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Real or fake?

An exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery will replace a classic painting with a Chinese fake and ask visitors to spot the copy. What can the violin world learn from this experiment?

Dulwich Picture Gallery

A challenging exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in February will replace a classic painting with a copy, faked in China, asking visitors to work out which is the odd one out. This seems to be the equivalent of the sort of blind test we have seen in recent years in the string world.

The press release describes the project: ‘Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project’ (10 February – 26 July 2015), will see one of the paintings in Dulwich’s collection removed from its frame and replaced with a replica, the identity of which will be concealed. Conceptual artist Doug Fishbone has selected the work and commissioned a replica from one of China’s numerous exporters of handmade oil paintings. In a Gallery context it is entirely plausible that such a replica, presented as an original, be taken as such without question - where then does a painting’s identity, value and authorship reside?’

These are interesting questions, with interesting comparisons in the string world. For example, if there were a fake Strad hanging in a gallery among other genuine Strads, one would hope that violin experts would be able to spot it, as art experts would spot the Chinese painting. And yet, in the past, good fakes, and even unwitting copies, have made it past the experts into the auction market, so it’s possible it might get by. Also, these days, there are close calls that are decided by scientific means such as dendrochronology, which I imagine is the same with art, so in this respect, those seeing instruments or paintings hanging up would be at a disadvantage.

While modern instrument making in China is improving at a phenomenal rate, with Chinese makers consistently winning prizes in international competitions, the real copyists are still in Europe and America (and yes, there is a difference between copying and faking, but only in intention, not in execution). One reason for this might be that until relatively recently, Chinese makers saw few great stringed instruments. I remember when I was with The Strad at violin trade shows in Frankfurt and Cremona how the Chinese visitors would pore over the instrument posters and buy them in bulk. But even having a poster of an instrument with all its vital statistics is not a substitute for working with one in one’s hands and taking its top off (as it were). Is it possible to absorb the fine points of a whole cultural tradition at such a far remove?


We might expect experts to know the difference, but would we really expect punters to? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a really nicely done Strad copy and the real thing – for all the thousands of violins I must have seen while I was editor of The Strad. I would certainly feel more confident listening to the difference, although in reality, during various blind tests I took part in I was often right, but sometimes glaringly wrong. Does the Bach Chaconne played on a fake Strad create the same feelings in me as the Bach Chaconne played on a real Strad? The obvious answer to this is that if it’s played by the same player, it probably does. And I’d wager that if I had seen a copy of the 1669 Rembrandt self-portrait that made me cry when I first saw it, rather than the original, I would still have been moved by it. All of which indicates that on one level the value has nothing to do with being real or fake. Except that if I had known beforehand, or found out after, that either was fake, it would have altered my memory of the experience for the worse, so clearly there is something about the integrity of an experience that requires the cause of our experience to be felt to be genuine.

So the gallery’s questions, ‘Where then does a painting’s identity, value and authorship reside?’ are also apt for the violin world, and we can try to pick them apart. One might want value to correlate to its functional qualities as a sound machine and the quality of its manufacture, and maybe its history. And yet we know that in the violin world, experts care little about the sound that instruments make – value is much more to do with markets, scarcity and branding. Indeed, if an instrument is rebranded as by one maker instead of another, its value can topple, or multiply.

Even authorship is ambiguous. We know that Stradivarius didn’t actually make every part of his instruments but supervised his workshop with an eagle eye. Indeed many makers today either have apprentices, or supervise assistants. So does that mean they’re not the actual authors of the instruments? In one sense, they are not, and yet as long as they’re in control of the vision and the quality control, maybe they are (and certainly for selling purposes).

And if a maker today copies a Strad (and most makers copy Strads on a daily basis) to within an inch of its life, as is fairly possible now using accurate measurements, scans, wood density tests and the like, then is it their instrument or is it Strad’s? With every care towards authenticity, their conceptions, perceptions and experience are all being used in interpreting this data. And their own quirks and habits, however subliminal, may or may not exhibit themselves in the instrument. So it can never really be identified as a Strad.

So, lots of questions, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Dulwich experiment stimulates the discussion. Maybe they should hold a blind test of five Strads and a copy in the gallery, to see if people can tell. I’m not sure I could. Could you?

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