eBay and the Holocaust

Design feature similar to that on violin for sale on eBay. Photo: Dina Gold

eBay is currently auctioning a mother-of-pearl six-pointed star-decorated violin with a starting bid price of $4,800. You have until the end of this week to place your bid.  You can see it here.

The seller, based in Illinois, describes it as an Old Antique Vintage Violin” and that “only 90 of these instruments made it out of the German Camp during WW2 it’s Museum Quality in great condition…”

If you are really keen, you can buy it outright for $9,000.

A sales price such as this is extraordinary.  Last April I wrote about the history of these decorated instruments and why, according to Lawrence Cavalieri, an expert musician, violin dealer and appraiser, this type is of “little value.”

Absent any provenance information (for example the name of the previous owner, testimony from a witness, photographs, documents, information about the manufacturer), there is no reason to suggest that such violins are of any particular historical interest or monetary value.  Is it not the case that associating a violin with the Holocaust without providing such evidence amounts to mere speculation?

Mother-of-pearl six-pointed star decorations were once a common design feature on violins produced in the Vogtland – the border of what today is Germany and the Czech Republic.  The stars were just one of a range of motifs to choose from – alongside flags, flowers, eagles, statues, harps, stars with four, six and eight points and even Stars and Stripes.  These decorated instruments were largely exported and, to that end, were featured in multiple catalogues published in assorted languages – German, English, Spanish, French and Russian. In the USA, which was a major market, they were advertised as “fancy violins”.

Historian Enrico Weller, who lives in Markneukirchen, has researched many  catalogues produced by musical instrument makers and dealers in the Vogtland. He supplied me with several examples of advertisements of locally-made decorated violins from the late 1800s/early 1900s. Weller says he is astonished that any such star-decorated instruments are now receiving attention in relation to Jews or the Holocaust.

If the seller has any details of how the violin which is now being auctioned on eBay is linked to a “German camp” or how “only 90 of these instruments made it out” then is it not surprising that this information was not included? Wouldn’t any potential purchaser likely be fascinated to know what evidence exists for such a connection?

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC has a significant music collection.  Bret Werb, musicologist and recorded sound curator at the USHMM told me “I’ve never seen evidence that associates violins decorated with mother-of-pearl six-pointed stars with Jewish musicians, either historically or in the Nazi ghettos and camps.”

These instruments are not hard to come by.  One was sold at auction in early November on eBay (where it was described accurately as a “4/4 Antique Mother of Pearl Inlaid”). The starting bid price was $14.50 and it ultimately sold for $305. The violin had been purchased, the seller told me, at an estate auction in Pennsylvania.

I was curious to see if I could acquire one myself. I made enquiries amongst various contacts in the violin trade. Not long after, word came that Karin Pritikin, who lives in Chicago, was looking to sell such a violin. I bought it from her for $250.

My new violin, bought November 2021 from Karin Pritikin. Photo: Dina Gold

Pritikin, a former gigging musician (who is active in her local Jewish community), has long enjoyed rescuing abandoned instruments. By phone from Chicago she related how, some twenty years ago, she spotted a mother-of-pearl star-decorated violin on sale in a flea market and was intrigued and attracted to it aesthetically.  But never thought it had anything to do with Jews or the Holocaust.  She recognizes it as a trade fiddle, in all likelihood made anywhere from the late 1800s to around the 1920s.

Reflecting on the claims made by some internet sellers, Pritikin has concluded that many people: “… feel this incredible connection to artifacts that they believe are records of history they don’t know much about. But wishing doesn’t make it so or make it real.”

As for sellers who link mother-of-pearl six-pointed star-decorated violins to Holocaust-era camps, Cavalieri says “… when making a purchase off the web, a healthy degree of skepticism is required.”

About the Author
Dina Gold, author "Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin." Published by American Bar Association. Paperback 2016
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