It started innocently. The woman’s husband died. He bought a Steinway baby grand piano, played it just a few times, and he died. He loved that piano, but now he was dead and it was time to find the instrument a new home. The piano would be free to a loving family. Only shipping needed to be paid.
I didn’t remember the woman. She had met me once and knew that I could help. I replied to her email sympathetically, explaining that it would not be so easy to find a home for her piano. No one plays anymore and no one has room anymore. All the piano-loving families are gone. I already love a piano: a seven and half foot Fazioli grand. It was hand-made in Italy and it weighs a thousand pounds. When it is not being played it announces to the world that I won’t be moving soon.
Two months later, I got another email from the woman. Or perhaps it was a different woman, a different dead husband, and a different Steinway baby grand. Now the piano was in storage. All I had to do was contact the moving company and make arrangements. The piano would be free to a loving home.
This time I knew a loving home: my favorite pianist was getting married and a Steinway would make a good wedding gift. I could store it next to my Fazioli while she and her husband settled into a house. I contacted the moving company by text message. I wanted to wait until spring to ship the piano. Could they store it month to month? They could for $205. I expected to pay by credit card. The mover wanted his payment through a smartphone app.
For some reason, the fact that they wanted the money through an app made me suspicious. Still, I arranged it and sent the mover a screen shot of the transfer. Then, and only then, did the story fall apart. A half an hour after I arranged the payment, the mover was asking me to check on the transfer. This did not add up: the mover has a $40,000 piano to sell and a previous owner who is still on the hook. Why on earth does he need my money within a half an hour?
I canceled the money transfer and started investigating. The moving company had no address and did not come up on Google. The emails came from Chile. Most damning of all: searching the internet it appears that this woman had offered the dead man’s piano to many people, had accepted payments for moving it, and had never delivered it.
There were more text messages from the mover about the payment. I claimed I would be too busy to do any more checking on the transfer because I had tested positive for COVID. The next day the mover texted again, this time I wrote, “This is his brother. I have no idea what this is about. They say he will be out tomorrow.” After that, I didn’t reply to the texts anymore. I hoped the mover thought I died of COVID on Christmas day.
It seems to me that the Piano Scam is a hard way to make not very much money. And yet, I love the story, the story of love for a piano, the story of wanting someone to love the piano that I love. Maybe this is all the scammers are really after: proof that the dead man’s piano is worthy of love. Maybe this is not really a scam at all.
I want to send a text the mover. “This is the brother. He died. Just send me enough money to ship his grand piano. Make sure it finds a loving home.”
The Maclise portrait of Paganini was not commission by the violinist. We know this because of one important detail: the window with the horizontal bar high up on the right side of the scene. The setting is a dark basement room, a jail cell. There was a rumor about Paganini that he had learned to play the violin while in prison, waiting to be taken to the gallows for having murdered his lover. This rumor was published in the mid-1820s and became common newspaper gossip by the time Paganini arrived in Vienna in 1828. In Vienna and Paris, Paganini wrote into the newspapers, denying the story. This made matters worse. In any event, the last thing Paganini would have wanted to buy in London in 1831 would be a portrait showing him playing the violin in the slammer.
The curled up broken strings in the Maclise portrait are a reference to one of Paganini’s famous tricks: playing music entirely on the lowest string of the violin. The top string, known then as the chanterelle or “the singer,” needed no encouragement to break. The middle two strings had to be unwound or clipped. The broken strings are illustrated nicely in the Maclise portrait, but other details of the violin do not seem right. The proportions of the violin itself are off; the ribs are too deep and the varnish is too light and uniform to be an accurate depiction of Paganini’s old Italian violin, his 1743 del Gesù, il Cannone. The impression given by the portrait is that the violin has been freshly made or at least recently resurfaced. The violin was perhaps drawn to look like the violins being sold by the Betts violin shop, the location of the portrait in the decades after 1831. Not only the newly fabricated ones, but also the ancient instruments newly refurbished with the violin shop’s signature varnish, “Betts’ Blush.”
The violin bow is the most interesting part of the portrait. It is missing two decorations that one might expect to see on a violin bow of the 1830s: bows of the time usually had a mother of pearl disc on the side of the frog, and there was usually silver thread wound around the stick near the frog. One might think these are missing because the artist was too lazy to paint them, but there is a detail on the hand end of the bow that suggests the image was carefully done: the bone frog adjuster button has a collar. This means the bow was possibly a French violin bow from the 1780s.
