“The Quack Doctors of the Violin”

photo“I cannot refrain from cautioning possessors of good instruments against entrusting them into the barbaric hands of pretended repairers, who endeavour to persuade them into the belief that it is necessary to do this, that, and the other for their benefit. The quack doctors of the Violin are legion—they are found in every town and city, ready to prey upon the credulity of the lovers of Fiddles, and the injury they inflict on their helpless patients is frequently irreparable. Unfortunately, amateurs are often prone to be continually unsettling their instruments by trying different bars, sound-posts, &c., without considering the danger they run of damaging their property instead of improving it. Should your instrument need any alteration, no matter how slight, consult only those who have made the subject a special study. There are a few such men to be found in the chief cities of Europe, men whose love for the instrument is of such a nature that it would not permit them to recommend alterations prejudicial to its well-being.”

Excerpt From: Hart, George.  The Violin, Its Famous Makers and Their Imitators, 1887

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The Fine Arts Building is not a Violin Mall

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In the late 90’s when I quit working as an English teacher and enrolled in the Chicago School of Violin Making, there were only three big shops downtown in the Loop. Two of the higher level firms, Kenneth Warren & Son and Bein & Fushi, had dissolved their in-house workshops, creating small satellite businesses that mainly saw to the needs of their former employers. William Harris Lee specialized in hand crafted violins made by its in-house luthiers and student grade items imported from overseas.

Some 15 years later the landscape of downtown Chicago has completely changed. The number of full service shops and craftsmen serving dealers as well as individual musicians has multiplied. There are at least eight larger firms, a few smaller ones, and approximately half a dozen luthiers specializing in repair, adjustment and restoration. With this larger number comes an increased choice of instruments, services, and styles of doing business. The Fine Arts Building, where my shop is located, may be the single largest concentration of people working in the violin business in the United States, if not the entire world with a least four shops, several smaller dealers and luthiers, and a handful of bow and instrument specialists. The building is also home to the last real sheet music shop in the city of Chicago and many music teachers.

There are positives and negatives to this concentration of people working in the same business, in the same place. Musicians can benefit from the convenience of having so many choices so conveniently grouped together while dealers, employees, and luthiers see an increased flow of customers. Personally I like the healthy competition and collegiality that this unique situation can create, but there are inherent hazards as well.

This brings me to the main point of this essay. I’ve noticed some musicians and families seem to regard the conglomeration of shops in downtown Chicago as simply locations where their dream instrument or bow may be stored. The theory seems to be that if they just try out enough instruments and bows, regardless of who is selling them, they will find the one that suits them.

Downtown Chicago is not a violin mall and the different shops and luthiers located in the Loop are not all created equal. There is a wide range of quality, customer service, honesty, expertise and pricing. Please refer to my other essays about the violin business for further guidance, but the message is simple: be discerning and be careful.

The first thing to consider is what you are looking for and what is your economic theory. Are you looking for an expensive, high-quality investment-grade item or something that functions extremely well, is priced fairly and will help you with your playing? Maybe your child needs a student level instrument. Which shops are most likely to carry the items you seek? Next, consider long-term and short-term issues when choosing a shop to purchase something from. Do some research online and ask your colleagues, teacher or other families. Important immediate considerations are function, condition, price and attribution. Long-term issues like trade-ins, warranties and repairs must be considered too. Finally, it is essential that you trust the people you are dealing with and feel like they are treating you fairly.

Purchasing the wrong item from the wrong person can be a devastating experience. Having your instrument or bow worked on by an incompetent craftsman can permanently damage and devalue it as well as cost you tons of money. The violin business is basically completely unregulated, so it is up to you as the consumer to carefully consider your needs, figure out how you plan on meeting them, and to decide on who you would like to deal with. Avoid the mall mentality.

New Ivory Laws and Travel

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On Friday we attended the seminar that was the main reason for our visit to New York: “How to Tackle the Instrument and Raw Materials Transportation Issues.” The main issue here is the latest law banning the import and exportation of ivory and how this effects musicians traveling with their bows in and out of the US. There were representatives from the US Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the USDA, The League of American Orchestras, as well as several bow and violin makers.

The folks from Fish and Wildlife led off with a presentation on their duties, the laws covering banned or controlled materials, and the paperwork needed to legally transport items. Next the USDA explained its responsibilities and discussed accessing information on which materials are listed under the CITES Treaty Appendices I, II, and III.

While the botanist from the UDSA was explaining how to use the website to check if a material was banned or controlled under CITES using bamboo as an example, she was rudely interrupted several times by members of the audience who shouted out loud objections to her talking about bamboo because our field doesn’t use the material. John Bennett, an international environmental specialist and attorney who was serving as a kind of moderator for the seminar did his best to explain (with great patience) that she was simply using bamboo as an example and that the procedure she was outlining could be used for any material including Peranmbuco or Ebony.

