were offered
so that their participation and conclusions could be independently
verified.

Over the past few days I’ve been doing some verification of my
own, speaking with three luthiers (violin makers) about the “Hartley
violin” and seeking their professional opinions on the likelihood
that the violin presented as the instrument Wallace Hartley played on
the deck of the Titanic as the ship was sinking was, indeed, the real
instrument. I consulted Mr. Timothy Jansma, of Freemont, MI
(http://www.jansma.com), Mr. Steve Reiley of Guarneri House in Grand
Rapids, MI (http://www.guarnerihouse.com),and Mr. Ken Amundson of
Amundson Violin of St. Paul, MN (http://www.amundsonviolin.com).

All three were unanimous in affirming that, given the sensitive nature of
the finish used on violins, ANY exposure to sea water, even less than
total immersion, would have left visible damage to the finish, in the
form of a gray “fogging” of the finish where water actually came
into contact with the instrument. All three were equally firm in
asserting that ten days exposure to the general dampness of the
Atlantic Ocean, even aside from any immersion the violin may have
experienced, would have resulted in the glue holding the instrument
together failing as it returned to its liquid state. All three were
categorical in stating that the violin as presented and depicted in
the photographs supplied by Henry Aldridge & Son could NOT be an
instrument that survived the events which the alleged provenance of
the so-called “Hartley violin” says the instrument has survived.
In point of fact, they were quite firm in stating that no violin made
circa 1900 – or today – could survive intact through such an
experience.

 

titanic

Mr. Amundson was kind enough to go one step further and put his
conclusions, and the reasoning by which he reached them, into an email
for me, with permission to quote him on the subject. I’ve cut and
pasted that email into this post in its entirety, with no editing
whatsoever. The points that he raises, as a professional instrument
maker, restorer and historian are damning, particularly concerning the
actual quality of the instrument in question, and given that he has
sixty years of experience in his field, his statements, along with
those of Messrs. Jansma and Reiley, combined with their own sixty-plus
years of experience, is impossible to gainsay – at least not without
resorting to fantasy. I think it’s high time Henry Aldridge & Sons
“‘fessed up” as we say in the U.S., to their shenanigans and
offered an apology to the Titanic community as well as the rest of the
world for their utterly unprofessional behavior.

Mr. Amundson’s email: “Mr. Butler, I appreciate and respect your 
efforts to discover the truth about the “Wallace Hartley” violin. 
I enjoyed the adventure of your phone call today, and the ensuing 
conversation, as you inquired with me about the possibilities of this 
violin, being the real thing. I must tell you right off the bat that 
it is my opinion that this violin, that is shown in the pictures is 
not the real thing. I look at many pictures of violins every year, and 
observe many more in person, assessing their condition and value as a 
service of my trade. I’ve seen every possibility that can happen to a 
violin, including being driven over by a pickup truck, and several 
that have been in floods, and or, stored in damp, humid basements, and 
cellars. They always come apart at the seams, and at all other glued 
intersections. The most common glue used for centuries is animal glue, 
coming from the scrapings off the inside of the hyde of an animal. The 
most commonly used glue is from the horse. It is very quickly weakened 
and dissolved in its dry form to become liquid again, even though it 
has held a violin together for a century or more. The top and bottom 
plates are carved, along with the neck and interior blocks. All the 
ribs are cut to size and heated and bent over a very hot iron to form 
the shoulders, waist and hips, ( or upper, center, and lower bouts ) 
of the instrument. Wood has a memory of sorts and when it comes loose 
from its glued position, it always looses its bent form and sometimes 
it nearly straightens out again. The same is true with the linings 
that assist in the strength of the gluing of the ribs to the rest of 
the instrument parts. This instrument that is represented in the story 
line, is most certainly in my opinion a wide grained German instrument 
from the time period in question, that shows very little skill in the 
carving and general make-up. Every violin shop has a few of these 
laying around that probably won’t ever reach their retail rack out of 
concern for their professional reputation. This man Wallace Hartley 
would have likely been playing on a fine Italian, French or even a 
much better German violin, than what is represented in these so-called 
facts put out by the people representing it. The picture I’m looking 
at speaks for itself if one has an open mind and minimum knowledge of 
such things. The straps on the case in the pictures is only meant to 
help keeping the case closed and were never long enough to wrap around 
a mans body in addition to the violin case. I’ve seen these violin 
cases in my career and they are not water proof. 3 or 4 hours in the 
water and this violin would have been in whole parts, not attached to 
each other. Then, for this violin to be a whole violin today it would 
have needed about 100 hours to correctly reglue, refit, and reassemble 
the violin. WHO did it?, and why is this person not named. I believe 
this violin could have been owned at one time or another, or even the 
time period in question, by Mr. Hartley. I believe it could have been 
the one given to him by a special person as a gift. However, it is not 
a violin that floated in salt water for 10 days. A more believable 
story would be that he recieved it as a gift but it was left at home 
and the people in his life just let it get old like so many I’ve seen, 
and it was passed down or sold or traded without much thought to its 
value. A man of his stature would never let anyone place a metal plate 
on the tail piece of a violin he was performing on, as it diminishes 
the tone, volume and voice of the instrument. He would have known this 
about violins. He would have been performing on his favorite ,high 
quality violin that night and not a violin of this apparent level of 
quality. I’m making these last few statements only a reasonable 
possibility, not a settled fact in my mind. Think about it??? If you 
were drowning and certain to die, would you carefully place your 
violin in its case and strap it to yourself as a HIGH priority of the 
moment. There are many other factors that come to mind that would 
dissolve the popular theory about this violin, but I believe I have 
made my point. Sincerely, Ken Amundson Amundson violin 
www.amundsonviolin.com

