THE rarest antique instruments can sell for millions of pounds in high-profile auctions. Emma Yeomans meets the Hove expert whose analysis and appraisal can make or break a sale

Peter Ratcliff’s workshop in Hove is a musical treasure trove.

Violins and violas hang on the walls, cellos stand neatly and various parts of instruments hang above his workbenches.

Mr Ratcliff, 53, trained as a violin maker and restorer but now specialises in dendrochronology, an unusual scientific method of analysing and dating the wood used to build an instrument.

He explained: “Dendrochronology is taking very accurate measurements of the distance between growth rings in the wood of the instrument.

“The sequence of measurements is a unique pattern, a fingerprint of sorts, and it can be used to identify the forest region, date and sometimes even the individual tree that the instrument was made from.”

The dimensions of growth rings can vary according to season, temperature and rainfall, so by comparing the measurements he finds to other trees and instruments Peter can pinpoint the date of the wood.

Mr Ratcliff has spent 15 years studying violins using this technique and has built up one of the most best databases of measurements in the world.

He is one of only two dendrochronology experts studying instruments in the UK, and he thinks he is now the only person in Europe who works in the field full time.

During his career he has studied some of the world’s rarest instruments, including a Stradivarius viola put up for sale last year with a price tag of £27 million – although it failed to find a buyer.

Mr Ratcliff was first introduced to dendrochronology when he asked an expert to look at one of his violins.

He said: “I found the results fascinating. The information was extremely revealing and helped my understanding of the instrument, so I started measuring tree rings myself.”

The process is painstakingly precise, and he must take every measurement by hand.

He said: “I used to do it with a microscope linked up to a computer, but now I almost always work from high resolution images of the instrument and take the measurements on screen.

“I’ll take measurements from each instrument more than once and compare the results, to ensure I get it right.

“I have to be careful to not confuse cracks in the wood with growth rings, so comparing multiple sets makes it more accurate.”

Once Mr Ratcliff has measurements, he compares them to others in his database, which can take anything from 10 minutes to hours.

He added: “Sometimes it takes longer, but often I find that if I can’t identify it quickly then it won’t happen at all.”

The success rate for identifying instruments is high. He added: “I’m able to date 60% to 70% of instruments, but the success rate depends on the era of the wood.

“If it’s an 18th century instrument the success rate is higher, as the best violin makers generally used wood from a similar forest region.”

Mr Ratcliff’s expertise has attracted the attention of high profile auction houses, and he has analysed violins from celebrated craftsmen.

He said: “I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most famous instruments in the world.”

While studying instruments by acclaimed maker Stradivarius, he discovered that 16 instruments were not only made of wood from the same era, but made from the same tree.

One violin which he proved had been made by Stradivarius went up in value thanks to his work, and sold at auction for four times its estimate.

However his analysis does not always turn up such good news.

He said: “Occasionally I find things that are not right and I can see the instrument is not all it is said to be.

“There was an instrument which was being auctioned online, and I did a test on the wood before the end of the auction.

“The test revealed that the wood was still in the forest 50 years after the alleged maker’s death, so it couldn’t have been made by him. They had to stop the auction, and it was supposed to sell for over £120,000.”

He has spotted fakes attributed to Stradivarius and ‘antique violins’ that could not have been made before 1920.

He worked with Tarisio, a specialist auction house for fine instruments, for a decade and they refer instruments to him when they need to confirm dates.

Jason Price, founder and director of Tarisio, said: “Dendrochronology has changed the landscape of violin expertise and given our attributions objective and scientific confirmation.

“A dendrochronology report also gives added peace of mind to a buyer and contributes to the atmosphere of transparency in the marketplace.”

Mr Ratcliff plays the violin, though “not to a particularly high standard”, he admits. His interest in instruments is geared towards the craftsmanship.

He said: “I was always fascinated by the architecture of instruments, so I trained as a violin maker and restorer. I used to make my own instruments, but I haven’t for some time.”

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, he moved to the UK to study violin making in London at age 18, completing his apprenticeship with a distinction.

Though he has a particular focus on violins, he has worked with a range of stringed instruments.

He said: “Violins, violas, cellos, viols and other stringed instruments. If it has a spruce or pine top then I can analyse them.”

He added that his training as a restorer has helped his current work, adding: “Knowing about violins and wood is a real advantage.”

Though the multi-million pound auction value of rare instruments may appear staggering, he explained that it is down to more than just the sound.

He said: “It is their rarity, and the antique value. Many of the most expensive violins will have been played by someone famous, so people have a chance to play on a piece of history.

“Of course, a nice sounding Stradivarius will be worth more but it’s also the prestige of the instrument.”

Dendrochronology has already changed the way auction houses approach instrument valuations, and Peter hopes his work will become a routine part of the sale process.

He said: “I love my work, and I hope I can continue. I’m always learning something new.”