violins

Hither and Yon

From this.....

From this…..

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to this, in just a couple of easy months!

Finally, we have come to the end of the tales of my mother’s violin, and all the follies surrounding its place in our family’s lore. Over the years we admittedly rolled our eyes but also tried to sympathize with the mythic status it held for her (she always referred to it as “the Guarnerius” even though my father would chide her as he knew there was a virtual certainty that the label inside it was a fake and that it was no Guarnerius, but rather something else entirely, though no one knew quite WHAT it actually was. The sad thing is that he, with a doctorate in musicology, would have so enjoyed the process of figuring out the mystery of its true provenance, but even he couldn’t handle the idea of separating mother from her beloved fiddle and the family legends that surrounded it, even years after she was no longer capable of playing it. So there it sat for a decade, and like their enormous house, the whole issue fell to us to resolve. Once the decision had been made to sell it, the process of determining what it in fact was, and doing what we needed to do to get it out of our rather sad clutches and off to a new life somewhere, took on a life of its own.

Finally, after having been flown hither and yon, cleaned and examined, scrutinized and evaluated by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London, and lastly Ingles and Hayday, the new firm started by the former stringed instrument experts at Sotheby’s, the violin was accepted for auction in London on October 29. “Let’s go”, said Arnold, always eager for a travel adventure and thinking it would be appropriate for him, me and Wendy to all be present for the final step in our family’s caring for this iconic heirloom. Kind of like those Piaget watch ads where the mother is wearing the Piaget watch in a domestic scene with her little girl, and the ad says “you don’t own this, you just take care of it for the next generation”. The wood in the violin was dated to 1681 and thus that violin has been around a long, long time. So maybe close to a hundred years in our family and then, on to its next stop.

Wendy was dying to go to London anyway, and we all agreed it would be fun to jump on the Eurostar and include Paris in the visit (why not…it is SO close….we all said). So we cashed in a bunch of miles so we could go Business Class as a treat and respite from all the dust and chaos of remodeling, and off we went. The timing was perfect because Arquitecto Roberto suggested that as the guys were going to be taking out the massive (beautiful but leaky, dangerous, and damaged) skylight in our living room and replacing it with far safer and more practical glass block, the next couple of weeks would be a really convenient time for us to be GONE. How could we resist? We knew the removal of the skylight was going to be a nightmare of noise, falling glass, possibly perilous for us and the pets, and Rosa insisted that she was happy to stay in the house, and take care of everything while we were away.

So on October 16 we got on a plane for Atlanta, thence nonstop to Paris where we spent a delightful ten days or so. We all just loved it, had some wonderful food and shopping, spent hours in various museums, saw my young cousin Katie who lives there with her family. We all drank in the civilization, the quality of everything – and yes, the expense. The elegance of the Parisian women, the interesting way London has become a truly global metropolis. It was interesting to sit in restaurants next to Muslim women with headscarves and contrary to our perception of them as oppressed and miserable, they were chatting, laughing, and at least outwardly seeming to be having a great time out and about in the city. We saw great art, wonderful shops, and admired the smoothly functioning and readily accessible public transport in both cities. I prowled around Westminster Abbey for old times’ sake (back in the day, it was a major grantee of the Skaggs Foundation and part of my honeymoon in England was spent on a memorable site visit there). We took tour buses and gaped at Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, saw the Crown Jewels, had fish and chips in pubs, ate all the Poilâne bread we could cram into ourselves, and walked both cities for hours on end.

However, shortly before it was time for us to head for London, I knew I was coming down with some awful cold thing. Horribly sore throat, fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, the whole nine yards. I knew that the stress of the last few days at home getting ready to leave, combined with the noise and dust and chaos of the house, had gotten to me at last. I had a big list of things I wanted to do in both cities but I just felt too awful to press on after awhile, with fever and chills and aches and all that. I soldiered on as best I could but by the time we got to London I was too sick to even contemplate getting out of bed, so I thought I’d just take a couple of days off and try to lick the bloody bug.

It helped, but sadly, I was just too sick to go to the violin auction itself. Wendy and Arnold went, off on the red double-decker bus down to Oxford Circus and Sotheby’s, where the auction was held and I stayed back in our rented flat trying to get some rest. When they came back later that day, they reported that it had all been rather perfunctory and that in fact I hadn’t really missed much, though they were very glad they had gone. My mother’s violin was Violin #8 in their beautiful printed catalog. The theory of the Sotheby’s folks was that rather than having been a Guarnerius it was a Venetian maker, late 18th century, and that was pretty much that. A dealer had expressed an interest in it when the violins (and there were some in the auction that sold for six figures) were available for inspection and playing, and he ended up purchasing it for the reserve price of £11,000, about $17,000 USD. There were no other bidders. We were both relieved that it had sold relatively painlessly but of course, our secret hopes for a last-minute Antiques Roadshow moment where we found ourselves in possession of a half a million bucks were forever dashed.