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Comments

  1. Most violinists I know have at least 2 violins. It would have been especially smart of Hartley to have owned two as some instrument repairs take weeks to complete, and weeks without a violin would have been weeks without employment. It would be very likely that this was indeed Hartley’s violin, his second violin, returned as a memento to his grieving fiance.

    • Holly, the scenario you’ve suggested has been put forward by other professional musicians, for some of the same reasons you’ve stated. Indeed, it’s a quite plausible explanation for the condition and existence of the instrument in question. What is implausible to the point of absurdity is the claim by Henry Aldridge Son, the auction house, that this is THE violin played by Wallace Hartley as the Titanic was sinking. There are people who make well-intentioned errors, and then there are people who regard the general public as a herd of credulous fools who can be fobbed off with sufficient hand-waving and blown smoke. Unfortunately for such people, they are wrong.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      My impression though is that these musicians were rather badly paid. So is it likely that he would have owned two violins?

      The article above says

      “This man Wallace Hartley would have likely been playing on a fine Italian, French or even a much better German violin”

      Same question, basically – would he have been able to own a more expensive violin?

      Also

      “for this violin to be a whole violin today it would have needed about 100 hours to correctly reglue, refit, and reassemble the violin”

      Really? Does it take that long?

      In the Wikipedia article on the Titanic musicians, it says that his fiancee recorded in her diary that she had received his violin and thanked authorities in Nova Scotia for sending it to her. Do we know if that is a verified fact, or if somebody made that up?

      • “My impression though is that these musicians were rather badly paid. So is it likely that he would have owned two violins?” Michael, men like Hartley were among the highest paid professional musicians of the day, and in addition to their wages, could earn a considerable amount of money in tips, so we’re not exactly talking about a “starving artist” here. As for whether he could afford more than one instrument, i would advert your attention to the fact that even today, musicians will make whatever sacrifices they feel necessary in order to acquire the best instrument possible, and three professional violinist with whom I have spoken or corresponded directly and personally have stated that they own at least two instruments, feeling that doing so is essential to their ability to perform with confidence and competence–they’ve outlines several scenarios where failing to have a second instrument on hand would have meant they simply could not have played at the time and place where they were requested or required to do so.

        As for ” ‘it would have needed about 100 hours to correctly reglue, refit, and reassemble the violin’
        Really? Does it take that long?” I can’t believe you read Ken’s letter and then actually asked that question. The man has been building and restoring violins for over sixty years, I should that would be sufficient experience and authority to be able to make that statement with absolute confidence of its veracity.