At this point, Christophe Landon, the NYC violin shop owner, maker and dealer (who had a Stradivari stolen from his shop in 2002), entered the room dressed rather humorously in full Soho dandy garb – a well fitted sport coat of broad, vertical red and blue stripes, white pants, and blue shoes. He sat in the very front row and began to fidget obviously. It wasn’t long before he too began interrupting the presentation of the USDA in a loud French accent. The moderator was not able to immediately quiet him and he was able to hijack the proceedings to some extent. From what I was able to gather from his churlish behavior was that he was upset that he had been stopped in customs and had a number of bows confiscated. He complained that while entire professional symphony orchestras are allowed to travel in and out of the country with dozens of bows containing banned materials such as ivory, dealers like him are being singled out while carrying only a few bows. His histrionics drew some tepid applause from the crowd and several musicians joined in, clearly worried that their bows could be taken from them.

The saying, “One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” comes to mind here, but the petulant antics of Landon were simply the most dramatic and angry examples. The mood of those that spoke was at turns outraged, fearful, indignant, and anxious. Thankfully there were a handful of sensible and reasoned comments from the audience and panel but they were in the minority. As the seminar progressed, a number of people in the crowd and panel turned on Chistophe and demanded he behave himself (which he reluctantly did) but this wasn’t until after he took the microphone, stood up to face the crowd and began to carry on at length about his experiences. At that point I walked out and left my poor wife behind to take notes and behold the madness.

I completely understand that someone who has, like Landon, had expensive bows confiscated on some kind of bureaucratic technicality would be angry and frustrated. This is a serious issue. It’s important that the functionaries of the various US agencies involved understand our problems and concerns. However, it is counterproductive and impolite to shout and carry-on while drowning out the voices of others.

In my mind the seminar failed miserably to create a dialog where musicians, makers, dealers and representatives could trade ideas, concerns and suggest solutions. The presentations did provide a decent introduction to the issues, laws and procedures that must now be taken into consideration when importing and exporting instruments and bows with certain natural wildlife materials, but I’m afraid that the rather rabid reaction of certain members of the crowd served only to offend and alienate the folks who, after all, are only tasked with enforcing the regulations.

Without a doubt we as a community of luthiers and players are faced with a difficult situation, but there are solutions and sensible precautions we can take. The issue revolves around proving that the items we carry do not contain any illegal material. The agents from Fish and Wildlife made it clear that if your bow does not contain ivory, no special papers or permits are needed to move it though US customs, as neither pernambuco or ebony are on appendix I of CITES. The law states that the owner or bearer of an item such as a bow must prove that there are no banned wildlife materials incorporated into the item. So the question is: if stopped or challenged how does one prove, for example, that a white casein-plastic headplate is not ivory? There are no specific rules for this situation, but a representative of Fish and Wildlife said that any supporting paperwork would be helpful.

I recommend that players who plan on traveling out of the US for professional purposes bring a bow that has either a metal or plastic headplate and an ebony frog, along with a document from the person who did the work spelling out that the material used was not ivory. The document should be on shop stationery and have attached to it the shop’s receipt for the material from their supplier. In addition it may be good idea for our industry, in the absence of an official document from any US agency that proves that an item does NOT contain a banned material, to supply our customers with an updated form of insurance appraisal. This new type of appraisal would include a detailed description of the item, it’s weight and measurements, origin and age, along with a breakdown of the materials it contains – using the Latin genus and species names as outlined in CITES. These two documents would accompany the bow when traveling and help prevent any issues when leaving or entering the US.

In the absence of the proposed CITES “passport” which has not come into actual existence as of the writing of this article, the changing of headplates, the creation of new documents by the industry for traveling musicians (as well as dealers) and an increased knowledge of the laws must suffice for now as the tools we use to continue to pursue our livelihoods in an increasingly complex and regulated world.

Let’s not lose our tempers and have fits – we must act as mature adults, find solutions and take responsibility for ourselves as well as our beloved bows and instruments.

 

Mondo Musica NYC 2014

imageI’ve been in New York City over the last few days to attend the second annual Mondo Musica International Strings Trade Show and Seminar. Located in a humid basement space in crowded, touristy Soho, the show is comprised of makers, dealers, and suppliers who have paid to be present.

We browsed thru the different booths and met a few bow makers including the Nehr brothers from France, Joe Regh, and Eric Gagne from Canada. The American Federation of American Violin and Bow Makers was also present with a load of instruments and bows by some some of their members. We purchased a nice Pedi 2-bow case from the folks at Nova Strings. You can see a complete listing of all the exhibitors at:

http://www.mondomusicanewyork.com/module-mContent-view_pagelayout-id_pagelayout-76.phtml

On Thursday, Isaac Salchow gave a good talk called The Bows of Eugene Sartory. Bill Salchow was on hand to watch his nephew (he nodded off later in the lecture). Isaac is working on a Sartory book (publishing date unknown) and went thru the history of the maker’s craftsmanship using branded exhibition bows as a chronological guide. The short talk included slides and a discussion of Satory’s construction and stylistic approaches. Keep an eye out for the book because there really isn’t a good, complete reference book on Sartory believe it or not.