We would have liked to have met the buyer and told him all about the violin’s history with our family, sentimental types that we are. We thought for sure someone would be interested in its coming to the U.S. from Hungary close to a century ago with my grandfather, its having been a wedding gift to my mom, its life with our very musical family, the hours it played chamber music in my parents’ living room, and so forth. But, apparently not. He picked up the fiddle and the two bows that were sold with it, wrote out a check, paid for it and was gone. The funds are to be wired to our bank account, after they deduct the auction house’s costs – commissions, the back and forth to London for study, cleaning and so forth. We split it with my sister and that was to be the end of that.

Well, sort of.  For many years when my niece Saida was a young girl and later an art student, my mother promised her a trip to Venice when she graduated from college. Saida of course took this promise seriously but when she did graduate years later my mother had become too sick and frail to go, aside from which we honestly think she had forgotten all about it. So we decided to hit the reset button on that one and both in honor of my mom and to make good on her old promise- especially since my mother loved Venice more than anything in the world and the violin is now thought to have been Venetian – the three of us decided that if the violin sold for anything reasonable at all, we would use  some of the proceeds to take Saida and her husband to Venice finally after all these years. Now, a couple of weeks after our return, a very thrilled and excited Saida and Eric are now figuring out child care and such for next year and we are planning yet another European jaunt with them. It will be a lot of fun and we can only hope that if Mamá is looking down from that Great Saks Fifth Avenue in the Sky, that she would approve.

Meanwhile we are still slogging through the construction here, though we actually are contemplating the end of it, or at least the end of the worst of it. My office is done and I have moved what I can into it, with an odd assemblage of boards-and-bricks, folding card tables and baskets, and cartons still unpacked serving as tables to set things down on. Soon we will bring over some real furniture from the other house, which of course still hasn’t sold, and it will be a little more civilized in here. But I love the space…it is everything I wanted, light, bright and airy with a filtered view of the lake and a spectacular view of the mountains behind Ajijic. All mine to enjoy through enormous glass pane windows until the lot next door gets sold off for a condo complex or something equally dreadful and the wonderful, open vista toward the cerro (hill) is blocked.

But at least right now there is no sign of that happening and it is really beautiful to see the mist and sun alternating on the tops of the hills as we move into the winter here. The snowbirds are back; it is impossible to park in town, but it’s all part of the great circle of life, I guess. I am pretty much over the horrid bronchitis and sinus infection my cold had become, thanks to some killer antibiotics and cough medicine from the doctor. I gave it to Arnold and Wendy for which I feel very guilty but they seem to be surviving, though coughing, hacking and dripping along with me, as well. With any luck in a couple of weeks we will all be over this wretched thing and we can carry on without having to have boxes of Kleenex at our sides.

M is for Mahler

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

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At B&H Photo, waiting for our electronic toys to be delivered to the pickup desk from the bins overhead!

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

It was a whirlwind trip to New York, and a nice diversion from the waiting, waiting, waiting for our interminable visa and real estate messes to resolve themselves. So, well, why not opt for a little retail recreation while we remain on hold?  We stayed in my favorite hotel on the Upper West Side, where we’re near all Arnold’s favorite haunts (Zabar’s!) and within walking distance of Lincoln Center. The hotel folks are getting to know us and are willing to do nice things for us like receive mail order packages we have sent from various vendors who still just won’t send to Mexico. We ate a bunch of Chinese food and walked all over the city enjoying the warm weather and window shopping – well, some real shopping too. Channeled my inner Shirley (my late mother) and picked up two handbags and a great backpack for travel that I liked at good sale prices. We made a stop at Capezio for new leotards and tights for Rosa’s grandchildren so they have new things that fit them for their dance classes; absolutely essential (well, not so much) makeup items at Sephora – the usual materialist nonsense I am unfortunately prey to. Even Arnold succumbed to temptation and bought a few things for himself.

It turns out that Mother’s violin, the reason for the trip in the first place, will head off to London once again for another go-round with the experts; this time a different group of experts.  In an interesting turn of events, the very British young man we met with at Sotheby’s had a different take on the violin than the Christie’s folks. Probably not totally Italian, maybe mostly British. I somehow figured they would all draw more-or-less the same conclusions about it but there are diverse theories as to its possible origins and even its age. Alas, however, there seems to be general agreement (sorry, Mom) that it ain’t no Guarnerius, in spite of the label inside its f-hole (probably fake) but it IS quite old and of some interest not only because of its age but because of its sound. The dendrochronology study places the wood at about 1681, but of course no one can say exactly when the violin itself was actually MADE from the wood, nor who made it.

