Most violinists, professional and amateurs alike, dream of owning a fine old Italian instrument. And yet few prospective buyers are equipped to navigate the dangerous waters of the violin trade. There is very little understanding of the complex issues of provenance, condition and pricing that are so important when contemplating a significant purchase.
As dealers in fine instruments, we are often asked for appraisals, and we get to see the unfortunate consequences of ill-informed purchases. So we thought it might be helpful to provide a little guide to the do’s and don’ts of fine violins.
The first thing to say, and the thing that no-one wants to hear, is that everyone is looking for the same thing. If you want an Italian instrument with great tone and with solid resale potential, it’s not going to be a bargain. There are many compromised instruments out there which are sold for more than they’re worth, and clients can easily be led to believe they’re getting a great deal. It can be nigh on impossible for a lay person to recognize the difference between a great violin and a weak one. It’s very tempting for shops to promise the earth to make a sale, so it’s important that the buyer really understands what constitutes a good investment.
Italian violins, particularly antique Italian violins, continue to prove their worth as investments. In the last 20 years, even in the last 10 years, we have seen an unparalleled rise in values – the same is true of French bows. During that time, the market has become truly global, with ever increasing demand from Asia and ever-increasing access through internet sales.
However, a violin is not a liquid investment, and if you wish to realise your investment, at some point you have to find a willing buyer. Sadly this is the point at which many owners of beloved instruments discover that their violin isn’t quite what they thought it was.
Obviously, nothing is a good investment if you pay too much for it in the first place. So how can you know the price is fair? Ultimately this is very specialist field, and to some extent you need to have faith in the seller. But there are a few things that should make it onto any prospective buyer’s checklist.
A violin is priced according to various factors. Broadly speaking the list would be:
Strange as it may seem, tone doesn’t really feature on this list. Tastes vary so much from player to player, and there are no objective standards. However, tone is crucial to the extent that a great sounding violin will always sell more quickly, and often for a bit of a premium. So take your time, and make sure you have tried enough violins to be sure you have sampled what’s actually available.
Let’s look at our pricing factors one by one…
Generally speaking, the older the violin the more valuable, though there are exceptions. For example Guarneri del Gesu was clearly a better maker than his father or his grandfather, and his violins are priced higher.
Over the centuries the various traditions and schools of making have become more or less favoured by violinists. Cremona takes first place, followed by Venice, Naples, Milan etc. These are broad categorizations, not always logical, but pricing always observes these “unwritten rules”. Within any geographical region there is also an order of favoured makers – the principal example would be Cremona, where the order would be del Gesu, Stradivari, Bergonzi, Amati etc.
Many makers worked with different models, and this is very important for the pricing of an instrument. A Cremonese model, particularly the Stradivari model with flat arching, almost always performs better than a high-arched or Stainer model. Many makers produced both, and the values are very different.
There’s also the category of “workshop” violins. From the Amatis onwards, violins have been made by teams of people or families, generally with apprentices. These shops have always produced varying qualities of instruments, and violins produced quickly by workshop members are priced very differently from the painstaking and high quality work by the workshp owner or head of household.
The size of a violin is determined by the back length. Violins that are oversized or undersized are worth significantly less than violins of normal proportions. The sweet spot for Italian violins is around 353-355 mm – violins that measure under 35.1 would be deemed undersized and would be devalued accordingly. Similarly oversized instruments which exceed 35.9cm.
This is the big one … as the value of fine Italian violins has increased, restoration techniques have become ever more sophisticated. It’s not uncommon for older instruments to have multiple cracks on the top, all restored in a way that takes a very practised eye to see. Often they are lined or patched on the inside, the plates have been pressed back into shape, or the varnish has been heavily retouched or replaced.
The most worrisome condition issue is a back post crack, but other less obvious repairs can have significant consequences for the value, particularly bell patches or doubling/lining of the top.
The other major concern is replacement parts. Untold numbers of Italian violins have scrolls which are not original. Then there are composites, where the table is from a different violin. Ribs can also be replaced. All of these are very significant to the value.
The days of the great expert dealers are behind us, and in today’s disrupted market everyone should expect an independent certificate from one of the leading experts in Italian violins. With 19th century instruments or earlier, my personal list of trusted authorities would be Charles Beare (as distinct from J&A Beare), Peter Biddulph, Florian Leonhard, Christopher Reuning, and Eric Bot (though Eric’s speciality is more 20th century Italian makers). The certificate should state how much of the instrument is original, who made it, and when. It should also give the key dimensions.
So as you can see, there’s a lot to know and a lot of room for error. To break this down into a simple list…
1. always ask for a full disclosure of condition, either a written or a diagrammatic condition report, and be sure that the price reflects the condition
2. request an independent and up to date certificate of authenticity from a respected expert (made out in the last 20 years for example)
3. check that the dimensions are standard
Our best advice is to find a dealer you trust (the harder the sell the more cautious you should be), and to accept that the best buys aren’t always the cheapest. It’s also important to accept that a violin is not a short term investment. Buy a good model, a good size, make sure it’s in great condition and well certified, with a sound that you really like, then sit back and relax…!
Ps. a few things that are not important
1. neck grafts – they don’t devalue an instrument and they aren’t necessarily an indicator of age
2. labels – if you have an authoritative certificate, the presence or otherwise of a label is irrelevant to the price
3. replaced bassbars or regraduation – these are regarded as necessary evils, and are not in themselves cause for devaluation