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Subscriber: null; date: 16 February 2020

Faking and forgerylocked

  • John Barnes,
  • Charles Beare
  •  and Laurence Libin

Faking musical instruments can involve such acts as creating an entirely new deceptive object, rebuilding an instrument with intent to deceive, conflating parts from different sources to form an instrument with a fictitious history, or forging an inscription on an instrument (and producing false documentation) in order to associate it with an advantageous name or period. A successful faker needs to know what customers want and the extent of their historical knowledge. Fakes can thus shed light on those who were deceived as well as on those responsible for deception. Partly to discourage misrepresentation, during the Middle Ages European trade guilds began to register makers’ marks and require their use on products; bells were perhaps the first instruments to bear such identification. Despite continuing efforts to suppress the practice, and improving methods of detection, faking and forgery, especially of valuable instruments sought by collectors as investments, continue to flourish.

1. Keyboards.

Instruments of the famous Ruckers family, enlarged and redecorated to satisfy contemporary taste and musical requirements, were in demand in the 18th century, particularly in Paris. Since the alterations concealed much of the original material and involved replacement of many parts, it was not difficult for those engaged in this trade to satisfy the market without actually starting from an original Ruckers instrument. Several workshop inventories taken for legal purposes refer frankly to counterfeit Ruckers harpsichords.

Two surviving examples illustrate the methods of 18th-century Parisian makers. The Musée de la Musique (Paris) has a harpsichord inscribed ‘Hans Ruckers’, (dated 1590), which was discovered during restoration to have been made by Goujon in the 18th century. It appears to have a joint in the frontboard showing where it had been increased in width, but this joint was simulated by a knife line. A harpsichord (in GB.E.u) is signed Pascal Taskin and dated in two places 1783 and 1784. Its ‘JC’ rose purports to be that of Joannes Couchet, the nephew and successor of Joannes Ruckers, but evidently it is a rose of Jean or Jacques Goermans with the G changed to a C. This instrument seems, in fact, to have been made by Goermans in 1764 (a date that appears on the soundboard) and the ring surrounding the rose where Goermans’s name would have been is now overpainted. The dark appearance of the soundboard might result from treatment in 1783 to make it appear old. These alterations presumably sufficed to deceive the purchaser without the need for an inscription giving the Couchet name and a fictitious date.

An English forgery of Ruckers is at Ham House (part of GB.L.v). Its style of construction suggests an English origin about 1725, but it is inscribed Joannes Ruckers, dated 1634, and decorated to imitate the Ruckers style. The imitation is inaccurate, the case sides being marbled in panels instead of having a continuous band around the whole perimeter, and the lid texts are placed on plain paper instead of paper printed to simulate ash grain, but the forger was presumably sure that the customer would not notice these subtleties, and he may have been unaware of them himself. The Ham House forgery is a fine instrument by a skilled builder, and was accepted as genuine until the early 1970s.

Harpsichords masquerading as Kirkmans and Shudis but not of their making were being sold privately and at auction in London in the 1770s. Jacob Kirkman sued Robert Falkener (a music printer, publisher and harpsichord maker) in 1771 for lost earnings and damages incurred through the forging of six harpsichords (presumably like those by Falkener now in the University of Glasgow and GB.E.u, with ‘Kirkman’ nameboards), and offered a reward in 1772 for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for ‘several harpsichords, with my name affixed, but not of my making’.

The demand of collectors for unusual instruments or those with well-known names and early dates was satisfied on a large scale by Leopoldo Franciolini (1844–1920) in Florence. In addition to some comparatively honest dealing in genuine instruments, he added texts and inscriptions to anonymous instruments, altered dates to make them earlier, and created more elaborate forgeries such as the three-manual Bolcioni harpsichord dated 1627 (in GB.E.u). Originally it had one keyboard and two unison registers, and the inscription on the back of the nameboard appears genuine. The present three keyboards all come from another instrument, but their octave span has been reduced to match the Bolcioni jack guides. One of the two original jack guides has been sawn horizontally to increase them to three, to correspond to the number of keyboards. The present crude wrestplank lies further back than the original, this being achieved by cutting off the front part of the soundboard. The original bridge’s position is visible, but it has been replaced by two crude, unconventional bridges pinned for two unisons and an octave. Franciolini’s clumsy forgeries, often unplayable, were sold to collectors in the USA and Europe; examples can be found in important museums and no doubt others remain undetected.