But it was of enough interest to the people who saw it so that they decided to take it back to London one more time for further study by still more experts and probable inclusion in a new auction to take place late in October. Now that we are in the middle of this violin escapade, the whole story of how they date these things and appraise them has become quite fascinating to us. In the course of our travels, we’ve had a chance to see a couple of REAL Guarnerius instruments worth a million dollars each – it is a bittersweet experience to see the real deal and realize that Mom’s flights of fancy about her fiddle were just that, flights of fancy. If we get anything reasonable for her violin we will consider ourselves fortunate, but however it happens, we are still basically determined to find a good home for it with an active musician. Sadly, it is still languishing in its case unplayed, though god knows it is racking up a lot of airline miles. However, on the plus side, the young man from Sotheby’s heard someone play it somewhere along the line and thought it had a really “sexy” sound, so that apart from the monetary value of these things, it is nice to know that there is at least some interest in their function as actual musical instruments.  We actually think we might try to head to London with my sister Wendy and be present at the auction if it really happens as scheduled; we suspect that it could be a really fascinating adventure and a great trip for the three of us. We’ll see how the mileage gods treat us when we try to get those elusive international plane tickets!

Back in Ajijic on the home front, the visa pesadilla (nightmare) continues unabated. We of course have heard nothing from Immigration about the status of our request for new visas, and we are hearing more and more of people who have been stalled in the system far longer than we have. No one who is selling a house here, for whatever reason – like us, just wanting to move into a different place, or others who are returning “home” to Canada or the States for some reason, wants to pay the enormous tax the Mexican government will charge you on sale of a home without one of these permanent visas. So of course everyone and their brother is lining up to get one and the delays seem to be longer instead of shorter.  People are getting paranoid about it…is it some sort of diabolical revenge for the horrid way Americans have treated Mexicans living up there?

Or at least it feels that way. Nevertheless we also need this visa to sell OUR house (whenever it sells, which of course could be years from now, but one never knows in real estate….), and the seller of the house we are purchasing needs it to avoid the taxes SHE would have to pay, and on up (or down) the food chain, the seller of the house she is in turn planning to buy also needs this visa. We all put our paperwork in, signed, sealed and delivered months ago, but none of us seem to be getting anywhere in the system. Or if we are, it is at a snail’s pace. Until everyone in the line gets their visa, no one can conclude their real estate transactions, so here we all sit, if not physically, then metaphorically, twiddling our thumbs. Everyone has heard or experienced different things about the delays; but the reality is that we are stuck in the mire of the impenetrable and inscrutable Mexican bureaucracy with nowhere really to turn; the most cynical of the impatient expats in the proverbial line with us lament that unlike the good old days, there isn’t even anyone to bribe any more because Mexico is trying to clean up its act. You feel like you are coming face to face with one of those gigantic La Venta carved stone heads they have on display at the Xalapa archaeological museum: impassive, unresponsive, and very ancient. Things have, whether we like it or not, always been this way here.

In our case, the delay doesn’t especially matter because there are very few buyers in town now and there have been hardly any showings of our house, so we aren’t panicked about that – but it has delayed our closing – and hence our taking possession – on the new house, for what will may be a few more weeks or months, but we really just don’t know. So it’s more limbo. We don’t really want to start packing up for the move too seriously because it’ll be just our luck that when we do there will be a further delay and there I will be frustrated because I’m unable to find my potato peeler – or something essential like that. So here we sit, ready to move forward, especially after all the trauma with my mother’s death, to begin our “next chapter” – but we can’t.

But we are trying to do what we can do at this end, which mostly means throwing stuff out or donating what we are pretty sure we can do without, to lighten up the load when moving day does finally roll around. Arnold has begun a major sweep through all his CDs and DVDs to try to eliminate everything he feels he can do without, or reorganize it so it can be easily unpacked and found at the other end. For the past week at least, every time I have walked into his office, he’s had Mahler on – since of course when you pull the CD off the shelf, if you haven’t heard it in a while you MUST listen to it. He’s made it through most of the symphonies and now to the songs, and a wonderful rendition of “Der Abschied” caught my attention when I went in to his office to tell him that dinner was ready.

