Although Vuilllaume’s latter years are dominated by copies of Le Messie, there are occasional bursts of creative imagination, and without doubt this violin represents one of the pinnacles of Vuillaume’s career as a maker.
On seeing this violin, it is difficult not to speculate immediately as to which Stradivari Vuillaume was copying, and the Viotti of 1709 in the collection of the Royal Academy of Music seems a possible candidate. A back of such eye-watering flame calls to mind a particular log which Stradivari used in 1703-4 and can be seen on the Emiliani and Sammons violins of those years. But the broad, flat model speaks of the years 1709-1717, and the golden-orange varnish, rich and translucent, is of Vuillaume’s best type.
Vuillaume made the instrument for the collector Nicolas de Haller of St. Petersburg, and his typically immodest letter of 11th September 1872 to de Haller describes the violin as ‘l’instrument que j’avais soigné tout particulièrement pour vous, comme aux quelques instruments extraordinaries que j’ai fait, je leur ai donné des noms pour les dinstinguer, celui ci à votre intention s’appelle St. Nicolas… je ne crois pas en avoir fait un plus complet, ni mieux réussi, le bois, le travail, le vernis sont splendides.’
By 1948 the violin was in the possession of Monsieur Lazare Rudié of New York, and at the time Emile Français described it as a ‘magnifique exemplaire fait en copie de Stradivarius’. When William Moennig & Son sold the violin to C.M. Sin on 31st January 1972, they noted ‘a magnificent example… in a perfect state of preservation’.
Labelled Jean Baptiste Vuillaume à Paris, 3, rue Demours-Ternes, JBV, the violin is inscribed on the label Dédié à M. Nicolas de Haller, 1872. Unusually, the signature in the upper back also includes the words Exprès pour M. Nicolas de Haller, 1872. The instrument has previously been thought to be numbered 2908, but the last digit of the pencil number in the central back has been altered to 8, whereas the number inscribed by the top block is clearly visible as 2903.