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.

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