I said, “More Mahler? It’s been a week of pure Mahler symphonies down here!” “Yes,” he said, “Well, I’m working my way through the alphabet and I’m kind of in the middle, at the M’s.” Sort of in the middle, I thought, and here we are still stuck, also in the middle of all these huge changes in our lives. Ye gods, such a frickin’ drag. We are both sick of the stallling, the e-mails and phone calls with the news of more delays, the uncertainty, by now. We were ready to pack up and move weeks and weeks ago. But the music is and was, of course, absolutely wonderful and in a weird way it has calmed me down. I have realized that I would actually quite happily listen to another several weeks of Mahler floating into the kitchen if I had to, so I decided that I need to be more Mexican about this whole situation and let my American impatience and need for precision and proactivity go. At least for now, I keep telling myself  “You know, relax, it’s just not that bad that we can’t move forward quite yet – we can stay here as long as we need to, this house hasn’t sold, no one is throwing us out into the street.” The rains have started up in earnest, it’s cool and nice out, the hills are green. Things may be stalled and we may be mightily irritated, but in fact, they could be far, far worse.

Is It Or Isn’t It?

Between the cuatro gatos,  my mother’s ongoing deterioration, adjusting to the new realities of Arnold as a “forever” cardiac patient, we have been just twitching from stress. We decided we needed to escape for a little while; just a short break from all of it to play somewhere. A few weeks ago, the perfect deus ex machina appeared in the form of an email from Christie’s in New York, saying they’d like to have a look at my mother’s violin.

I must digress a bit to share the history of this violin, which has been, for better or worse,  a telling part of my family’s in-house folklore for my entire life. My mother insisted to all who would listen that it was at least a part Guarnerius, and always referred to it as “The Guarnerius”, showing anyone who exhibited the slightest bit of interest the tiny little label inside that said “made by Joseph Guarnerius, Cremona”. My dad, the guy with the actual, real, Ph.D. in musicology, always dismissed mother’s airs about the “fiddle” being some rare, priceless thing. “Yeah, sure, Shirley,” he would sigh; “we know at best it’s only a partial Guarnerius, don’t get your hopes up.”  Even though the violin indisputably has this label, he would remind her that “we just don’t know enough about it, it could well be a fake, one of these days we should have someone really look at it definitively” (which of course he never did). But the violin repair people who HAD looked at it over the years, even casually, concurred that it was probably at most 1/4 or perhaps ½ a Guarnerius with a new neck and various other parts cobbled onto it over the centuries. It is, after all, an eighteenth century instrument; it has been around a long time. Clearly it has been damaged and repaired, so we  know from the outset that chances are overwhelming that we aren’t going to have one of those Antiques Road Show moments where all the cameras are on you when it’s determined that your funky old treasure is actually worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For decades, we all tolerated mother’s flights of fancy about the supposed staggering value of this instrument and basically ignored her inflated notions about it. We did know that it had been a wedding present to her from my paternal grandfather, George Steiner, also a distinguished composer and musician. The part of the story we thought was true, confirmed by my dad’s sister, was that George had almost certainly brought the violin with him to the United States when he emigrated as a very young man from Hungary, in the first decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t at all far-fetched to imagine that my grandfather, who had studied composition with Kodály and was first violinist of the Budapest Philharmonic at the age of 15, would somehow have come into possession of such a fine violin in the first place.

Reconstructing the family history as best we can, as he was transitioning himself from the violin to the viola, giving the “Guarnerius” to my mom was probably a logical and very cool thing to do. As a young woman, (my dad was her accompanist when they were college students) she was a gifted violinist, a student at the Oberlin Conservatory, and if nothing else we figure George knew she would play the bejesus out of it, love it, and take good care of it, especially under my dad’s incredibly compulsive and watchful eye. The good news about the family history we know to be true is that it places the violin in our family throughout World War II, so at least we don’t have to worry that it was stolen from some family by the Nazis and would now have to be repatriated.

And the “Guarnerius” did indeed, throughout the earlier part of its life in our family, see a great deal of use and even as a kid, listening to my parents and their friends play chamber music in our living room, I could tell this violin was quite wonderful, with a special sound. The fact that it happened to have a beautiful sound just fed my mother’s unwavering belief that it was indeed a real Guarnerius.  Back then, it was indeed played and enjoyed; but as my mother grew older, frailer, sicker, sadly, it was increasingly relegated to life in its case. My dad obsessively put humidifiers and thermometers in there, to protect it, especially once they moved to the high desert climate of Santa Fe. But as something to make music with, its voice was heard no more. I found this all terribly depressing, being the sort of person who likes to see fine things be used for whatever purpose they were intended.

