Did you say “$14,800”??? or am I on drugs?

Except as noted, all images courtesy of ebay seller amose123.  The images and the seller’s descriptions are available at the URL listed below and were accessed by the author on  07/24/13.   The images on this site will enlarge by double-clicking on them.

When is a fife worth $14,800?  Damned if I know.  But I do know when it ain’t.

The seller makes a good argument to support his asking price.  His description paraphrases (but does not acknowledge) a substantial passage from William Waterhouse, ed., The New Langwill Index (London, 1993), which is where just about anyone researching historical woodwinds begins to search:

“Thomas Stanesby Jr. was apprenticed to his father in 1706 and set up his own establishment over the Temple Exchange in Fleet Street near St Dunstan-in-the-West soon after being released from his indenture in 1713. In 1728 he received the Freedom of the Turner’s Company and in 1739 he was elected Master. In 1734 he inherited all his father’s tools and a seal ring. He eventually took two apprentices, William Sheridan 1737 and Caleb Gedney in 1741, who finished his apprenticeship in 1750 and inherited the tools of his Master upon his death in 1754. About 1732 Stanesby, sensing the impending eclipse of the recorder in professional music circles, issued A New System of the Flute a Bec or Common English Flute wherein he argued vigorously for the use of the ‘C Flute’ (tenor recorder in C) and presented a ‘full and perfect’ fingering chart. The demand for the transverse flute increased, however, and Stanesby made a considerable number of these. Halfpenny wrote that Stanesby signed himself ‘junior’ only up to 1732. He marked his instruments ‘STANESBY IUNIOR’ or ‘STANESBY LONDON’; the mark ‘MURAEUS’ is added to the only surviving bassoon, which is dated 1747 (it was possibly repaired by the maker of that name). Other surviving instruments include 38 flutes (of which 25 are ivory), two flutes d’amore, 16 recorders, five oboes and a bassoon.”

(from http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Original-Antique-Thomas-Stanesby-Junior-Jr-Flute-Fife-Revolutionary-War-/281139463742?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item417537c63e, accessed July 24, 2013.)

Quite convincing — until you consider a few facts beyond the scope of Langwill:

In the 18th century, the fife was a military signal instrument.  The London woodwind makers, whose specialty lay in flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes, and the like, made fifes as a sideline primarily to fulfill military contracts.  However, the British military had been using (and buying) oboes, not fifes, for the field music since at least 1685 and maybe even earlier (Raoul F. Camus, Military Music of the American Revolution, Chapel Hill, 1976).  This practice extended far beyond “the 1730s,” since the fife “was not restored till about the year 1745, when the Duke of Cumberland introduced it into the guards; it was not, however, adopted in the marching regiments til the year 1747,” this according to Francis Grose (Military Antiquities, London, 1788).  Even so, reinstitution of the fife into the field music was not widespread until a decade later, when the London publishers responded to the market demand for instruction books to aid the military fifer in his new-found craft.  What all this means is that any London woodwind maker, including both Stanesbys, Senior and Junior, would have wasted his time making fifes in “1732” or at any other time in “the 1730s,” simply because no one was interested in buying them.  And they would have to be unusually clairvoyant to make them in anticipation of a war that wouldn’t begin for another 40-plus years, as the seller’s title suggests.

Equally important is what the seller failed to note while reading Langwill; to wit, the wording on a trade card preserved in the British Library, which reads in part:

N.B.  Whereas Instruments are sold about the Town pretended to be made by Persons who have work’d under my Father or Me, which is an Imposition on the Publick, for my Father, or Self, never taught, or employ’d any other Person, in the finishing part of any Instrument whatsoever…”

Indeed, Stanesby’s fears of counterfeit instruments bearing his mark were well-founded, since spurious instruments survive to this day.  Two of these are cited in Langwill, but doubtless there are others — including this one, which could have been made as recently as, oh, I’d say yesterday, judging by the fact that it is plastic:

Image courtesy of Magic1Seller, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Stanesby-Junior-Soprano-Zen-on-Japan-Flute-Case-/221258509420?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item338408ec6c, accessed 07/24/13.

Note the “Stanesby Junior” mark on the head joint.  Image courtesy of Magic1Seller, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Stanesby-Junior-Soprano-Zen-on-Japan-Flute-Case-/221258509420?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item338408ec6c, accessed 07/24/13.