        As for the “diary entry,” this an excellent example of how stories get distorted in reporting and repetition. There is no “diary entry,” however, there IS a penciled note written in block letters on a page from a daily planner or scheduler that was found with the violin that has been alleged to have have belonged to Maria Robinson. However, there is absolutely NO provenance on the authenticity of that note other than it was found with the violin and so is said to add credence to the authenticity of the instrument, and the “fact” that the violin is authentic then verifies that the note is genuine. Please note that this is a classic circular argument.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Thanks for explaining that! So If I understand that correctly, that penciled note has no value at all to establish the provenance of the instrument?

          I am surprised to hear musicians like these were paid so well. I always thought they were, yes, exploited, “starving artists”.

          I don’t doubt that the man who wrote that letter knows what he is talking about. I am just astonished that it would take that long to piece the instrument back together. Of course, if that instrument is – or it looks more and more like one has to say *was* – authentic, it would be worth investing that time. But he is quite right – if somebody did restore it, why don’t we know who did it? The restoration process would be part of the story.
          Or is it possible that it came back in pieces and was put back together a long time ago, not recently to prepare it for an auction? Can an expert tell if an instrument has been restored in that way or if the way the parts fit together is the original work of the luthier who made it? In other words, does such restoration work leave un-erasable traces?

          • Various repair people who have worked on my violins see old repairs and can quickly and correctly identify who, or what school, did the repair. Particular methods give away the training or school of repair, additionally sometimes repair people leave small notes inside the violins as well.

            If the Titanic violin was in pieces when it was sent back to the fiance, and if it was restored, I have a very hard time believing that the person who would have had it restored would just stuff it back into a leather bag. Generally after a lofty repair bill and a newly completed restoration, a real violin case would be a small gesture to show respect for the ordeal the violin just went through, and also a small investment to insure the violin would stay safe. Not a leather bag.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Makes total sense. So I guess this is looking more and more unlikely, the more we look at it.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            So I looked at this website which seems to be fairly well researched

            http://www.titanic-titanic.com/article_jack_kopstein_titanics_valiant_musicians.shtml

            and it says there the musicians made about $30-40/month, with Hartley “probably” getting $10 more. Now I know one can not simply adjust for inflation to convert this into a modern $ amount, but looking at some historic cost of living indexes based on contemporary buying power, it still looks pretty terrible. Something like an upper working class, not even a lower middle class salary. Not much more than you would make working in a fast food joint today. Or did I misinterpret the numbers?

      • Citing that a musician earns a low wage does not mean they wouldn’t have multiple violins. When I was earning the lowest salary in my career, I had 4 violins in my possession. One was given to me, anther was my first instrument which was a decent ‘outdoor violin’, one I’d taken out a loan to buy and was paying it off month to month and the last one was the one I was trying to sell to pay for the the newest violin. I only own two now.

        As far as length of time to make a serious repair, this is absolutely true, and the biggest reason I own 2 violins!!

        And that diary entry, I totally agree with Daniel. It says thank you for returning the violin. Doesn’t say which violin.

  2. Rosalind says:

    Fascinating article, it will be interesting to see how this investigation will affect the planned auction. Holly’s idea sounds very plausible to me.

  3. I’m glad to have my suspicions about this instrument, posted as comments to an earlier SD article, have been confirmed by professional luthiers. A violin exposed to water for the length of time claimed will be in far worse condition (i.e. in rotted, warped pieces) than the intact instrument being auctioned.

    –Sixtus

  4. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Maybe Aldridge and Son would be interested in a small sliver of lignum crucis I have recently obtained. I’m willing to be quite generous about the reserve price, provided they do all the verification and research…

  5. Marguerite Foxon says:

    thanks for posting Norman. I dont know too much about violins but it sounded a bit of a stretch to me that this story could be true. More likely was one of his (no doubt several) violins at home and all these decades later someone has finally twigged one could make a bit of money from this, even if not all the story told about it is 100% true.

  6. Reggie Benstein says:

    Intriguing mystery. What was then in the leather case Wallace had strapped to his body ? Or was there a case, this seems to be a point of contention.