With my mother now blind and immobile, incontinent and entirely bedridden, obviously her days of playing her beloved fiddle are now over, and Wendy, Arnold and I had a pow-wow about what to do with it. There wasn’t anyone in the family seriously studying violin, and certainly no one at a level that would merit a gift of this stature. No, we thought; our hope is that someone begins to play this thing again and bring it back to life — we need to sell it. Let some younger person have it, hopefully, as a thing that actually produces music instead of serving as a wannabe status symbol.  And whatever we do get for it when we sell it, we’ll do something to remember Mom by – maybe all nip off to Venice, a place she loved more than anything, and raise a glass to her at the bar at La Fenice or order a fifty dollar plate of pasta at Harry’s in her memory. She would love that, too.

So Arnold began contacting dealers in New York to see who might be interested; Christie’s asked us for a series of rather detailed photos, the taking of which made me decide that on our next trip I was going to update my camera (topic of another blog post!). I did my best photographing it just as they required, with special attention to that mysterious little paper label inside the f-hole. Not an easy job but good enough so that they got back to us and said “yes, we’d like to see it”. Soon thereafter we packed it up in its case and off we went. We had to hand-carry the violin with us onto the plane; for whatever it may turn out to be be, it is not the sort of thing one sends to Nueva York via Correos de Mexico in a box, or even via Fedex.

As I mentioned above, in any event we were dying for a fall foray to Nueva York, and right after we got there we took the violin to Christies’, for our appointment with their fine instruments expert, which turned out to be utterly fascinating. They asked us, of course, to tell them what we knew about the violin, which we did, to the best of our ability. It occurred to me in the course of that part of the conversation that an unintended consequence of my dismissive attitude toward the whole business of my mother and her bloody violin over the years was that I never had the slightest interest in actually asking her – or my father – anything about it. Sad, because particularly my father, could actually have recounted in a trice how it had come into George’s possession.

At the end of the day, It’s unfortunate that my impatience with my mother’s tendency to self-aggrandizement ultimately resulted in my failure to be able to add much in the way of factual history to the whole story of the violin which now lay, denuded of all its embellished attributes, under a fluorescent light on an examining room table at Christie’s. As though they were studying a patient on an operating table, they pronounced the label inside to be of uncertain origin “probably Dutch” (e.g. not Italian and possibly fake but maybe not); it has some sort of indeterminate catalog number and they need to figure out who catalogued it and when. And, they noted – that the entire instrument was warped and needed some serious repair work. Finally they said “it’s been played a lot, and it’s been played hard”. You could see what they were talking about as they pointed out every little flaw and crack and repair to you. It was actually totally cool. I thought “Poor little violin, now after decades of lying mute in a case, this may be the very first steps in someone beginning to actually play you again – just be patient, and soon this awful period of silence may be over….” Anthropomorphic, to be sure, and silly, but that’s what I felt.

Well, they said, before we can properly assess its value for auction, here is what we’ll have to do to find out more about this instrument. “We would like recommend that it be sent to London for dendrochronology studies and then we’ll know what we have here.”  It turns out that this is what they do with anything made out of wood where they’re trying to determine the age of the object in question.  In the case of antique musical instruments, these experts in London can look at the wood patterns, analyzing the summer growth and winter growth, and they can match what they see to a database of hundreds of thousands of wood patterns to see, first of all, how old it really is. Then, they search for a match to the documented wood grain of any known Guarnerius violins. Because these workshops traded pieces of wood from time to time for use in specific instruments for various reasons, they also check against the woods used by other renowned violin makers of the time – Stradivarius, Del Gesú, Amati, and so forth. Apparently, these makers would just order up a whole tree, cut it into pieces, and age the wood – and use many pieces from the same tree or trees for various instruments, just as violin makers would today.  These folks in London actually have a database of a certain set of trees on specific forest slopes in Austria that were favored by the makers of that time. So, if you get a match to the grain, voilà, you might actually have a real Guarnerius. Or at least part of one. We shall see.

They also were interested in the two bows – seriously shedding hairs and obviously in need of some work – in the case. They even carted the bows off to a lab upstairs to be x-rayed and further studied. One of them may turn out to be valuable but there are mysteries connected with that as well – the pins are wrong to be from the maker the label says it’s from, and on it goes. Even at Christie’s, though, oddly enough, no one put bow to string to actually hear how it sounded. I guess it will have to wait awhile more before anyone gets serious about playing it. But, perhaps, in the lifespan of a thing that dates from the mid-1700’s, hopefully not too much longer.

Anyway it was all fascinating and no matter what the outcome we will have learned a great deal! Too bad WE don’t get to take it to London, though.

Well, there you have it…or something!