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story.lead_photo.caption Sean Clancy, Paper Trails columnist


A viola made in West Virginia in 1938 was given to Japan's new emperor -- after a layover in Arkansas.

On his diplomatic trip to Japan last month, President Donald Trump gave the instrument to Emperor Naruhito, who is a violist.

The viola was bought by the U.S. Department of State from Joe Joyner, who is a luthier, violist with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Little Rock String Quartet, and owner of the Little Rock Violin Shop.

It was made in Charleston, W.Va., by Ivan Allison. Joyner bought it from a customer about a year ago, and it's still in fine fettle for an old fiddle.

"It was in exceptional condition," Joyner says. "The guy I got it from said he purchased it from someone in California. That person had been gifted the instrument by some family members, but they didn't actually play the instrument, so it probably sat in its case for all of its life."

Allison was an electrician who made violins in his spare time, says Joyner, who opened his shop in 2007.

"He was actually pretty prolific for an amateur, self-taught maker. Between violins, violas and cellos, he made maybe 150-plus instruments."

Not bad for a one-man operation.

"Even though he was self-taught, he was a pretty excellent craftsman," Joyner says. "His work is very clean and meticulous, and that's not something you usually see in amateur work. He really had an eye for detail."

The back and sides of the viola given to Naruhito are made of well-flamed maple, and the top is constructed of spruce, Joyner says.

"The materials that he used are exceptional. The quality of the wood is very nice, and it's got a lovely orange varnish on it."

Naruhito became emperor after the abdication of his father, Akihito. A day after the April 30 announcement, Joyner got a call from the State Department asking if he had any American-made violas for sale.

He passed along some photos of the Allison instrument and "a couple of weeks later they got back to me and said they wanted to purchase the instrument."

Joyner declined to comment on the selling price, but said the State Department's budget was $2,500.

"It's pretty surreal to know that Donald Trump was holding [an instrument] that I had in my hand a week earlier," he says. "It's a huge honor."

The gift has also attracted more attention to his shop, which is in a red-brick former carriage house on East 11th Street.

"The day Trump gave the gift, I made a Facebook post and shared it on some viola Facebook groups. That post has about 2,000 likes and 400-500 shares in the past week, and I've gotten about 100 friend requests from people all over the world -- eastern Europe, Japan, South America. The story really has gone international in the small viola world."


Sunday on 06/09/2019

Print Headline: PAPER TRAILS: Viola from state gifted to emperor


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