Purchasing a fine stringed instrument has become more and more a major investment – of both time and money. With collectors and amateurs competing with musicians for old instruments, the market prices for fine old instruments have been driven steadily upward, so that cost tends to exceed most musicians’ income. The cost of modern Italian violins has unfortunately also gone sky high. The finest French bows are nowadays mostly to be found in private collections.
The search for a superior instrument is usually driven by the desire for an improvement in volume, quality, flexibility or condition. The major limiting factor is usually cost related. Instruments in most price brackets may have both strong positive and negative characteristics. The lower the price bracket, the more likely that a greater compromise will be necessary. For an instrumentalist, it is often a question of balancing which negative factors you can live with.
The process of purchasing an instrument can be compared to that of buying a house. To begin, we look for something that is modest – perhaps with compromises of size, location or layout – but we try never to compromise marketability. This ensures that at some future date we will be able to trade up for something that better suits our ever-expanding needs. And since a house represents one of our biggest lifetime investments, it is imperative to do everything possible to protect that investment.
In choosing an instrument, it is necessary to consider many of the same issues. We concern ourselves with confirming authenticity and perhaps acquiring expert papers, conducting an accurate detailed examination of the instrument by an expert to determine its true condition, and getting third-party opinions as to its market value.
One part of the process of purchasing an instrument is often initially ignored. It concerns education, or the process of refining our sensitivity to sound quality. This is developed by playing on and critically listening to many different instruments with a wide range of tonal characteristics, so that we become sensitive to the nuances of sound. As the instrument audition process proceeds, it is most important to try to develop an objective and thoughtful mode of listening and evaluating. Rather than becoming absorbed in the intense pleasure of playing on a beautiful instrument, it is important to focus on making and remembering a more objective evaluation. This objective evaluation of sound becomes an excellent tool to help find the instrument of your dreams.
Once you have found an instrument which will continue to inspire and serve, it is necessary to consider many other issues. Performers who make a purchase solely based on sound considerations may find that they have instruments which are near impossible to resell. This is because many instruments sound wonderful, but are not highly regarded by the market – possibly because of considerations of authenticity, poor condition, having been in a major accident, not all original parts, poor condition of the plates, false labels, etc. While some of these instruments may seem desirable for other reasons, they can prove to be extremely difficult to sell.
These questions – of condition, authenticity, market value now and in the future, and many others – can only be answered by an expert. In fact, settling some or all of these questions may be crucial to establishing market value. Most instruments sold by dealers are supplied with papers, their own historic ones or from a respected expert. These papers serve to establish the identity, condition and any other important facts concerning a specific instrument. They usually also include multiple view photographs. Instruments sold privately today without expert papers are generally bought at great risk unless the seller agrees to include them in the purchase price. As there are so many fraudulent instruments in today’s market in the range of $100,000 and up, an expert paper is the only means of establishing authenticity.
Some other concerns might be: are all the parts original, have the plates been tampered with, have there been extensive repairs, often invisible to the naked eye? Any of these factors should seriously affect the asking price (causing it to take a nose dive), and will certainly affect the ease of reselling.
Yet another factor which must be included in the equation is the set up of the instrument when it is being auditioned. We all know how fussy some instruments can be, and how dramatically they can change when properly adjusted. So it is important to be sure that the dealer or seller has maintained all the proper relationships: sound post-bridge, neck angle, the cut of the bridge and the quality of wood used, are they fresh strings and ones that work well on the instrument? For an instrument to sound at its peak, all of these factors have to be optimized. If not, your ability to judge may be seriously affected. Frequently you will find it is necessary to press the dealer to make these adjustments or to replace the bridge or sound post.
Despite the astronomical prices of high-end instruments, instruments and bows that have not been inflated by today’s high market are still available. Some examples are 18th and 19th century English makers, Bohemian violins which look and sound like older Italian instruments, and superb old German bows made from flawless pernambuco. Their prices may be below the cost of new instruments, and they have the advantage of an already matured sound. There are also fine instruments made by old Dutch and Tirolian makers.
There are also a number of excellent present-day makers at work, whose instruments are used in performance by many fine artists. The market value of their instruments will largely be determined by the popularity of the maker at the time of resale.
Seeking out more information before you jump in can be very helpful. A number of interesting, fact filled publications are available, and the internet is becoming an important source of information. Some useful resources include:
Strings magazine’s October 1999 issue (No. 81), titled “Resource 2000 Guide,” which lists makers, repairers, appraisers, dealers and restorers. Their web site is www.stringsmagazine.com.
The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers provides an extensive lisating of trained, board-certified makers and repairers on their web site – www.afvbm.com. The listing includes their addresses, telephone numbers and web sites, and may be searched by state. A parallel European organization – Entente International des Maitres des Luthiers et Achtiers d’Art – has compiled a similar worldwide listing of board-certified makers and repairers, and will soon launch a web site making this information more readily accessible.
Several articles on the topics addressed in this article appear on Peter and Wendy Moes’ web site, www.moesandmoes.com.
Local 802 member Bernard Zeller is a violinist and a dealer in stringed instruments. Richard Simon retired last year from the New York Philharmonic after more than 30 years in the first violin section. He is a member of the 802 Executive Board.