I’ve illustrated this post with a picture of a bone button of a violin bow made by François Tourte in 1788. The little decorative collar can be seen on this button. Maclise must have seen Paganini’s bow up close and noted this little detail. The bow may not be by François; similar buttons can be seen on bows made by his brother, Léonard.
The violin bow in the portrait has been lost, so we can’t easily check the portrait against the original. Looking at the history of the violin bow, and sorting out the history of the bows Paganini might have used, the bow is most likely to be what was known as the Viotti bow. This doesn’t help us either, because there are no surviving examples of the Viotti bow. If we knew what we were looking for, we might be able to find the bow. If we found the bow, we might discover what we were looking for. This catch-22 has been a thorn in the side of violin bow historians for the last two hundred years.
The violin bow in the portrait is important. At the time the portrait was made, Paganini was doing something that is almost impossible to do today: he was becoming wealthy by playing the violin. For one of his London, 1831, concerts, each member of his audience had to pay in gold coins. The cheap seats cost one guinea: a quarter ounce of the metal. The expensive seats were five guineas. The actual money he made is disputed, but may have been as much as 8000 guineas. If Paganini’s gold coins from just one concert were put in a cloth bag, it would have to be pretty sturdy because it would weight around thirty pounds. Dreams of much less gold would cause a rush to California just a couple decades later. A great modern violinist today would be thrilled to earn one tenth the money that Paganini pulled in night after night in 1831.
The violin in the picture is may or may not represent il Cannone, the famous museum violin that may or may not be in a museum in Genoa. But il Cannone may not have been a violin. Paganini wrote about il Cannone only once. He wrote to a friend in 1833, complaining about all the rumors and complaints circulating about him in London. He said that he had put the conspiracy to rest using “his cannon violin.” We presume that he was speaking about a violin that was as loud as a cannon. But in 1833 the novelty of Paganini playing his violin was gone, his only good reviews came from playing viola. The Viotti bow in the Maclise portrait would have been the only violin bow heavy enough to play the viola. It is possible that that violin bow, rather than that violin, is the instrument that was as loud as a cannon. This leads to a troubling conclusion: the greatest musical instrument of all time may be Paganini’s long lost Viotti violin bow.
In the nineteenth century, the typical violinist made exactly enough money to get drunk on, just like today. The best paid violinist in the years after Paganini was Camillo Sivori, a pupil of Paganini who claimed to have the il Cannone violin. The violin was a money maker for him for his entire career: later in life when Sivori’s concert career was done, people paid to have a chance to play it. The person who finds and uses the Paganini Tourte can expect to do at least as well as Sivori.
There are two problems with finding the Paganini Tourte. The first one is technical: having to describe the violin bow accurately enough that the person who has it now, who may not know they have it, can realize they have it and perhaps sell it to a violinist who might use it. The second problem is a bit more worrisome: the violin bow in the Maclise portrait is cursed.
The most important museum item for my book was not a violin or a bow, but a painting, the 1831 Portrait of Niccolò Paganini signed by Daniel Maclise. Paganini did not pose for this portrait; the sketches were made by Maclise based on Paganini’s public appearances. It seems unlikely to me that this involved seeing Paganini in public performance: the better seats to an 1831 London Paganini performance cost two and a half ounces of gold coins. Fortunately, Paganini also attended house parties where he met the important musicians and artists of his day, and I presume that Maclise attended one of these parties, sat in a corner and made sketches.
Before I say anything else about this painting, I want to note that belongs to the Dover Museum & Bronze Age Boat Gallery and is on long term loan to the Royal Academy of Music. The curatorial staff of each institutions was very kind in answering my questions and allowing me to examine and use digital images of the object. The painting itself was created by an assistant rather than Maclise, who already was a fairly famous painter and who would later, among other things, make celebrated illustrations of books by Charles Dickens.
In my book, I did not discuss the origins of this painting, but writing for the internet I feel perfectly empowered to make highly speculative statements that are unsupported by the historical record. The painting was not commissioned or offered to Paganini. In 1831, the person mostly likely to want the painting was Arthur Betts, the proprietor of the Betts Violin Shop in London. This was the shop that made composite monsters out of pieces of old Italian violins. In 1831, their best-selling product was a new violin that pretended to be a copy of Paganini’s violin, il Cannone. The Maclise painting shows this violin. When the Betts closed down in 1867, the painting fell into the hands of private collectors. Finally, it came to rest in the collection of Jane Ann Gordon.
