Sherlock Holmes and the case of the forged Stradivari: did we miss a vital clue for 130 years?

Edinburgh Napier's Rachael Durkin discusses why there could be more to Sherlock Holme's love of the Stradivari violin than first thought.

Date posted

5 July 2017


Last updated

19 March 2020

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published after a long period of rejections. The detective finally made his debut that November in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual – the story narrated as always by his faithful assistant Dr John Watson.

Long before any mention of the deerstalker, pipe or magnifying glass, Watson informed us of Holmes’s love of his violin:

That he could play [violin] pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favourites.

When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognised air. Leaning back in his arm-chair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee.

We later discover in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1893) that this violin is a Stradivari, the Italian hallmark of violin perfection. Few readers will have thought this more than a pleasing additional dimension to Holmes’s more famous characteristics. I believe it is much more than that.

Doyle may have been using this violin to give us a vital clue to the enigmatic character of Baker Street’s most famous resident. If so, it has gone unnoticed for 130 years. Let me lay out the case one step at a time.

Fiddles and forgeries

The piano and the violin both rapidly grew in popularity in the Victorian era. No craftsman was more famous than Antonio Stradivari of Cremona (Stradivarius is the Latinised name that usually appears on the labels). Along with other great Italian names such as Amati and Guarneri, these fabulous instruments became much sought after.

In many cases, however, the violins were not real. Forgers took advantage of people’s ignorance, conning those seeking the finest old Italian violins by creating cheap factory-built instruments and labelling them as masterpieces.

One notorious example was the case of Hodges vs Chanot of 1882, which exposed Georges Chanot as falsely presenting a violin as having the Carlo Bergonzi imprint. It was popular in the press and well known to the general public.

Many of these forgeries are still with us today. Walk into most local auction houses in the UK and I guarantee you will find at least one old Victorian violin, strings broken and looking a bit sorry for itself. Inside will be a label for Antonio Stradivarius or another old Italian maker. Buyers will be left in no doubt that it is a fake rather than a fortune.

Context, dear chap

Academics and fans have done much work into tracing the origins of Doyle’s stories and characters. We know Holmes was partly modelled on Joseph Bell, a surgeon and medical lecturer whom Doyle would have known as a student at the University of Edinburgh.

We know he was influenced by the Victorian public appetite for true crime and detective fiction. We see, for example, the hand of James McLevy, Edinburgh’s first police detective.

McLevy published a series of incredibly popular true-crime books in the 1860s based on cases he worked on. The way he consulted medics and scientists at the University of Edinburgh seeking new ways of solving new crimes in an age before forensics is very similar to Holmes’s near-forensic approach to detection.

Also exceptionally popular was James McGovan. McGovan too appeared to be a detective who had investigated the streets of Edinburgh. It only later came to light that the books were fiction, written by a well known Edinburgh violinist named William Crawford Honeyman.

The McGovan books came out between 1878 and 1884, which heavily overlaps with Doyle’s own time in the city (1876 to 1881). This makes it highly probable that Doyle was familiar with the series at the very least.

The Real Cremona

The final McGovan book is Traced and Tracked, or, A Memoire of a City Detective (1884). It includes a short tale called The Romance of a Real Cremona, about McGovan’s investigation of the theft of a Stradivari from a stately home near Edinburgh. During the investigation, McGovan interviews the owner, a Mr Cleffton, and asks about the value:

“Worth £400 – refused £200 for it the other day, [Cleffton] continued […]

"£400!” I echoed. “Is it possible you gave that sum for a fiddle?”

“No, not quite so much, but that’s its value,” he slowly admitted.

“How much did it cost you?”

“£40”, he rather reluctantly answered.

Watson tells a similar story about Holmes in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. He talks about how the detective had “purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker’s in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings”. Note that both instruments were bought for significantly less than their supposed value.

Another similarity is that in both stories, the violins passed through the hands of a pawnbroker. In real life, it was very common for fake instruments to move through pawnbrokers as a way of removing the identity of the forger or reseller.

In the Real Cremona, McGovan visits a Mr Turner, an “eccentric connoisseur” who “had a craze for buying fiddles which he never did, and never could, play upon”. In Doyle’s original sketched notes for his detective, Holmes was to be a collector of rare violins.

This never made it into the books in the end, yet it does say in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes “prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati”. Certainly, he demonstrated the same Victorian collector’s enthusiasm as Mr Turner.

The language that describes playing the violin is also comparable. In the Real Cremona, Cleffton comments that “some of the servants may have taken it [the stolen violin] out to have a scrape”, and that the violin was of no use to another character “for he is only a wretched scraper”. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson talks about how Holmes would “scrape carelessly at the fiddle”.

To be sure, scraping violins appear elsewhere in Victorian literature. But it is one more unmistakeable similarity with Honeyman, and at the very least illustrates how Doyle was steeped in the same Victorian context.

Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that the McLevy story came out in 1884. This was two years after Hughes v Chanot and various other documented suspicions around classified Stradivari adverts that appeared around the same time.

As a violinist himself, Honeyman would have been particularly familiar with these cases. Indeed, in his later writings on the violin, he tells a story of a violin bought for £22 by an unwitting gentleman, dreaming it would be worth £1,000, but was actually worth no more than £5.

Case closed?

In short, the very strong implication in both the Real Cremona and the Doyle books is that the Stradivaris are not genuine. They are products of the Victorian forgery trade.

Which begs the question: if Doyle deliberately wrote this detail into the Holmes books, what was he trying to say about him? Perhaps it points to the detective as a flawed protagonist, cutting through his greatness at solving crimes to remind us he was not infallible.

Every time Holmes puffed his pipe and explained to Watson who the culprit was, there appears to have been one unsolved case under his nose that he didn’t even know about. Perhaps Doyle was laughing about it quietly to himself until his own death some 40 years later.

This article first appeared on The Conversation UK. View the full article here.

Header image courtesy of Theresa275 on Flickr. View the original image here.

Read more