2015 Writer's Prize Runner Up Eric Boodman

Eric Boodman

The violin arrived at Ute’s workshop in a ratty case. The owner, a seventy-something music teacher from Hartford, knew that she could die any day now, and she did not want her instrument to end up in some antique shop, gathering dust beside chintzy lamps and Rockwell prints. She had heard about Ute before: there were rumors that Ute had once repaired a Stradivarius. So, in 2004, the teacher’s violin was strapped into its case and driven to Ute’s workshop in Wallingford, Connecticut.

When Ute pulled back the protective cloth, she could see the violin was barely playable. Its body was a dizzying roadmap of fissures and dents. The neck was loose, and open cracks zigzagged around the tuning pegs. The glue was flaking. The joints creaked. There were patches where fingernails had worn away the varnish, revealing the naked wood underneath.

She held it up to the light of the window, tilted it, peered into the f-hole. Tilted it a little more. Inside the shadowy interior of the violin Ute could just make out a discolored tag, fraying at the edges. Hendrik Jacobs Me Fecit in Amsterdam 1704.


Ute Brinkmann lives in a gray shingled house on a side-street of downtown Wallingford. The only sign that you are at the center of anything is the sigh of trains pulling into the station a few blocks to the west. Her street is quiet; her house is quieter. The rooms are filled with violins, but they are there to be fixed, not played.

They hang in cases in the living room. They lie on their sides under the kitchen table. Some rest in cubbies in her workshop, others doze beneath her desk. They sit on shelves in her back room and crowd the top of her workbench. They even populate her bathroom, where they are held by figurines of frogs and grasshoppers and googly-eyed men.

Ute is a Geigenbaumeister, a master violin-maker. The title was conferred upon her by the German Guild of Violin and Bow Makers in 1987, and although hundreds of new German luthiers are accredited every year, Ute is not just another Geigenbaumeister. For nine years, she slept in the unheated attic so that her violins could occupy all three upstairs bedrooms. Now, since some of her instruments have moved to her shops in Westport and New Haven, the violins inhabit only two of the bedrooms, but their needs still come first. In the smaller bedroom, there is a line of machines: a scroll-saw, a drill, a few electronic blades for sharpening tools. In the larger room, two Home Depot doors have been turned into a workbench, with brushes for mixing varnish and a hot plate for heating glue.

Ute lives in twenty-first-century Connecticut—she gets her horsehair from Mongolia, her bow-wood from Brazil, and her messages from an iPhone—but her work harkens back to a less frenetic time and place. “A month is nothing in the world of violins,” she says. “Take a photo of my studio, come back in a month, and nothing will have moved.”

She loves the smoothness of ebony dust coating her hands. She loves the quiet accumulation of scuffs, rips, and wood-colored stains on her green apron. She loves peering through her wire-rimmed spectacles at a coat of varnish, knowing she can understand it only if she uses natural light. She loves shifting the sound-post, which transmits vibrations from the top of the violin to its back, to create a deeper sound. “In German, we call it the voice, but really it is the soul,” she says, rolling a new spruce sound-post in her fingers. “Only in English do they call it the post, like a broomstick. There’s no harmony, no poetry in the English language.”

Ute also dislikes the speed of machines. She uses a rounded knife to shape a bridge, making cuts so tiny you can hardly see the shavings. It takes her an hour and a half. The feet of the bridge need to be perfectly molded to the arch of the violin. She does not rush. 

Ute cannot work with anyone else present. It makes her too self-conscious. She becomes distracted, and she is no longer able to feel the wood, to find its scars and blemishes. On most days, she sits at her workbench for twelve hours, long enough for the light to grow clear and grow dim again, for the commuter trains to come and go. At the end of the day, she makes herself a simple supper. Later, she returns to her bedroom, marked by a black sign on the door that says “Private.”


But don’t let the stillness fool you. The world of violins is also a world of auctions and investments, with centuries of deceit and millions of dollars’ worth of theft. The love of violins isn’t just about an instrument’s sound. Since Andrea Amati glued together the first violin in Cremona, Italy, early in the sixteenth century, a complex taxonomy of makers and techniques has been mapped out. A violin properly placed within that hierarchy can make you a millionaire. A violin fraudulently placed there can make you even richer.