Friday morning, we headed up to 250 W. 54th Street to inspect the bows for Tarisio’s May auction. I’ve written a complete essay on auctions and after seeing numerous condition issues on some of the bows I examined I can only warn you to always carefully look at each item you plan on bidding on as well as ask to read a condition report. It’s up to you to do your due diligence. Please read the following from the Tarisio website under “Condition Report” near the bottom of the page.

https://www.tarisio.com/pages/about/cat_practice.php

Next we head up to Boston for the Skinners musical instrument auction. Hopefully we will find some great inventory to bring back to Chicago!

On Auctions

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Auctions are becoming increasingly popular amongst musicians and families looking for good deals on instruments and bows. While there is no doubt that auctions can provide potential opportunities to purchase items at lower prices than may be available at shops, there are a host of dangers and pitfalls that must be taken into consideration. In this essay I will go over the different types of current auctions, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and discuss the overall nature of the violin auction business.

Prior to the internet era auctions were predominantly the home of experts and collectors – people with the knowledge and finances to deal with the buyer-beware nature of these events. It was eBay and the advent of massive online retailers like Amazon that first made it easier for the average person to engage in auctions and become more comfortable with purchasing things online. Prior to these developments, people may have been at ease ordering certain things from catalogs, but purchasing something like an expensive violin or bow without holding it in ones hand, inspecting and playing it, was left to the rarified world of the dealer, museum curator, and wealthy collector.

I like eBay – I’ve won violins as well as a whole host of other items like tools, shop supplies and even antique prints. I’ve also made money selling things. The eBay model is an interesting one – the item goes to the winning bidder, and seller and bidder are publicly rated based on how well they perform in the transaction. The buyer must pay promptly and the seller must ship the item and have described it honestly. The main drawback to eBay is the buyer is dependent on the provided photos and the description provided by the seller. The model of eBay is buyer-beware with some exceptions – a number of sellers will accept a return with certain conditions. If you don’t understand the history of violin making, pricing, or the nature of violin repair it can be very easy to make a bad purchase. Remember the seller’s description is never to be fully trusted in terms of attribution and provenance. I rely on my own judgment in that respect. There seem to be many instances of purposeful and innocent misrepresentation on eBay. The most important thing is the description of the condition of the violin. Any major damage or defects need to be revealed, so make sure to ask questions in that regard. I’ve spent many hours looking at pictures and descriptions of thousands of violins on eBay, but I’ve only made a handful of purchases. I’ve also had to put in hours of work and spend plenty of money getting them ready for sale. There is also a lot of chance in this type of online auction – some items sell for far too much while others slip through the cracks. When I find an item I like and I want to bid on, I set a maximum price that I’m willing to pay and I bid that full price in the final minutes of the auction. If the price goes higher than what I’m willing to pay I maintain discipline and let it go. While I love eBay, I believe it is nearly impossible for the average musician or family to find good instruments without expert assistance.

The classic model of the old auction house still exists. However the only auction house of this type that maintains a fine musical instrument department in the United States is Skinners of Boston. There used to be a few others like Christie’s in New York but they have stopped selling string instruments and bows. Auctions that sell musical instruments in The UK and continental Europe still remain however. These are all English or ascending price auctions where people openly bid against one another with increasing bids until no one is willing to bid further and the item is sold. Increasingly these auction houses maintain an online presence where people can bid on the Internet. Telephone and proxy bids are also allowed. Prior to the auction finely produced catalogs are made available in print and online with photographs and descriptions of the items for sale. There will also be a viewing period prior to the actual auction where the items are on display for examination and testing. It is important to read the fine print in “The Conditions of Sale” before participating in any of these auctions. Skinners for example has a paragraph that states,

“All property is sold as is, and neither the auctioneer nor any consignor makes any warranties or representations of any kind or nature with respect to the property, and in no event shall be responsible for the correctness, nor deemed to have made any representation or warranty, of description, genuineness, authorship, attribution, provenance, period, culture source, origin, or condition of the property and no statement made at the sale, or in the bill of sale, or invoice or elsewhere shall be deemed such a warranty of representation or an assumption of liability.”

Because of changes in the auction world, these older style auction houses are increasingly reaching out to individual musicians. Some have hired former working musicians as liaisons to help guide potential buyers through the purchase process. However the condition of sale makes it clear that the full weight of deciding the value, condition, and veracity of origin is on the shoulders of the buyer. This is where people who are not experts on violins and bows, other than how to use them to make music, can run into trouble. My wife and I spend hours examining and testing potential purchases at these auctions. She tests their playing characteristics well I keep an eye on technical issues and consider identification and value. Together we have decades of experience that help us choose which items to bid on and even after we make a short list, that doesn’t mean we will be able to get the items at the right price – it is an auction after all. Even when we win an item, it frequently needs a lot of work and set up to be made ready for sale. This is why items sold at musical instrument auctions often have a lower price than the same items found in a violin shop. It takes an incredible amount of expertise and hard work to acquire and prepare these items for musicians to consider purchasing at our workshop.

