Mystery Violin

by Matthew Raley In 1989, the first year I was a student at Willamette University, the oldest building on campus, Waller Hall, had just been renovated. While workers were demolishing the interior, they had made quite a discovery under the floorboards of the attic.

Wrapped in newspapers from the 1920s was a violin.

The instrument was appraised as 18th century Italian (the label said 1789, but that's far from decisive), maker undetermined, worth about $10,000. To those used to guitar prices, that may be a jaw-dropping sum, but in the violin world, such a value is more like an entry fee. The violin was restored to beautiful condition, and advertised all over the country in an effort to find anyone who could lay a plausible claim.

No one did.

It's a terrific violin mystery. Was it stolen? Why was there no record of an investigation? Who would've abandoned such an instrument?

Even better for me, since I was a violin major, I played it for four years. It had a dark, rich tone that carried well in a hall, though it was not loud. It was an easy-playing instrument, responsive and reliable. Most of all, it had character. There were all sorts of colors available to me depending upon bow-speed and pressure.

A few weeks ago, I got another mystery violin.

A local guy had been telling me for years that he had a violin he wanted me to play. One learns to have very low expectations of these things, though I'm always curious.

At last, he brought the violin over and left it for me. What I lifted out of the case was a quite lovely piece of workmanship. Red-brown, dark varnish, a two-piece back with dramatic grain. But the sound?

Well, the strings were really poor. The tone was bright, which to my ear often signals a cheapo, in certain places it sounded a bit nasal. Yet . . .

The tone was even across all the strings, and all the way up the fingerboard. Once the sound was established, the violin was capable of blossoming, or becoming louder and more resonant. There were some sweet overtones that promised more character. And it was quite responsive.

The guy had told me the story. His uncle had bought the violin from an American maker for a few thousand dollars, and the maker had won awards.

I looked at the label. "Lee Nelms, 1979." Google turned up exactly nothing, which just made me more curious. Even if it isn't a del Gesu, this instrument isn't the work of a novice either. He must have other violins out there.

So I'm going to put in some time this summer to find out about this violin, and deepen my own education about violin-making. Check back for updates.