Or this one, each joint of which is marked STANESBY / JUNIOR but which the seller states is “new:”

Interested?  Yours for the small sum of $920.48!  Image courtesy of music_technology,  http://www.ebay.com/itm/Aulos-1716F-Baroque-Flute-Stanesby-Jr-AF3-/281121003074?pt=UK_Woodwind_Instruments&hash=item41741e1642

Interested? Yours for the small sum of $920.48! Image courtesy of music_technology, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Aulos-1716F-Baroque-Flute-Stanesby-Jr-AF3-/281121003074?pt=UK_Woodwind_Instruments&hash=item41741e1642, accessed July 24, 2013.

In any event, given all of the above, the fife in question might have caused the later Stanesbys much angst, but it never really bothered the original Mr. Stanesby Junior at all.  That’s because he was dead long before it was made.  I can say this because an examination of the images provided by the seller points to a fife made in the early part of the 19th century.

Let’s start with the ferrules.  The seller notes that “at some point in time someone scratched in some letters and numbers along with some anchor symbols into the brass ferrels on the ends.”  However, the letters and numbers that the seller would have us dismiss are “C” and “AD 1808.  The “C” most likely is an indicator of pitch, but more important are the four numbers, 1808, preceded by “AD” (Anno Domini). This is clear evidence of a date.  And it is entirely likely that this fife was indeed made in 1808 or shortly (very shortly) before.


Also, the seller calls our attention to a stylized anchor, which is built around a burnished seam.  The seam tells us a lot about how the ferrules were constructed.  At this time (the early 19th century), ferrules were made of thin brass sheets that were wrapped around the wooden body with the edges burnished (rubbed) to seal them in the required tubular shape.  They were further secured to their seating by use of a pincing tool, which indented them at regular intervals onto the fife body.   In these photos one of the pinces is visible.

The pince interrupts the scored line decoration.

The pince interrupts the scored line decoration just to the right of the crack.  The uniform depth and precision of these lines suggest they were machined, not hand-tooled, and is yet another indicator of an early-to-mid 19th century manufacture.

We now recognize the burnished seam as the anchor’s shank, around which the artist/owner incised the stock, a V-shaped crown, tipped flukes, and intertwining rode.


Another 19th century feature is the unequal lengths of the ferrules, which is visible in the total body views:


The fife body tells a similar story.  The fact that it appears to be of boxwood is not surprising, as boxwood was the hands-down favorite of British woodwind makers well into the 19th century.  The tone holes, though, are set in variable distances from each other.  While this could indicate an attempt to improve pitch, their placement favors finger positioning more than pitch improvement.  Besides, the “two groups of three” is a pattern found in fifes (and flutes) produced in the early-to-mid 19th century in both Britain and America.


The tone holes appear to be slightly off-center, but this could be an illusionary defect produced by the camera.

In short, I could find nothing in the images or in the seller’s commentary that would convince me that this is a fife made in “1732” or at any time in “the 1730s.”  It might be that old had it been perhaps a sopranino flute and not a fife, but several features,including the brass ferrules (a flute might have rings but not ferrules), only reinforce its identity as a (military) fife.

So, is it worth $14,800?  To answer that question, I compared it to another fife made by a contemporary London maker, that being Valentine Metzler:

Metzler (t) Eisenbrandt (b)

Fife by Valentine Metzler, top. This and the Eisenbrandt fife, below, are more fully discussed in another entry on this blog, “A Tale of Two Fifes.”  Author’s Collection

As you can see it is uncannily similar to the super-high-priced Stanesby, right down to the machine-scored ferrules, and tells pretty much the same story.  However, it does this much more reliably since we have no indication that anyone faked (or is faking) Metzler fifes, legitimately or otherwise, and the maker’s mark thereon indicates a circumscribed production date between 1788 and 1815.  So, since I bought the Metzler for $10.00 (plus $3.00 insured shipping), my answer to the $14,800 question would have to be “no.”

Copyright 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org


7 thoughts on “Did you say “$14,800”??? or am I on drugs?

  1. Just a guy trying to learn here…came upon your post and I had a few questions.

    If there a way to compare this fife with other instruments by the purported maker of this fife to check the quality?