Fraudulent pianos appeared on the London market by 1775, when Americus Backers complained of counterfeits bearing his name (e.g. in GB.L.fh). Johann Andreas Stein was also a target of forgers; several 18th-century Viennese-type pianos bear false Stein labels, printed and affixed probably in the late 19th century to deceive collectors. A pedal piano so labeled but now attributed to Johann Schmidt is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY); it also bears a false ‘W.A. Mozart’ inscription.

Keyboard forgery continued in the 21st century as prices for antique harpsichords increased greatly. A purported 17th-century Spanish instrument by Luis de Carballeda (in US.V.n) has been been revealed as a modern fake, leading to identification of similar fakes by the same disgraced maker. Modern pianos, too, sometimes bear spurious names and serial numbers applied by unscrupulous dealers or manufacturers. Cheap pianos sometimes display such corrupt names as Brechstein (for Bechstein) and Baldner (for Baldwin).

These typical examples should serve as a warning against accepting inscriptions or dates unless supported by independent evidence (e.g. close resemblance to other similarly inscribed, legitimate instruments).

2. Strings.

In violin making, forgery began at the latest by the third quarter of the 17th century, when instruments of the Amati family were in great demand but difficult to obtain. Francesco Rugeri regularly placed false labels of his teacher, Nicolo Amati, in his violins (though his motives are unclear), and in 1685 a petitioner to the Duke of Modena complained that he had acquired a supposed Amati for 12 pistoles, only to discover that it was actually a Rugeri worth a quarter of that amount. False labels of Mathias Albani dated from about 1640 onwards were applied to many ordinary contemporary German violins by unscrupulous dealers.

Mislabelling of new instruments spread across Europe in the 18th century with the fashion for Amatis and Stainers, but by the time of J.-B. Vuillaume the originals were almost 200 years old and a new style of imitation was introduced. Vuillaume realized that new instruments given the wear pattern of age had more appeal and sold more profitably than those varnished red all over, a commercial breakthrough that was quickly exploited by other Parisian luthiers and their English counterparts. Mainly these instruments were copies of Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, and Maggini rather than forgeries, and were sold honestly as the work of their makers. More sinister was the upgrading of good old instruments, and even the making of two out of one by mixing genuine parts of, for example, a Maggini viola with a new fake back and a reshaped 18th-century front. 19th-century collectors were often fooled by supposedly early viols (e.g. so-called Venetian examples in B.B.mim) that in fact were cut down from later instruments.

Connoisseurship was so primitive in the 19th century that such frauds were easy to perpetrate. Not only were decent instruments mutilated, many original labels of interesting makers were removed and more famous and fashionable names substituted. These practices continue into the 21st century.

From 1860 onwards traditional violin making declined as the trade was swamped by factory-made French and German, and recently Chinese, instruments. Many of these bear fake Stradivari and other labels (confusing some latter-day owners and discoverers) but the instruments have so little visual or tonal resemblance to the originals that they hardly deserve mention here. Even such legends as ‘Copie de’ or ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ next to Stradivari’s name are not always sufficient to deter the eager optimist.

International expertise has improved as a result of scientific advances in authentication, but frauds still occur, mainly through petty mislabelling. The work of the Voller brothers has often confused experts unfamiliar with their style, but the main opportunity for faking has been in the area of more modern Italian makers such as Fagnola and Pedrazzini, among others. Bows, too, are not infrequently faked, either with makers’ marks added to anonymous sticks or by being so convincingly copied, for instance by Henryk Kaston, that replicas can be passed off even to connoisseurs as valuable antiques.

