Thursday, May 13, 2010

Treasure Chest Thursday - Great Grandfather O'Brien's Violin

Last year I completed an University assignment which included research about a violin that belonged to my O'Brien great grandfather (1867-1937).

Here is some of what I discovered about the violin during my research: 

Manufacturer / Date and Place of Manufacture: 
The date and place of manufacture and the name of the manufacturer of this violin are not known for certain. However, the violin was definitely made before 1883 and possibly before 1875. After some preliminary research, I believe the violin was probably manufactured in Germany in the period 1860-1880.

A printed paper label, written in German, is stuck inside the violin and visible through the lower soundhole. The label reads:

Fried. Aug. Glass verfertigt nach
Antonius Straduarius Fies
Fabrikat in Cremona 1736

Roughly translated this label means:

Friedrick August Glass manufactures after Antonio Stradivari’s make [of violin] in Cremona [Italy] 1736

A violin with a similar label (‘Von Frid. Aug. Glass verfertigt nach / Antonius Stradiuarius Fils, / Cremona 1737’) appears in the collection of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in the USA. According to the Museum’s web site, the ‘commercial violin with square shoulders, long corners, and very full arching’ was manufactured in the Markneukirchen and/or Schönbach (Luby) areas of Saxony, Germany, some time between 1860 and 1890 (ref. 1). 

According to the Smithsonian Institution, thousands of similar inexpensive violins were made in the nineteenth century and were often sold for less than US $10. The violin makers often labeled the violins to honor ‘the masters’ who ‘inspired’ their work (ref. 2). Today, however, the references on labels to the ‘great masters’ of seventeenth and eighteenth century violin manufacture often confuse people who find old violins and do not know the instruments’ history (ref. 3). 

There were two violin makers in nineteenth century Germany by the name of Friedrick August Glass: Friedrick August Glass I and Friedrick August Glass II. (ref. 4) According to web site of the Smithsonian Institution, both these violin makers worked in Klingenthal, Saxony. Friedrick I worked from 1790 and Friedrick II from 1830 to 1860. Both Friedrick’s made ‘inexpensive trade violins’ that were ‘quite good and somewhat above the “commercial” class.’(ref. 5)  Friedrick II modeled his violins on those of Italian Antonio Stradivari and German Jacob Stainer. (ref. 6) The label example listed by the Smithsonian Institution for Glass violins (‘Fried. Aug. Glass Verfertigte nach Antonius Stradivarius Fies Faciebat in Cremona Anno 1736’) differs slightly from the label that appears in my great grandfather's violin (ref. 7). 

Many violin enthusiasts and experts stress that you cannot rely on a label to confirm the origins of a violin. Labels are often false or misleading (ref. 8). Therefore, without a proper appraisal of authenticity by a violin expert (who would study the design, the wood, the varnish and other aspects of the violin’s manufacture) I cannot be certain whether this violin was made personally by Friedrick August Glass II, whether it was made by an assembly line of people working for Glass, or whether it was made by someone entirely different and labeled as being the work of Glass (ref. 9,10,11).

The violin was bought by my great grandfather O’Brien (1867-1937) from James Shugg the first school teacher at his school in northern Victoria, Australia. Mr Shugg taught at the school from its opening in October 1875. He left the school sometime between September 1881 and September 1883.  It is not known where James Shugg acquired the violin. According to the Victorian Indexes of Births, Deaths and Marriages, James Shugg was born in 1851 at Chilwell near Geelong, Victoria. He was the son of James Shugg and Fanny Yeoman. He married Annie Lang in 1877. He died at Sale, Victoria in 1933. As James Shugg was born in Australia and lived his whole life there, I estimate that he bought the violin in Australia. Possibly the violin was exported from Germany for sale in Australia or James Shugg bought the violin from someone else who had purchased the violin in Europe. What is known is that some time between 1875 and 1883, my great grandfather O'Brien bought the violin from James Shugg. It is known that my great grandfather and his siblings attended Shugg's school. In 1875, my great grandfather would have been seven years old. By 1883, he would have been sixteen years of age.
The violin remained in the possession of my great grandfather until his death in 1937. It is known that he played the violin at local dances on occasions.
After this, the violin passed into the possession of his eldest son. 
He died in 1989. He had written a handwritten note on a piece of paper in the violin case which stated that the violin should go to his nephew, my father.The violin remains in the possession of my family to this day.

Body Length: 355 mm
Scroll, Peg box and Neck Length: 235 mm
Total Length: 590 mm
Width: Upper 160 mm, Middle 109 mm, Lower 203 mm.
Height (at Ribs): 32 mm

Bow: 'Bausch' stamped on the stick above the frog .