    Could the etching on the brass be by someone who owned it? Why make a great fife and sign it in that matter?

    Anyways… Great site. Reading over your articles and becoming more informed!

    • Yes, Frank, there is a way to compare this fife with a contemporary instrument. In another blog (Tale of Two Fifes) I posted some images of a Valentine Metzler fife, another London maker. The Metzler instrument was made about the same time as the Stanesby fife, and it is fairly easy to see the similarities.

      I do believe the etchings were done by a former owner. Yes, they are crude, but they certainly personalized the fife for its owner, and (lucky us) they tell us that the fife was used in 1808 and therefore could not have been made any later than that. I think there are several reasons why it was made around that time, give or take a few years (but not more than a few), which is what I wrote about here.

      As for why the owner would personalize his instrument in such a manner, it’s entirely possible that he felt such decoration would identify it as his and his alone; should it be lost and he find it in someone else’s hands he could easily reclaim it. But I will never forget why one American fifer, who fought in the Revolutionary War, marked his fife. He did so because, in the words of his widow, he so treasured his fife as a relic of that great conflict, he “mutilated it to prevent it from being stolen.”

      Also, we have to remember that in the 18th (and well into the 19th) century, a fife was hardly considered a “real” instrument since its use was primarily if not solely restricted to military signalling and regulation. Makers did not put a lot of effort into making good ones, and no one even thought about improving its performance capacity until the mid-19th century (in England, a couple of decades later in America). Looking backwards, we are the ones who recognize the great instruments that they are; even so, their value may lie more in their historical significance than in their performance capacity. Therefore, the person who owned this fife in 1808 probably wasn’t concerned all that much about how his crude inscriptions might affect the value of his fife.

      Actually, it’s easier to (wildly) overprice a fife than it is to research it. We have all seen things like the Antiques Roadshow, which bases its appeal (in part) by stunning the antique owner and the audience with high assessment values. And we’ve also seen run-away prices on Internet auctions like ebay. But, while he seller did state that he had approached some museums for advice on value, we don’t know if the museums he contacted refused to assess the instrument (generally they will refer you to a qualified appraiser, but you will have to pay his-or-her fee) or if they refused to sanction his own valuation of the fife. And although he quoted from a standard reference guide (The New Langwill), he kind of forgot that it is a reference work for all types of woodwinds — flutes, clarinets, oboes, etc. — as well as brasswinds. So the words he quoted did not specifically refer to fifes, especially since no fifes are listed in the examples that were studied (only flutes and recorders).

      Thanks for your question and for reading this blog. I so appreciate both!

      P.S. We did finally identify Doug Ames’s instrument (see questions above) as a fife and got pretty close to a date of origin. I’ll try to find some time to write about that one, because it has a lovely story behind it, and with his permission post some of the pictures he sent.

      • P.S. Does this instrument represent the general quality of other Stanesby products? To definitively answer that one would have to compare it with known Stanesby examples. Langwill lists the location of a few of these, but I would say that this fife looks surprisingly well-made from what I can see in the seller’s images. Of course, it is impossible to tell without examining it, but the overall gross appearance of the cuttings, tone hole placement, ferrule design and placement, and the like look pretty good to me.

  2. Thank you again for your well written response. I learn something every time I visit your site.

    I may have been a little vague with my questions.

    I was indeed referring to comparing the fife to a contemporary Stanesby product to determine build quality.
    I was also asking why THE MAKER would mark the instrument in that manner after spending so much time on the instrument. I agree that owner would certainly mark it like that. This is a very interesting instrument and worthy of the attention given here!

  3. Yeah after I wrote it I realized I didn’t answer your question!

    Without comparing other Stanesby’s with this fife, no one can really judge its quality. That said, the gross characteristics apparent in the seller’s images would suggest the maker took some care in constructing this fife (which wasn’t always the case with other flutemakers who made fifes). I wouldn’t be surprised if his other woodwinds equaled or exceeded the quality seen in this fife.

    No indeed, no maker would crudely scratch anything onto the ferrules of his fifes.

    It is indeed a great instrument that may be overpriced, but it makes us stop and think. And no one can really put a value on that!

    Thanks again for all your kind words.

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