  7. Eeee….I do props for a living. I can’t speak to its authenticity, but it does look an awful lot like a theatrical prop. Sort of badly done….one-dimensional breakdown. Looking forward to someone getting to the bottom of this.

  8. Douglas Courtright says:

    If it was indeed fished out of the sea, was this violin found IN that leather bag? If so, perhaps it might have been Hartleys spare instrument. If they were playing on deck til the ship went down I don’t
    believe they would have bothered or had time to put the instruments they were using back into their cases. At least three of the eight musicians on the Titanic were violinists. The others were named Hume and Krins. If they were all close together on deck, who’s to know that this particular sad fiddle was Hartley’s? Also the Titanic had six Steinway pianos on board. Perhaps someday, someone might find some remnants of those on the ocean floor. At least their metal plates.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I don’t think it is all that unlikely that the musicians who played on the deck of the Titanic packed up their instruments and held on to them, maybe strapped them to their bodies before they went down. I don’t think they kept playing until they were swept of the deck by the rising water anyway.

  9. José Bergher says:

    A useful link on the Titanic’s 8 musicians:

    http://www.titanic-titanic.com/titanic_band.shtml

  10. Tad Marks says:

    This is a low quality German violin with double purfling. It is not the type of instrument a good player would use. It is also not the violin that appears in fotos of Hartly. A woman from Victorian era would not have such a terribly engraved plate made for a taipiece on the occaision of her
    “engagement” it is preposterous and un- ladylike. NOONE puts these things on a tailpiece cause it kills tone and looks ridiculous . This violin would have fallen apart in a matter of hours- especially the fingerboard which in the early 1900s only need to be glued lightly. Well one thing is for sure- I am not bidding on it. I already own the Lusitannia Violin!

    • Tad, if you don’t mind my asking, what are your credentials that allow you to make these statements so positively? I’m not questioning them, rather, I hope to be able to quote you as further support for my assertions when I’m asked about them again, which I will be. You know the first reply the critics will make when I say “Tad Marks said…” will be “Yeah? So who’s he?” I want to be able to tell them, and then watch them imitate fish out of water, mouths working in fruitless effort, as they try to refute your standing.

      • Tad Marks says:

        Where do you want me to start? No I am not that well known or credentialled and I dont care to be but I am very famliar with the gentlemen interviewed above and agree with most everything they say.I have repaired violins for almost 30 years Restored violins that have been in floods. Look at the violin it has double purfling and is GERMAN and it is totally glued together and polished. yet they did not take the time to polish the plate. It is east to replica that plate today- Anothet thing- if I were a great violin player and a boat was sinking, I would not save an $8 dollar Sears and Roebuck violin by puting it in my briefcase and strap it to my body, I’d play Nearer My God To There , say a prayer and jump in a lifeboat!
        In the early 1900′s most engravers were crafstmen and would not do a horrible job like this plate(look online at the photos they are crude). Most violinists would not put such a thing on a violin tailpiece unless they want to kill the tomne and since there were no sound systems available he would want the violin to sing loudly. A woman in later victorian era wopuld not get an engraving plate made for the occaision of her engagement – it would be considered RUDE. I know evryone today doesnt rememeber manners they only know political correctness but that was the political correctness of the day.
        the violin he holds in photos has a higher arch and has wear in the lower bouts- this is not the same violin. the lusitannia comment was a joke. what else do you want to know. likie they say it COULD be a spare violin but the violin is being touted as THE TITANIC violin. I am sorry to say this to me is like the Hitler Diaries from a few decades ago. people WANT to believe it because it makes a great story

        • Thanks for the additional information, Tad. As I said, I expect that if and when I cite you as one of my sources, certain people will react with “So, who is he?” This will allow me to retort quite effectively that you DO know whereof you speak. I agree wholeheartedly about the silver dedication plate screwed onto the fishplate, as well as the overall low quality of the violin itself. Aldridge & Son have started backpedaling and playing the CYA game by claiming that Hartley was a “cafe musician” rather than a concert quality violinist as a way of explaining away the low quality of the violin–but no one there has addressed the question of how the silver presentation plate would have affected the tone of the violin, a point now raised independently by three other experts and endorsed by yourself. The more they try to explain away the inconsistencies, the more problems they create for themselves. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