In 1685, an Italian violinist named Tomasso Antonio Vitali peeled back the label of his Amati to find that it wasn’t an Amati at all: underneath was a label that said “Francesco Ruggieri.” Ruggieri may have been an apprentice to Nicolo Amati, but that hardly mattered: it was like buying a Renoir only to discover that it had been painted by the artist’s younger brother. Vitali was incensed. He wrote to the Duke of Modena, and the matter ended up on the desk of a local magistrate.

The courts have been filled with violin fraud ever since. In 2012, an Austrian violin dealer known as “Mr. Stradivarius” was accused of selling 154 million dollars’ worth of falsely labeled violins. A forestry expert was brought in. He could read a tree’s history in the lines of its grain, and by examining the wood of the violin, he knew that this spruce could not have been cut until decades after Antonio Stradivari’s death. He turned off his microscope and wrote a report that would send “Mr. Stradivarius” to prison.


It was this kind of story that ran through Ute’s head as she examined the old music teacher’s violin. She had seen mass-produced Chinese violins with German or Italian names inside, often with a fake year to match. The factories had taken care to discolor the tag in order to make the date more believable. The same thing happened even with handmade nineteenth-century instruments. “It says 1780, but it might be a liar,” says Ute. “Or they might have purposefully made it unreadable. You cannot believe labels. You look at the instrument, and the last thing you look at is the label.”

If Ute was going to buy the Hendrik Jacobs, she wanted to be sure she really knew what she was buying. She called friends and colleagues from around the state to have a look, and together they pored over the instrument. Every part of its biography was of interest to them. They noted the Amati-like elements—the high arch, the redness, the wide f-holes. They agreed that the varnish wasn’t bright enough to be Italian, and examined the purfling together. The purfling is a dark inlay that delicately outlines a violin, like the thin black contours that frame a Modigliani face. Most European violin-makers used ebony purflings, but Dutch luthiers had a fondness for whale-bone. It came from the Greenland Right Whale, a fatty creature that floats when harpooned. The corpses would be tied to the whale-ship’s port-side hull and lugged back to the villages around Amsterdam, where the blubber would be boiled down for oil, and the bones carted off to urban tradesmen. When used for purfling, whale-bone glints. Ebony is resolutely matte. Ute and her luthier friends were looking for the telltale glint, and sure enough, the violin’s purfling sparkled when held up to the light.

Not only did the violin look Dutch; it also looked old. Ute could point out two centuries of repair jobs. She could see the scars from the mid-nineteenth century, when all older violins had their necks cut to make room for the new neck angle that would allow for a bigger sound. She could see where later repairers had tried to reinforce the wood with a clumsy cutout; its edges were jagged, its varnish was a jarring yellow against the uniform red.

Put together, these clues—the color, the shape, the purfling, the remnants of repair—pointed to an early-eighteenth-century Dutch violin. Ute bought it. She would not say how much she paid, but Hendrik Jacobs violins regularly sell for the price of a new turbocharged Audi.


Ute was not rich growing up, but her family was wealthy enough to supply all the children with instruments. She was born in 1961, in Bielefeld, Germany, only a three hours’ drive from Amsterdam. The youngest of four, she had no choice but to play the trumpet in order to complete her siblings’ brass quartet. Their house was a cacophony of practicing—the buzzing of embouchures, the ups and downs of arpeggios and scales. Ute loved her trumpet, vowed to stick with it through good times and bad, and she has: she still plays for festivals at the New Haven Lutheran Church. But becoming a brass luthier was a different story. “If you make trumpets you are basically a celebrated plumber,” she says. Her laugh is dry and staccato.

She grows serious when she talks about her father. He was a woodworker who took over a workshop from his own father when he came of age. Together they made windows, doors, staircases, tables, wardrobes, coffins. Ute still remembers the smell of commercial varnish. She was not involved in the woodworking business, or the funeral business that went with it, but she could hear the saws and smell the varnish when she went to visit her grandparents.

One of her brothers has stayed in Bielefeld. He continues to run the family funeral business, but the company no longer makes coffins.

