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.

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