- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Henri Grissino-Mayer's expertise is trees, not musical instruments. But the University of Tennessee professor and his colleagues may have helped prove the authenticity of one of the most celebrated instruments in the world the rarest Stradivarius violin in existence.
Never used in a performance, not played in a century, this instrument reputedly kept by Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari until his death in 1737 has become known as the "Messiah."
Housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, the violin is said to be worth $15 million to $20 million. That is, unless it's a copy made after Stradivari's death, which is what Stewart Pollens, conservator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, claimed in a 1998 report that shook the insular world of art and collecting.
The Violin Society of America turned to Mr. Grissino-Mayer, a noted dendrochronologist (someone who does tree-ring dating), for help. "Essentially, if it has got wood and it has enough rings, then we can date it, regardless of what it is," Mr. Grissino-Mayer explained.
"When the controversy continued, we asked him to undertake an objective study of the Messiah's wood," said Helen Hayes, president of the society.
Mr. Grissino-Mayer and colleagues Malcolm Cleaveland of the University of Arizona and Paul Sheppard of the University of Arkansas announced their findings last month at the society's annual convention in Carlisle, Pa.
They dated the Norway spruce on the instrument's top to between 1577 and 1687, perhaps from a tree a century and a half old. That time frame would be consistent both with Stradivari's life (1644-1737) and the instrument's attributed date of manufacture in 1716.
That finding, the society said, at least "settled one aspect of an international controversy on the authenticity of the Messiah."
While Mr. Pollens' questions about details in the instrument's design remain, Mr. Grissino-Mayer said he has no doubts about its wood.
Mr. Grissino-Mayer, Mr. Cleaveland and Mr. Sheppard traveled to England in July and were given rare access to the Messiah and two other Stradivariuses. They examined them under a microscope for nearly eight hours.
"They took it out of the case, took the strings off, took the bridge off and pretty much stripped it down to just the violin itself and then handed it to me," Mr. Grissino-Mayer said.
"I was sitting there thinking I get excited holding a $100 bill, much less a $20 million violin. Of course, I wore gloves."
Such close examination revealed "all sorts of things that had never been seen before," he said, including hidden pencil marks suggesting the instrument was a model that was measured for copying, rather than a copy itself.
The scientists counted 109 rings in the violin's wood, he said, noting that one of the measures of a quality violin is "how straight their grain is, the thickness of the rings and the density of the wood."
While Mr. Grissino-Mayer can't say for sure the violin is a Stradivarius, he is impressed. "It is as pristine as if it had just been made by Stradivari," he said.

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