 “Nobody makes coffins. That was industrialized after the war. Suddenly you had big sanding machines. That was the beginning of the end. And they started making windows out of plastic, and every woodworker would say, ‘This is not going to last.’ And then it turned out they were more stable than wood windows, and every year more of these plastic windows were sold. And then all the windows in all the new buildings were standardized, windows had this-and-this size, and slowly goes your window business.

“And then goes your door business because now all the doors have the same size and all the ceilings have the same height.”

She pauses. “Things have changed. Just the violins are custom made.”


In 2004, not long after buying the Hendrik Jacobs, Ute used a wedge to pry off its back. She tapped with her knuckle along the outline of the belly, listening for the rattle that would indicate a weak spot. Then, she inserted the wedge into the loose joint. The tool looked like a silver butter knife, the blade thickening at the back. The violin complained as the metal went in.

Musicians have fainted while watching a luthier take the back off an instrument, the way some people faint when they see a vial of their own blood. Ute knew better than to try this while the owner was in the house. Now the owner was out of the picture, but she had other worries. On the back of the violin was a small black line. It snaked upwards, right at the spot where the sound-post connects the belly to the back. It could be a scratch or it could be a crack. If it was just a scratch, then everything was fine. But if it was a crack, the violin’s worth would be lowered by fifteen thousand dollars. If it was a crack, her Audi had just become a Toyota.

It nagged at Ute. She would show it to customers; they held their breaths. She traced the line on the back with her finger.

One day not long after she had bought the instrument, she showed it to a customer who was a violin-playing dentist. She had just read an article in a violin-making magazine about performing medical imaging on instruments, and an idea began to solidify in her mind. It was a crazy idea. What if she could see an x-ray of the violin?

The next week, she placed the violin in its case, draped it with a protective cloth, snapped the buckles and drove it to the dentist’s office in Portland, Connecticut. He had her come at lunch hour, so as not to interrupt the flow of patients. He carefully placed the violin on the machine. He tried different settings, but the x-ray just came out as a black circle. At one o’clock, he returned to his toothaches and she returned to her neck grafts.

It had been fun for both of them, a kind of historical detective work, done on the sly. But Operation Crack or Scratch was far from over. The next operative was another client of hers, a surgeon in Meriden, whose daughter was on her way to becoming a professional violinist.

The surgeon referred Ute to a chiropractor in Wallingford. Ute pointed out the crack-or-scratch as the machine took the x-ray. But all you could see was the purfling, and the stark white bones of Ute’s hand.

The surgeon was frustrated with the results, and he invited Ute to come to the private hospital where he worked. He took time from his schedule of surgeries to supervise the x-ray. He stuck pins onto the violin with stickers, to delineate the area of interest. But the x-ray came back blank: all you could see was the white of the pins.

In order to verify whether this was a crack or a scratch, you had to be able to see the other cracks, or at least the instrument’s center seam. The doctor wrote Ute an apologetic email:

The only thing that might be helpful to do is a 3-D CT scan. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the power to arrange that. The CT scanners are so busy that even inpatients are sometimes bumped from the schedule. A CT scan costs about 2500 dollars, and the 3-D imaging on top of that. We have to get this done for free.

But Ute wasn’t discouraged. She knew that another customer would come through. This time it was a violin-playing engineer. He had worked on the x-ray machines in the pediatric clinic of a big Boston-area hospital, and he had contacts there. It would have to be secret, but he thought he could get the violin x-rayed by a more powerful machine.

This final stage of Operation Crack or Scratch was the most difficult. The engineer met her at the hospital’s front desk. He whisked her down hallways and through swinging doors, past doctors in lab coats and nurses in scrubs, past patients wheeling IV poles, past rooms where patients lay recovering from surgery. Ute and the engineer could not wait in the waiting room, beside sick kids and their mothers, so the engineer brought Ute through a back entrance of the clinic, into a room whose purpose she couldn’t quite surmise. They waited. When there was a momentary lull, they were called into the radiology room. The violin was placed on the x-ray machine, which grew warm and began to hum.