By the 1890’s the location of recitals in London became the homes of wealthy society women. One of them was Gordon, Lady Cory, the wife of Clifford Cory, a Welsh coal baron and a Liberal Party politician. Their London home was on Belgrave Square. Her concerts included artists such as Ingacy Jan Paderewski and Fritz Kreisler. Guests to her home could admire the Maclise portrait of Paganini, see her own renown textile art works, and gaze upon her fabulous collection of diamond jewelry. Alas, this probably did not include the Paganini diamonds, which had relocated to New York City with Charlotte Watson in 1834.
I have stated in my book that male behavior at Victorian house concerts was sometimes policed by Joseph Bell, the great syphilis diagnostician and the model for Sherlock Holmes. A story about Lady Cory will illustrate how necessary this police action was. The misbehaving man in Lady Cory’s life was Vladimir von Pachmann, a Russian pianist.
Lady Cory was an attractive, cultured woman who really did have her foot on the ladder of nobility—her husband served in the House of Lords and was a Peer. Von Pachmann, like Ludwig Beethoven, added the noble signifier “von” to his name without consulting anyone except his own ego. Pachman’s father had known Beethoven, a connection that did Vladimir very little good; his concert repertoire was limited to Chopin. From 1890-1908 he toured America. He made money, not by playing the piano, but by promoting them; he was on the payroll of Chickering.
Today, classical music performers are fairly reserved. Wearing their concert clothes, they approach their instruments with reverence and perform without saying anything. In the early nineteenth century, it was completely acceptable to perform music as part of an theatrical act. For example, there was a violinist at the time of Paganini, Alexandre Boucher Girodet, whose entire performance was based on his resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte. Striking a pose with his hand in his coat, à la Napoleon, Girodet gave his audience the sensation that the violin was being played by a great general.
Von Pachman gave audiences the impression that the piano was being played by a clown. He muttered constantly as he played and made grand gestures in between allowing his clumsy fingers to fly over the keyboards of his mass-market pianos. George Bernard Shaw felt that the pantomime was the point of Pachman’s performances, that Chopin’s was just an embellishment. Other critics were not so kind, and placed Pachman into a different species of primate, the “Chopinzee.”
But in Lady Cory’s heyday, it was not considered polite to question the humanness of the male gender. However, for Russian men especially, to question the humanity of the female gender was standard operating procedure. In an ideal world, cultured women like Lady Cory would never have to have contact with boors like Pachman. Nevertheless, Vladimir von Pachman was invited to the house on Belgrave Square. Perhaps the coal mining husband wanted see a Chopinzee up close.
Lady Cory was tough as nails: she collected artwork by French prisoners of war and made sure these made it into museums after the war ended in 1918. Her life was devoted to moving art out of private collections and into public ones. Von Pachman was a porcelain tea cup in comparison. Entering Lady Cory’s home, he was perhaps intimidated by the Maclise portrait of Paganini. He was not the only performer and we can only guess what talented musicians he heard as he waited to play with his sweaty hands. Von Pachman would have been comfortable playing a Honky-Tonk Chickering piano. How he felt about the exquisitely maintained concert piano in Lady Cory’s salon was not recorded.
When it was time for Pachman to play, he became mentally disorganized. He sat down at the piano. Then, getting up again without having played anything, he started his monologue with the observation that Jane Anne Gordon, Lady Cory, was the ugliest woman he had ever seen.
There was a fruitless attempt to get Pachman to shut up and play the piano. He refused. Incredibly, it seems that Pachman was not escorted out, and the anecdote was repeated as though it said something nasty about Lady Cory rather than revealing something nasty about Pachman.
After Lady Cory died in 1949, her jewelry and her textile art made its way into the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Maclise Portrait came under the care of the wonderful curators of the Dover Museum & Bronze Age Boat Gallery and the Royal Academy of Music. This painting is not the most famous portrait of Paganini. But on the portrait, there is one tiny detail that is of great interest to violin bow historians. This detail will be the subject of my next post.