Lastly, I need to discuss a newer hybrid type of auction that has shaken up the violin auction scene. Many musicians will have heard of Tarisio based in New York and now London as well. Even though it started with humble beginnings, selling all manner of violins, violas, cellos and their bows, it has become over the last 10 years a real powerhouse in the fine musical instrument auction world. Tarisio sells everything from the humblest German trade instrument to beautiful Cremonese classics in its numerous online auctions every year. While they do not publish a fancy printed catalog, they do have a fancy website with full descriptions and photographs of the items they sell. The instruments and bows are also available to examine and try at their showrooms. However, the auctions are exclusively online.

I like new things, and I like underdogs that shake up the establishment, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to consider. Some believe that Tarisio’s rise to eminence is responsible for Christie’s closing up it’s fine instrument department – but things change and that’s okay. However, I have to say that from a dealer standpoint I prefer the classic auction house model – but that makes sense because I’m looking for lower wholesale prices that increase my profit margin. This type of hybrid auction sells most instruments at higher prices than the classic auction houses might and that’s good for sellers, which is why many fine instruments are being sold by this firm. Tarisio also has a speculative and repairable’s auction which can be a good place for violin shop owners to find less expensive instruments that need more work and are of less certain identity. Who knows, maybe you know more than their so-called experts and can get a good deal. I myself have purchased items from Tarisio and made a decent profit reselling them. There have been a few issues with their level of organization (I know it’s a big job running something like that) as well as their attitude on the phone, but that’s to be expected in our business. If you do decide to buy something through Tarisio, I advise that you approach the auction the same way you would approach any sale of a violin or bow – make sure you go see and try the item before bidding.

In my mind, the main difference between Tarisio and the historic auction firms is that Tariso attempts to offer some of the assurance of attribution that violin shops generally provide. When you purchase something from a dealer, they should stand behind the instrument 100% as to condition and attribution. They should also offer you a full trade-in if you’re buying something of equal or greater value. Auction houses really can’t stand behind an instrument in terms of repairs or trade-ins, but Tarisio does provide buyers with the opportunity to return an item if they don’t believe that the auction’s description of origin was accurate. On their terms and condition page is the following paragraph titled Purchasers Limited Remedy,

“If the Purchaser of a Lot notifies Tarisio in writing that the Lot is not a genuine work of the maker specified for such Lot in the auction catalog or on the Auction Site, and delivers such notice to Tarisio together with the Lot such that both the notice and Lot are received by Tarisio within twenty (20) days after the close of bidding, Tarisio shall in collaboration with its chosen acceptable experts (hereinafter defined) make a determination of the genuineness of such Lot and, if Tarisio determines that the Lot is not a genuine work of the maker specified in the auction catalog or on the Auction Site, Tarisio will fully refund the purchase price paid for the Lot by the Purchaser. Upon request at any time before, during, or after the bidding period, Tarisio will supply a list of three acceptable experts per Lot whose opinions would be used to determine the genuineness of such Lot.”

So while they won’t guarantee the condition of the item, they do make an attempt to guarantee the identity of the violin which is something entirely new in the fine instrument auction business. It is important to note that their guarantee stipulates which experts can be used and that Tarisio itself can make the final determination. The exact process is also rather opaque as defined. I do, however, personally know purchasers who have taken advantage of this remedy and have had money returned. I also know of sellers who have unexpectedly had their instrument or bow returned when they thought it was sold. Personally I think Tarisio is taking a very difficult path of trying to straddle both the world of the violin shop and the world of the auction house. It definitely makes their life a lot more difficult. I know the goal is to provide customers with more assurance than traditional auction houses can provide, but this remedy can certainly lead to a lot of confusion for both sellers and buyers. The remedy process might also take some time and hassle for all parties. I find it interesting that Tarisio offers such a remedy and so I encourage buyers to take advantage of it every time they buy something from them that doesn’t come with a good certificate. However, please be aware that some experts who write certs and are not affiliated with Tarisio, in order to avoid controversy and professional headaches, will wait to give their opinions on items purchased until the 20 day deadline is over. It’s simply a strategic business decision.