They waited for the image to appear. The radiologist held it up to the light, but all he could see was the purfling, and the three pins that the last doctor had put on. He needed to get back to his patients. But he suspected that perhaps wood, despite its rigidity, might act more like tissue than bone. He called his friend in mammography down the hall. Said something about an interesting case. The mammographer said to send them on over.

They only had a few minutes in the mammography clinic. A breast needs to be flattened to make a readable mammogram, but the pressure would destroy a violin. For the Hendrik Jacobs, the mammographer moved the compression paddle. The image would be fine without it.

“You know how doctors talk. You have a clean x-ray, and they still won’t say you don’t have cancer,” Ute says. The doctors never put forth a diagnosis. Ute and the engineer quickly had to vacate the mammography clinic, to make way for women coming in for testing. But Ute could see the center seam, its thin line of glue running vertically through the mammogram. She could see the other cracks. Between the three surgical pins, there was nothing. Not even a hint of a crack. Ute lets out a raucous laugh at the memory.


There was a time in Ute’s life when violins were everything. She was working for W. E. Hill & Sons, the foremost violin shop in the world. At night, she would practice the next day’s procedures in her room, at a workbench her father gave her. She did not want to make a mistake on a Stradivarius, an Amati, a Guarneri. She was living in a dreary English town outside London called Great Missenden. She knew nobody.

Late at night she caught programs from Germany on a little shortwave radio. That was how she heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down before the news reached the English papers. The next morning she told everyone she saw: the greengrocer, her colleagues at the workshop. “The Wall is down, the Wall is down!” They thought she was crazy, or drunk.

She laughs wistfully about the work. “Instruments that should be in a museum, we had them on the bench,” she says. Owners would fly to London and then travel out to Great Missenden to have their instrument looked at. The repairers could take as much time as they wanted, and had the best possible woods, the best possible tools, the best possible glue and varnish pigments from around the world. All that mattered was the quality of their work.

The workers were paid almost nothing, but Ute didn’t care. Every morning at 8:15, she would be back in the workshop, working on neck grafts, retouching varnish so that you would think it had been mixed in Cremona three hundred years earlier.

But in 1992, W. E. Hill & Sons closed. The brothers who owned the business had decided to part ways. Ute stayed on with one of them for a while, but it wasn’t worth it. “Life is more than just wooden boxes,” Ute says.

She moved to Japan, repairing violins at an atelier that served mostly orchestra musicians. When her boss picked out a man for her to marry, she knew it was time to go.  Her English was good now, if accented. She was only thirty-two. She decided she would come to America.


It is now twenty years after Ute’s arrival in Connecticut. The Hendrik Jacobs lies in a cubby in her studio, its neck loose, its back detached. She hasn’t found the time to repair it since 2004. She has been too busy re-hairing bows and running a business. Two years ago, she helped found an orphanage for “Untouchables” in eastern India. “Now I’m a mum,” she says. “I have two first graders. Asho and Vikash.”

Since then, she has raised enough money for six others to join them. She has begun cutting down on her expenses and sending all her extra earnings to India. She no longer takes vacations or attends luthier conferences. She buys her blouses and sweaters at Goodwill. She thinks twice before eating out. Last year, she even gave up her health insurance, opting instead for the cheaper option of Christian Health Shares.

She likes to talk about the Hendrik Jacobs violin, but not too much. She does not go into details. “I cannot buy stories, I can only buy instruments. A story is just a story.”

One day, though, she will take out the Hendrik Jacobs and begin to undo the damage of nineteenth-century repair. She will replace the neck graft, put in a new sound-post, replace the peg-box, the top-nut, and the saddle. She will dissolve tree resins in ethanol. They have names like dragon’s blood and krappwurzel. She will mix them on a little white painter’s palette, pushing away her lamp to see the colors in natural light. She will dab them onto the violin, matching the three coats of varnish that were laid down in 1704.

And then she will glue the pieces back together. She will use glue made from animal hide. She will melt it down in a little pot on her hot plate, and brush it on, without a single drop landing where it shouldn’t. It will blend in with the color of the varnished wood. In seconds, it will be dry, and no one will ever know that the violin looked any different.