Inlaid floral ornamentation on the tailpiece, comprising of three flowers and six leaves (one leaf missing). Green and red colouring added on two flowers and two leaves. Green stems.
A similar mother-of-pearl ornamentation is mentioned in the description of the tailpiece of a late nineteenth century German trade violin (Item: NMM 3510) from the collection of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, USA.
"…Tailpiece: black varnished ebony; inlaid mother-of-pearl flowers (three) and leaves (two) etched with red-and-green-painted detail, with mother-of-pearl rings set in black mastic at the centers of the flowers, and three inlaid nickel-silver stems..." (Ref. 12)

The violin is, unfortunately, not in good condition. There are cracks on the belly of the violin. The soundpost is broken and loose inside the violin. The mother-of-pearl 'eyes' are missing from the pegs. One leaf of the mother-of-peal inlay is missing from the ornamentation on the tailpiece. The hairs on the bow have long ago been eaten by weevils. There have been failed attempts to repair the violin with glue at some stage in the past (for example, someone has placed the bridge the wrong way around!).

While this violin is definitely not in a working condition, it is still a treasure to my family!

1. National Music Museum, ‘Violins Made Between 1850-1874 at the National Music Museum’, 24 October 2007,, accessed 13 May 2009.
2 and 3.  Smithsonian Institution, ‘Encyclopedia Smithsonian: General Information on Obtaining Authentication and Appraisal of Violins’, n.d., , accessed 22 May 2009.
4, 5, 6 and 7. Smithsonian Institution, ‘Encyclopedia Smithsonia: Violin Makers Named Glass’ , n.d.,, accessed 22 May 2009.
8. Alan Coggins, ‘What does the label inside your instrument really mean?’, 2002,, accessed 12 May 2009.
9. Smithsonian Institution, ‘Encyclopedia Smithsonian: General Information on Obtaining Authentication and Appraisal of Violins’, n.d., , accessed 22 May 2009.
10. Alan Coggins, ‘What does the label inside your instrument really mean?’, 2002,, accessed 12 May 2009.
11. Ira Kraemer, ‘eBay Guides - What's in a Name - A Guide to Labels Inside of Violins’, 9 August 2006,   accessed 12 May 2009.
12. National Music Museum, ‘Violins Made Between 1850-1874 at the National Music Museum’, 24 October 2007,, accessed 13 May 2009. 

Copyright © 2010 A. O'Brien


  1. A very nice piece. We have a trombone that was passed down that we treasure.

  2. I read this with interest. I am a violinist in the USA. The damages you describe are very ordinary and a professional luthier (violin maker) could repair them. The top would be removed and the cracks repaired. Pegs would undoubtedly need to be replaced, but ebony pegs with mother of pearl eyes are easiily available. A bow rehair is a routine job. By the way, thousands of cheap German bows were made with the name L. Bausch stamped on them and it is highly unlikely that is a genuine Bausch bow. The tailpiece is distinctive and might be better repaired by a bow maker, as they do mother of pearl inlay work all the time. You say the sound post is "broken loose", but a sound post is not attached anyway, it is fit and sound posts fall every day of the week, it is nothing. But very likely you would need a new bridge and sound post anyway. Similarly, a bridge is not attached with glue, it is held in place by pressure of the strings. Bottom line: there would be nothing extraordinary in repairing this violin to playing condition. I don't know about prices in Australia, but I shouldn't imagine you'd spend more than $1,000 with a reputable, though not high-end, luthier. While not a particularly valuable instrument, it would probably be worth more than the cost of repair and might well sound very good.

  3. Thanks priscianus for your comments. I thought the violin was probably beyond repair and I had not had a violin maker or even a violin player look at it yet! I will definitely think about doing that now. Thanks again.

  4. Looking at it again, I think it needs a new fingerboard as well. And that crack just to the left of the bridge looks like a bass bar crack, which is a more complex repair than an ordinary crack. They would almost certainly want to make a new bass bar as well. So my "guesstimate" was too low. Nevertheless, there's still nothing unusual there. You definitely should take it to a good violin repair shop and see what they say.

  5. thats a great find, my great great grandfather dob:1867 dod:1929 had 2 violins, (i now have both) one has the same tail piece, along with matching floral inlaid tuning pegs, inside it is dated 1664, witch is extremly doubtful for my great great grandfather bought it new...his other violin(i found in my barn) was found as a right handed violin, and restored to find out that the bar under the g string was on the opposite side, it made bad news for me and some good news, well before it was restored it had a value of 25$ now an estimated $8,500. thanks for posting the photos!

  6. What great research Aillin and what a special treasure to have in the family. Has there been an update to the violin story since you wrote it. I guess if no one plays the violin then the cost of the repairs would be harder to justify.

  7. After my mothers death, I inhereted my grandfathers violin. And is in good working order. The bottom inside reads:
    "Fried. Aug. Glass verfertigt nach
    Antonius Straduarius Fils
    Fabrikat in Cremona Anne 1736" and has a small signature bottom right.
    Another top label inside reads: "Repaired by August Molzer Lincoln Ne. Feb 20th 1917" with another label: 206


Your comments are appreciated. Thanks.

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