As a small business owner, craftsman and dealer I enjoy auctions and am not worried about the increasing role they play for musicians seeking to purchase bows and violins. An auction house can never provide the expertise and service that I can provide my customers. Auction houses can’t help you choose an instrument or bow based on your needs and personal preferences. When your need a new instrument an auction house will not accept a trade in. These are things that auction houses can’t be expected to do. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try going to an auction to buy or sell an instrument. With some effort and research you could get a great deal on something you may have paid more for in the traditional violin shop. You may also fetch a good price for your instrument without the hassle and uncertainty of consigning it with a dealer. Just remember whether you’re bidding on eBay, at Skinners or Tarisio, always follow the golden rule of all auctions: caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

On Experts and Expertise

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“Of so called ‘experts’ and other bombastic individuals, we have more than enough. Of real craftsmen and connoisseurs, of the old makers and their instruments, unfortunately too few!”

-Walter Hamma, Meister Italienischer Geigenbaukunst, 1964

Most of these essays are serving double duty. On one hand I seek to educate and guide professional musicians, students, and families while at the same time critiquing and analyzing the violin business from an insider’s perspective for my colleagues. This dual-purpose style may lend itself at times to more strident language alongside more informational passages. It is my utmost desire to avoid being labeled as a naysayer or crank – my goal is simply to improve the lot of musicians, instrument makers, and dealers. Thank you.

What is expertise? How does one gain the knowledge and experience to become an expert on a certain subject? In some cases the trajectory is obvious – formal education leading to a job in a specific field, followed by years of active experience and research as well as career advancement and success, leading finally to a position of leadership and, hopefully wisdom.

One of the skills in life is to know who to take advice from and when to take it. I have directly benefited professionally from the expertise of my more experienced colleagues. These experts at bow making, lutherie, rehairing and restoration have labored for years in their field and have worked on countless instruments and bows. It would be foolish of me not to ask questions and benefit from their experience, not only on a technical level, but about the violin business and life itself.

There is a distinction then to be made between technical expertise and the expertise of knowledge. There may be a dozen different ways to rehair a bow – it’s not important which style one chooses, it’s important that the resulting rehair function properly – this is technical expertise. One may know how to straighten or recamber a bow with an alcohol lamp, but the understanding of the interrelation of the curve of the bow to the graduation of the wood may be far more elusive. I can put a new head plate on a bow with a method I have learned from others and have perfected and personalized, but can I tell you with certainty who made that bow? A dealer may be great at hiring employees for his shop and handling customers with ease, but can he identify what country your violin is from? Does that slick violin salesman who can close any deal understand the differences between the Venetian and Cremonese schools of violin making? Because attribution is such a central issue in the violin world, where a few words on a certificate can add a hundred thousand dollars of value to an item, one should examine what factors make an expert reliable. How did they gain their knowledge?

The results of technical expertise are far less difficult to test than the more esoteric knowledge of instrument attribution and provenance. We can compare the rehairs of various craftsman with greater ease because we can actually try the bows and examine the workmanship. If expert X says you have a Gagliano, how do we test that? At some point it’s just an educated guess – or less than educated as the case may be. It’s easier to get away with bad attributions and writing questionable certificates than it is to do bad rehairs or cut lousy bridges. This is what concerns me as a craftsman and a dealer.

It’s important to remember that violin dealers who write certificates are experts on items that they sell and profit from financially. Some dealers and experts will write certificates on items they do not sell, this is true. However, they do get paid a percentage of the instrument’s value to do so and it would be naive to say that they do not benefit in other ways, such as in professional prestige and notoriety. Dealers who don’t write certs can also fall prey to the temptations of over-identification when trying to sell a fiddle they own – it’s easier than you may think.

Let’s compare this to an expert in say, paleontology, who works for the Field Museum in Chicago. She gets paid a set salary and spends her time researching, studying, and writing papers. While there are certainly professional and career motives involved, if she claims to have found the bone of a heretofore unknown dinosaur, her work must be published and subjected to peer review. There is a scientific process requiring demonstrable proof – tests that can be reproduced and checked for accuracy. Even the fine art and antique businesses, close cousins to our own, use scientific tests of paint composition and wood age to help establish provenance in addition to their other tools of expertise. The violin dealer has no such format to adhere to – his conclusions are not reviewed or commonly tested except informally by the marketplace and by history.

It is important to note that history is not always kind to violin experts. Professionals in this field hold entire swaths of certificates, even those from renown shops such as Hill & Sons, to be worthless or at best, highly questionable. I know dealers who will only trust certificates signed personally by Rembert Wurlitzer or from very specific eras of the Hill shop. How well will the current troupe of certificate makers hold up decades from now?

There is another phenomenon in the violin business that few people are able articulate or want to talk about. The issue is that our industry needs experts to sign off on instruments and bows as a kind of insurance as well as a justification for the high prices we charge. This is because we are obsessed with attribution over function – there seems to be an almost addict-like drive on the part of some dealers to establish any identity however tenuous it may be or how poorly the instrument or bow works. The customer also buys into this mentality more often than not. What’s wrong with an unlabeled older instrument of uncertain heritage, especially if it plays well, sounds great and is priced reasonably? I’ve heard dealers refer to this class of instruments as trash. I’d be willing to bet that a very large percentage of existing antique instruments fall into this broad category. Not everything can be positively identified with ultra specific detail. Our industry also depends on the certificate-writers because it’s much easier to stand behind someone else’s expertise rather than do the hard and honest work it takes to make these judgements for ourselves. It’s also safer, isn’t it?