False labeling of lutes to increase their price or prestige probably dates back centuries. For example, several old lutes in museum collections bear spurious labels of Hans Frei and of members of the Tieffenbrucker (Dieffopruchar) dynasty, although these lutes are atypical of their styles. A privately-owned guitar labeled ‘Gio. Battista Fabricatore’ is dated 1823 although Fabricatore died in the first decade of that century. The growing collectors’ market for vintage fretted instruments has fostered forgery of such valuable American guitars as Gibson Flying Vs and sunburst Les Paul Standards, among others.

Another aspect of misrepresentation, if not outright fakery, is the adding of inauthentic decoration, ostensibly for aesthetic reasons but with the hoped-for effect of raising value. For instance, a plain Stradivari cello was cleverly decorated with decals to make it conform visually to inlaid Strads in the so-called Axelrod Quartet, subsequently a subject of investigation for inflated appraisal valuation. However, most redecoration innocently reflects changing fashions and should not automatically be considered fraudulent. Ethical issues are complicated when luthiers artificially age their instruments in ways that might prove deceptive in future.

3. Winds.

Woodwind and brass makers’ marks were being forged by the 16th century if not earlier. J.G. Tromlitz (1791), W. Küss (1821), Rudall & Rose (c1830), and other manufacturers warned buyers against counterfeits of their work. Fakers sometimes distorted the spellings of Bainbridge, Clementi, Drouet, Monzani, Nicholson, Potter, and other popular makers to circumvent the law. Flutes of inferior manufacture bearing falsified marks of important makers such as Louis Lot and H.F. Meyer were widely distributed in the late 19th-century export market. In the 20th century, poor imitations of Besson brasses marked ‘Beeson’ and similar fakes were manufactured in India or Pakistan.

17th-century Nuremberg guild statutes allowed a master craftsman with too many commissions to subcontract work that could legally bear the master’s name if it met standards of quality and price. Some trumpets ascribed to Johann Wilhelm Haas the Elder exhibit characteristics of other makers who were presumably his subcontractors; these are not forgeries. Also legitimate, if easy to misinterpret, was the practice of Victor-Charles Mahillon and others, of closely replicating antique woodwinds, including their original makers’ stamps, in order to fill gaps in museum collections. Until the 1990s several Hotteterre flute replicas in museum collections were thought to be authentic, although they were probably not meant to deceive. Care is needed therefore not to brand as fakes, copies that might originally have been produced and sold without fraudulent intent.


  • G. Hart: The Violin: its Famous Makers and their Imitators (London, 1875, rev., enlarged 2/1884, rev., enlarged 3/1909)
  • D. Laurie: Reminiscences of a Fiddle Dealer (London, 1924)
  • A. Dolmetsch: article in Week-end Review (12 July 1930), 57ff
  • M.W. Prynne: ‘Some Remarks on Lute Forgeries’, LSJ, vol.3 (1961), 17–21
  • F. Hubbard: Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 286ff
  • R. Millant: J.B. Vuillaume: sa vie et son oeuvre (London, 1972)
  • E. Santoro: Traffici e falsificazioni dei violini di Antonio Stradivari (Cremona, 1973)
  • E. Ripin: The Instrument Catalogs of Leopoldo Franciolini, Music Indexes and Bibliographies, vol.9 (Hackensack, 1974)
  • S. Germann: ‘“Mrs Crawley’s Couchet” Reconsidered’, Early Music, vol.7/4 (1979), 473–81
  • B.W. Harvey: Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and the Law (Oxford, 1992)
  • A. Powell: ‘The Hotteterre Flute: Six Replicas in Search of a Myth’, JAMS, vol.49/2 (Summer 1996), 225–63
  • M. Cole: The Pianoforte in the Classical Era (Oxford, 1998)
  • J. Koster: ‘A contemporary example of harpsichord forgery’, Early Music, vol.28/1 (2000), 91–7
  • L. Whitehead: ‘Robert Falkener: an Eighteenth–century Harpsichord Builder, Music Publisher and Malfeasant?’, GSJ, vol.55 (2002), 310–31
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