          • Tad Marks says:

            Ok lets say I am not credentialled at all- do I have to be to question things? in addition to being a terrible typist on computer keyboard I worked in several violin shops and managed International Violin Company for a few years— I am intrigued by this story and mosty I am just curious . And the reason i doubt the authenticity is because I study violins for a living and restore them.It seems no matter what I say I have to be a famous credentialled violin maker and most of those men and ladies who I know are quite unasuming humble but knowledgable and too busy working to be bothered by blogs such as these. Notice the silence in the violin world about this ? Maybe I am so worked up about this is because I played “Nearer My God to Thee ” for the Titanic celebration last year in Branson and maybe feel a spititual connection to Hartley.
            I ask—Why wouldnt the violin be taked to Sothebys, Phillips, or Tarisio to be sold.- just asking. I also ask why the authentication comes from scientists and not also credentialled violin appraisers???– read the notices they say made from Rosewood??? the majority of violins in the world are made from spruce and maple. the fittings many times are of rosewood. those of rosewood fingerboards and they usually are cheaper. What kind of an expert would say a violin is made of rosewood>??
            Even if it was a violin owned by the man was not the one played on the Titanic does that still make as valuable– I am only asking. Why be so vague ? Well was it in the salty cold ocean water or not????? Why is the violin being shown in the photo with the briefcase if it was not the one in the water? Are they trying to imply authentication by juxtaposition and sublimitle suggestion??
            hey- if I am going to spend $100,000.00 I would want it to be the one he took with him in the water, so if they nowm undrplay this and call him a salon musician – what salon musician would bother to figure out if his violin would fit in a briefcase -Come on – how many violinists put violins in briefcases anyway? If you bid on this violin do you also get the briefcase? It seems everyone wants to believe the official story- its more interesting. nSo where is the information from a reputable violin shop saying what kind of violin this is, where it was made what type of repairs have been done- what type of water damage occured to bothet the bare wood and varnish, what is the condition of the briefcase?? Ok stop asking me for my credentials.

          • Tad, if I gave the impression I was challenging your credentials, I wasn’t–sorry if it seemed that way. No, you don’t have to have a set of impressive credentials to ask questions about something you see that doesn’t seem right to you. My point was that you addressed some very specific details about the violin which would not be obvious to a layman (like myself), which implies superior knowledge and/or experience. As I’m sure you noted, in my challenge to the violin’s authenticity, I consulted genuine experts in the fields of violin construction and restoration, because I am not an authority in either vocation, and I provided specific sources for my challenges. The Aldridges have done neither–no participation by experts in violin making or restoration, no documentation provided, and every point you’ve raised in your most recent post simply highlights the flaws in the “verification” process they’ve employed. I asked for your credentials so that I can include you among the authoritative sources I will be citing when I challenge the authenticity of the violin when it goes to auction, as it is my intention to travel to Great Britain to attend that event, whenever it takes place (no date has been announced yet). It wasn’t a challenge to your position, rather it was an effort to validate it. Again, I apologize if it seemed otherwise.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      How can you tell from the picture where the violin was made? I would be very cautious to speculate about what people from a certain era would or would not have done. Especially when we are talking about an era such as the Victorian which had a taste for overladen kitsch.

  11. Hello everybody. I find this discussion fascinating reading and thank you all for your interesting views. I just want to add something that nobody mentioned and seems significant to me. The violin was purported to be a gift from Hartley’s fiancee. Hartley obviously already owned a violin. So if she gave him one, he would certainly have owned two violins, at least for a while. There could be lots of reasons for him to take his original violin on the cruise and leave the new one behind (for example, he might have preferred the better instrument).

    Also, someone could have sent his fiancee the one he left home and she could have mistakenly assumed it was recovered with the body. So the diary entry could be authentic.

    I think it’s great that you have picked apart the violin floating in the sea theory. It sounds like this part of the claim is just sales hype. Keep up the good work!

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