Most dealers aren’t historians who are striving to uncover the mysteries of the past for the greater good – these are businessmen trying to make a living. Please understand that I don’t have a problem with making a profit in the violin business – I am a dealer and rely on certificates and my own judgements as well in order to help sell bows and violins. What I am examining are the potential abuses inherent in this system. There is nothing wrong with scholarship and study just because one of the motives is profit, the problem is the hubris and lack of self-examination which is such a part of human nature.

Without a doubt there are people in this field who have spent years studying instruments and bows directly, taking measurements and photos, reading rare books in multiple languages, acquiring and examining notes from defunct shops, traveling and seeking out collections and original documents, performing scientific tests, as well as questioning and interviewing elderly professionals. However, these individuals are rare, and know that there is always so much more to learn. A handful have written and published some of the seminal reference works in our field. On the other hand, without a doubt, there are self-appointed experts who are in currently in vogue, either writing certs and being taken advantage of, consciously or unconsciously, by an industry hungry for assurance of identity and value, or making their own determinations with an eye on their professional and financial ambitions rather than true knowledge and research.

There undoubtedly is a difference between a fine Cremonese violin or classic French bow and a German trade instrument or a modern Chinese bow – to say otherwise would be foolish. There are great treasures created by outstanding and historically significant masters that must be identified and preserved. The values of these pieces must be commensurate to their rarity and outstanding qualities. This is beyond debate. However, it is important to recognize that we work in a field and a society that equates higher financial cost with greater inherent value and function. Just as human beings aren’t usually valued for their virtue, wisdom and hard work, rather by their wealth, power and social position, so are dealers rated by the prices and status of the instruments and bows they sell, not necessarily by the services they offer, how they treat their customers, or by the functionality of the items they select for sale. This is the world we live in.

Thoughts on Certificates

Hill_certificate

Most of these essays are serving double duty.  On one hand I seek to educate and guide professional musicians, students, and families while at the same time critiquing and analyzing the violin business from an insider’s perspective for my colleagues.  This dual-purpose style may lend itself at times to more strident language alongside more informational passages.  It is my utmost desire to avoid being labeled as a naysayer or crank – my goal is simply to improve the lot of musicians, instrument makers, and dealers.  Thank you.

If you are looking at an expensive instrument or bow from a dealer and the salesman says there isn’t a certificate, or there may be an old certificate, or that they showed it to so and so and he said this and that, please be careful. If you are told the violin you like was made by a famous maker, but the price, while high, is significantly lower than market price, pay attention.

There seems to be an increase in pricy, antique, but mysterious instruments on the market. It’s perfectly ok if you love an item that is just old and wonderful, unstamped, without a label, or bearing a facsimile label, but it needs to be priced accordingly. So when a dealer implies that the bow or violin you like might be something and the price is steep, please protect yourself by asking for a contingency sale. If there is no good certificate offered by a recognized modern expert, you can say that you will buy the item only if it is certified by one. Because dealers won’t offer opinions on items you have out on approval from other dealers, this is a way to put the onus of identification on the shop you are dealing with. If they truly want to sell the instrument, the shop will handle the certification process. If they come back to you and say that the expert will certify the violin or bow you’ve fallen in love with, then you are protected. The issue of who pays for the cert needs to be decided, however. Some shops may ask you to pay, while others will absorb the cost, and some may split the cost. If the bow or violin does not get certified – it may still be a great item, but the price must reflect the fact that it may not be identifiable. Another scenario is where a dealer may guarantee that the item you are purchasing is certifiable. It would then be up to you to get it certified after you buy it, if you decide to do so. This works well as long as you get everything in writing and are dealing with a shop you have a good relationship with and trust. If the dealer says he only sells instruments he certifies, then that’s a judgment call you will have to make.

Not everything in a violin shop needs a certificate. When you buy something from a dealer, they should provide you with a receipt and an insurance appraisal describing the item and stating what its replacement cost should be if it becomes damaged beyond repair. These documents are just fine for most bows or instruments you may purchase. Many violins have such an obvious identity that a certificate is unnecessary – like a pre-war German Strad copy for example. Other items like an HR Pfretzschner bow are also very clearly real and rarely faked (so far) that to ask of a certificate would be silly. Only when you start to spend substantial amounts of money should you consider protecting yourself, regardless of who you are dealing with. The more expensive the bow or violin, the better known the supposed maker, the more likely someone is trying to make a buck. Be aware that there are many levels of certificate, ranging from a general geographical area to a specific maker. It is up to you to analyze the language of the cert and determine if the asking price if fair given the description provided. Protect yourself when needed and deal with a reputable, knowledgeable dealer with whom you have a good relationship. Realize that many shops don’t issue certificates themselves, and that while some shops may in fact write certs, that doesn’t mean they are worth the paper they are printed on. Do your due diligence and find out who are the recognized experts in the field.

