AMIS 2022: Hexagram or Star of David? A Modern Interpretation of Markneukirchen Violin Inlays Under the Microscope

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

Hexagram or Star of David? A Modern Interpretation of Markneukirchen Violin Inlays Under the Microscope
Stella Smith

Stella Smith is a musicologist and emerging museum professional from Washington, DC. She holds an MA in Museum Studies from George Washington University and a Postgraduate Certificate in Nazi-era Art Provenance Research from the University of Denver’s Center for Art Collection Ethics. Concentrating on twentieth-century instrument provenance dilemmas, she has held curatorial internships at several national and international museums, including the Musikmuseum (Basel, Switzerland) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC).

Over the past several years, violins which feature mother-of-pearl hexagrams (six-pointed stars) advertised as Judaica have been surfacing on auction platforms. Simultaneously, a collection that tours the U.S. for Holocaust remembrance concerts and educational initiatives features similar violins prominently in promotional materials and performances. The assumption that the symbols on these turn-of-the-century Markneukirchen violins are Stars of David is prevalent—the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s curatorial team receives increasingly frequent requests for valuation and research from hopeful constituents who possess these instruments. To date, there has been no formalized research on these instruments, which are quickly growing in popularity and interest within the American Jewish community. It is imperative that the field of organology address these instruments and establish an authentic understanding of their relationship to Judaica. My research, generously funded by the Gribbon Committee, has analyzed catalog records of Markneukirchen ornamented “fancy violins,” published for the international export market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This investigation has been conducted in two dimensions. First, I comprehensively examined multimedia archival holdings at USHMM, the Library of Congress, Yad Vashem, the Mémorial de la Shoah, and private catalog collections. Second, I completed exploratory interviews with contemporary Klezmer and violin scholars. To date, I have uncovered no piece of evidence that these hexagrams, by and large, were ever intended as religious symbols. While I incorporate the German and Swiss catalog findings of Markneukirchen expert Enrico Weller on the subject, I focus on the American archives to broaden the available evidence crucial to eventually bringing an evaluation of image and intention from the academic realm to the general population. Moving from evidence to implication, I’d like to then discuss the possible consequences of the semiotic misattribution at hand and the wider contextual value of provenance research in musical exhibition drafting and programming.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.