As chief conservator at The Henry Ford, Mary Fahey is a “making” detective of sorts. And, for the past two years, some of that detective work has focused on the rare violins that are part of the collections at The Henry Ford.
I didn’t know about the violins until I visited last year’s Maker Faire Detroit, where Mary and others from the museum were demonstrating how ultraviolet light was used to illuminate the repair history of some of the violins. (The violins have not been displayed on the floor of the museum for quite some time.) Some of the repairs are expertly done by true artisans of the craft of instrument restoration – makers extraordinaire, you might say. Other repairs on some of the instruments are a less precise and therefore a little less mysterious.
“We discovered last year when looking at the violins that there had been many repairs carried out,” said Mary. She said that over the years, violin repairers spliced tiny pieces of wood and made little patches that could be seen when examined with ultraviolet light and a microscope. She showed me a photograph where the ultraviolet light fluoresced a bright orange at the edge of one instrument, indicating a change in shellac and a repair sometime in its long resonant history.
Thanks to the use of some even more high-tech equipment, further discoveries were recently made exposing more clues in the repair history of two of the rarest violins in the collections: the 1709 Stradivarius and the 1744 Guarneri del Gesu.
In the fall, the two violins were examined using computed tomography equipment at Henry Ford Hospital – that’s what most of us know as a CT scan. The data is still being analyzed, but the discoveries have been surprising as some of the initial renderings have been made.
The 1709 Stradiveri recently made a special public appearance in the arms of a talented young violinist - Sphinx Organization Laureate Gareth Johnson - at a concert with the Ypsilanti Symphony Orchestra. In the image above, you can see the data retrieved from the scans reveals the use of wooden cleats to patch and repair areas of the violin.
Also scanned was a 1744 violin known as ”The Doyen,” by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu.
The results exposed to conservators repairs that were made to large areas of damage caused by wood-boring insects.
“The areas had been repaired from what we can see – but there are still some spots on the sides that are somewhat hollow,” Mary said; adding, “The violin still sounds awesome, and violinists love to play it.”
The CT scan of that violin also revealed many tiny cracks that were repaired on the backside. Mary said that at some point the violin was taken apart, and the splits were expertly repaired with patches inserted on the inside of the violin.
Visitors to Maker Faire Detroit this year will again be able to talk to conservators and curators, and get a hands-on understanding of some repair and conservation discovery methods used with string instruments. Experts from Shar Violin Shop will also be demonstrating some tools they use in investigative and restoration processes, and they’ll have some violins available for guests to play.