Many auction houses have a glossary of terms in the back of their catalogs to help potential bidders understand the terminology being used to describe the authorship of items on offer. The same concept works for certificates. The more general the language, the less specific the identity, usually the lower the cost, depending on age and origin. There are interesting exceptions in valuation, however. A violin with a certificate stating, Northern Italian, late 18th Century, may have a higher value than a more specifically identified instrument with a certificate stating, Roth Violin, Marknuekirchen, Germany, Guarneri Model, 1923. Why? One violin is older and it is Italian. Even though the language is less specific, the Italian instrument is valued more because of its age and geographical origin.

Authorship Terms as used by Skinner of Boston:

Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work is by the maker.

Ascribed to Joseph Guarneri: The work is believed to be by the named maker, in the opinion of the authors of the accompanying certificates or letters.

Attributed to Joseph Guarneri: A traditional attribution with which we may not agree.

Probably by Joseph Guarneri (also possibly): A work which we have no definitive opinion on.

School of Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work of a follower executed in the style of the maker or area stated.

Workshop of Joseph Guarneri: In our judgment the work is executed in the style of the named maker and possibly under his supervision.

Labeled Joseph Guarneri (also stamped, branded, etc.): In our judgment the instrument is not necessarily the work of this maker, but bears the makers mark

Notes on the Violin Business

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Most of these essays are serving double duty. On one hand I seek to educate and guide professional musicians, students, and families while at the same time critiquing and analyzing the violin business from an insider’s perspective for my colleagues. This dual-purpose style may lend itself at times to more strident language alongside more informational passages. It is my utmost desire to avoid being labeled as a naysayer or crank – my goal is simply to improve the lot of musicians, instrument makers, and dealers. Thank you.

The violin business can be quite opaque and confusing to outsiders, and it takes years of experience working on every side of it to even begin to grasp it fully. It’s also a business of extremes. On one hand deals involving tens of thousands of dollars are agreed to with nothing but a handshake, while on the other, shop owners have taken expensive instruments in on consignment, sold them for large and possibly inflated sums and then neglected to pay the owner. I have met many honest and dedicated shop workers and owners who strive day in and day out to provide the best service and advice they can, who fret over proper pricing and attributions, and are very serious about making sure the instruments they sell are in top condition. I have had clients tell me they were sold an unnecessary, expensive and invasive repair, such as a new bassbar, while a simple sound adjustment would have sufficed. Instruments have been sold for multiples of their actual market value and outright fakes foisted upon unsuspecting musicians. I’ve also seen folks who come into a shop to sell an old violin told by the proprietor that their fiddle is in fact worth far more than they are asking for as well as many small acts of generosity, usually towards cash strapped students.

Many players are intimidated or put-off by violin shop salesmen and dealers, many times for good reason, other times because they are simply ill-informed. It’s important to realize that most salesmen in violin shops work on commission, so this can account for high pressure sales tactics and in the case of teachers, endless sales calls. Many salesmen are quite knowledgeable and passionate about instruments and plenty of them are musicians themselves. However, just because someone is selling you an instrument doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about or have done their homework. Sometimes you never get to work directly with an owner or proprietor of a shop, only the salesman – this can be quite frustrating and off-putting. It is very important to feel comfortable with the person with whom you are dealing. Resist tough salesmanship and follow your instincts – pay attention to how you are treated. Do they insult your instrument? Do they even pay any attention to you at all? Are they primarily interested in where you play or who you study with? If you are made to feel defensive or uncomfortable, maybe you should consider dealing with another shop. Find someone who listens – someone who doesn’t simply see you as a source for potential profit. If you are having an issue with your bow or instrument, do they start from the easiest, least invasive solution before moving on to more complicated and expensive procedures? Hopefully you can build a relationship with a shop you can trust.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask pertinent questions and do some independent research on your own. Who made the instrument and how do they know that? What is the condition of the instrument? What repairs have been done in the shop and are there any older repairs? Will the shop guarantee these repairs? If there is a certificate ask to see it, or if there is a certificate promised (meaning it will be generated at the time of sale) what will the exact language be? In the case of bows, what is the weight and balance? Are all the parts original? What is their trade-in policy? Ask about the price – how was it arrived at? Feel free to do some online research, but realize that any auction results you may find usually reflect a wholesale price on an item of unknown quality and condition. I’d suggest focusing on forums and other shop websites that actually list retail prices. A good shop will make sure to answer all of these questions before you take the instrument out on approval. This is not only the right thing to do, it is simply good sales technique – answering and eliminating any possible objections.

Word of mouth is very important. Does the shop fix for free repairs that fail or do they simply recharge you? Have people purchased quality instruments at reasonable prices? Does the shop stand behind the items they sell, or is it simply a case of caveat emptor? Has the shop actually honored a trade-in? Do they treat you well without coming off as obsequious or patronizing? Do they shame you or berate you if you don’t decide to purchase something from them? Don’t allow yourself to be abused – use your emotional IQ and logic. If something seems wrong – it’s usually for a reason.

Just because the business “looks” like a fancy violin shop doesn’t mean it’s financially stable. There are very high overheads in this business and there are most likely a number of shops that look good on the outside, but are in fact quite rotten on the inside. I’m convinced that the specter of financial ruin and the resulting sense of desperation is the root of most dishonesty in the violin business. The other reasons are greed and basic incompetence.

There are shops in operation which own only a small proportion of their inventory and rely on the percentage of profit that consigned instruments provide. This is especially true of more expensive violins. It takes a lot of capital and effort to actually find, purchase, set-up, restore and repair these items, so many shops make a lot of their money selling violins for clients rather than building their own inventory. If you are buying a consigned bow or violin, realize that the dealer has less room to bargain with you. If the shop owns the item, there is much more leeway for negotiation. There is obviously much more profit in selling an item you actually own, rather than something you make 20% on. One of the possible side-effects of selling mainly consignment instruments is price inflation – the shop has agreed to get the owner or the other violin shop they borrowed it from a certain amount, so in an attempt to make more than 20% they may boost the price. Many shops are so dependent on consignments that they have boosted their official commission percentage.  They may also call the owner and see if they can get him to take less, further increasing their profit margin. This is only human nature, but endemic to the field. Remember, it is not against the law to charge too much for an item, it is illegal to misrepresent an item, so be careful.

If you are selling something through a shop, make sure that they are actually going to try and sell it, that you are comfortable with the price, and check in periodically to see if the item has sold. Many times, the shop will want to do work on the item, such as cut a bridge or do a rehair to help it sell – you can either pay the price of the repairs or ask that the cost be deducted from what you are owed when it sells. The shop should pay you what they owe you within a reasonable time after the sale. We do so as soon as the buyer’s check has cleared. There are certainly stories of shops selling items and not informing the owner for months. There are some infamous cases of shops getting behind on paying back consignees, finding themselves using recent sales to pay off older deals. This only works if there is a sustained high level of sales. However, these Ponzi type schemes almost always result in people getting ripped off.

When shopping for an instrument or bow, it’s important to give the shop a realistic price range and let them know if you need to trade in something towards the new purchase. Remember that violin shops are not in the business of buying items at a full retail price. Expect to be offered a wholesale price on your item. If you want more money, the shop can try and sell it on consignment for you, but they will take 20% or more and there is no guarantee that it will get sold. Consignment agreements are usually for a period of six to twelve months, should include a description of the item, explain clearly the amount you are asking for as well as the terms of payment. Remember it is difficult to sell violins and bows, so it is important to be patient. Also, making a profit is certainly not illegal, so don’t be offended if the shop owner offers a price for a trade-in that may be less than you paid. Please be aware that the shop owner is essentially buying your consignment.  If the instrument sells, he will have to stand behind it and possibly accept it as a trade-in in the future. Of course the way to make the most money is to sell the item yourself!

Many dealers and shop owners will tout the bow or instrument you are buying as a wise investment. While I do believe that there are certain items that would appeal to collectors, I think it is important to remember that you are searching for a tool that is designed to enable you to make music and hopefully, earn a living. If you are careful about the instrument or bow you purchase, you will get many years of use from it and at the end of that time it will surely have increased in value. Certain types of similarly priced items do retain value better than others however – compare a 1920’s German trade violin to a modern Romanian import for example. It is important to choose wisely, but I encourage you to concentrate on function and tone, always with an eye on quality. An analogy would be whether you are buying an old brick house as a home to live in and enjoy for many years or a condo in a trendy neighborhood that you hope to flip for a profit as soon as you can. Don’t forget that when you do go to sell your violin, you will have to pay someone to sell it – to the tune of at least 20%, and recently even more. The truth is that if you get what you paid for it at the end of say, a decade of use, you are doing very well.  In what other field can you buy an item, use it for years, and break even, and even perhaps reap a modest profit, when you sell it? Unless you are a collector with money to spare, try to resist the investment come-on.

I love what I do – I get to work with my hands and be my own boss. I’m very grateful to be involved in such a creative, dynamic business. Don’t forget that for every bad apple, there are numerous honest and helpful luthiers and experts. Many of them are my friends, trusted colleagues, teachers and mentors. I enjoy my customers, have learned so much from them and find fulfillment in helping musicians of every level and walk of life. What I’ve written is not an expose or condemnation of my field, it is simply an attempt at consumer education and protection. I encourage all string musicians to continue to educate themselves about their musical tools and ask questions. I urge all my luthier and dealer contemporaries to strive to follow the simple dictum that states:

Treat others as you would have them treat you.