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Basic Principles for Finding a Violin or Fiddle
     
 
Buying anything expensive can prove intimidating,
especially for a violin or bow whose distinguishing features
may be invisible.  And even more so over the Internet.  
What looks like the same instrument may vary in price by a
factor of three among shops.  Sometimes these are the
same models simply priced differently.  Sometimes they
aren't!  Violin shops, dealers, and trades of various levels
seem to form a closed society, impenetrable from the
outside.  Newspaper stories of fraud in the violin trade
make a buyer justifiably nervous.  Nevertheless, a buyer
can navigate the shoals and make truly informed decisions
with a little study and the application of common sense
whether buying in person or on line.
Stephen K. Perry, violin maker for Gianna, Inc.
©2003, 2004

1 Why Do You Want A New Violin?
Clients often don't know what they want or why they want
it.  Examine your reasons for shopping before you start.  
Maybe you really need a better instrument because the
current one isn't performing.  Perhaps it just needs a little
setup work, rather than replacing.  Perhaps you simply
want to own a beautiful thing, a perfectly legitimate goal.  
Perhaps you like collecting things, a fair end. For whatever
reason you start out with, buyers should examine whether
the instrument –  especially an expensive instrument – will
bring them pleasure.  A person who constantly worries
about their violin cracking may not enjoy an ancient
Tyrolean violin with thin and delicate construction,
regardless of how it plays or sounds.

Sometimes clients contact me seeking "a $5000 violin
because I'm going to college."  I suspect that some dealers
have gradually promoted the concept that the most
expensive instrument possibly affordable is a requirement
for both professional play and truly enjoyable amateur
play.   The concept that an instrument should be an
investment also seems widespread.  Let's face it – violins
are boxes with strings on them and bows are bent sticks
with horse hair strung on them.  If a $2000 trade violin
gives performance equivalent to a $10,000 violin in a
given player's hands, then the extra $8000 doesn't buy
anything.  And unless one is buying in a rarified
atmosphere – which no one reading this is likely to be –
then the "investment" aspect is a hoax.  A good violin will
sell at a reasonable price in the future, regardless.  
Perhaps less or more by a bit, almost certainly less for a
new violin (at least in the short term), but it isn't going to
out perform regular investments in the long run.  Perhaps
French violins will triple in price in the next ten years.  
Perhaps not.  I'm not going to gamble on it!

A Good Player Sounds Good On Junk; A Bad Player
Makes A Stradivari Weep
Good players make bad violins sound good, although they
may have to work very hard.  Weak players sound weak
on anything.  In fact, they may be able to handle a less
responsive violin better than a high-performance model.  
BUT a fine, high-performance violin greatly assists a
performer in shaping tone color, nuance, and volume, in
addition to often offering much greater projection.  Good
instruments in their classes have fundamental sound
quality and playing characteristics that help the player
perform.  At the highest end, the effect is magical.  This
magical effect in the hands of our greatest artists has
inspired players and the public for generations and driven
prices high for famous-maker violins.  As time goes on,
more and more makers fall within this magical envelope, at
least as far as price suggests.

Virtually no one reading this needs to buy a violin in the
magical category.  But all buyers need to consider what
level violin they need to avoid having the violin or bow limit
their ability to learn and enjoy playing.

Violins As Investments – Was An AMC Gremlin A
Good Investment?
Fine instruments keep appreciating, dragging along all
18th Century violins and various lesser makers' works,
presenting the temptation of "investing" in more violin than
one needs.  Carefully consider that violins are not a liquid
commodity, especially in the higher prices [I expect even a
$7000 violin to take a year to sell].  Time is money.  If you
have an expensive violin and need to sell it quickly, you will
take a big hit financially to move it fast, perhaps getting ½
of retail.  Think of it as a real estate equivalent.  At the
higher levels, the market consists of dealers who collect
(justifiably) commissions.  These commissions can really
add up.  The same with auction premiums and fees.  Real
estate with clouded title isn't worth much.  Similarly, the
authenticity of a collectable violin greatly impacts its value:  
"Whoops, that isn't a Rocca after all."  Most buyers don't
need to face this uncertainty.  Information bearing on
authenticity continues to come to light and market desires
change, both greatly impacting price greatly.  Specific
problems with an instrument (e.g., a suddenly revealed
soundpost crack) may devalue it.

A fine instrument is generally not an investment vehicle.  
Perhaps one could buy 100 fine instruments to spread the
risk, but that's not what players do.

On the other hand, the supply is fixed, violins and bows
have inherent value that provides a price floor, and the
market is small enough that prices are supported by the
dealer network, preventing substantial depreciation.  If you
can wait, then maybe a violin can be considered an illiquid
investment.  But only as a tiny part of one's investments,
please!

The main problem in buying:  A poorly conceived or
irrational sense of "need."  An unnecessary sense of
urgency to acquire something, especially something
special, can interfere with making a rational choice in
violins.  Of course, a student with a $150 cheapie will really
need a step up violin pretty soon.  In the higher prices,
some folks think they may may be able to make a killing in
the long run.
  2 Basic Principle: Buy Something You Like
Look for something you like, that fits you, that you want,
that will give you pleasure in picking it up.  It need not be
by a famous name.  Something that you can make sing is
worth much more than a delicate antique or a new famous
name fiddle that simply doesn't fit or that you don't dare
take with you anywhere.  You should run the violin – the
violin shouldn't run you.

This view is especially applicable to college bound high
schoolers who are often told to spend $7000 or more to
get a violin – or else they won't be heard, they won't be
admitted, their careers will die on the vine.  Nonsense!  If a
$2500 trade violin with a good setup works well, then it
works well.  Period.  Violins tend to look the same to most
people.  Who knows what one cost?!  Teachers pushing
prize students towards college are especially likely to push
a violin they like onto a student rather than to help the
student find the student's voice.

Trial Periods
Players generally know the fiddle they want instantly.  
They usually take about 5 days of playing to figure out
whether there are problems they don't want to deal with or
that they really do like the fiddle.  If a violin is taking 2
weeks to try, then it may not be the right violin.  Although
we have people take months to decide on benchmade
violins.

Choosing A Dealer
The ideal dealer may be right near you.  Maybe not.  For
the thin air of violins whose value hangs on a certificate of
authenticity, go to the very most well respected shops.  If
you need help approaching these shops, we will help you.  
For utilitarian violins the kind most of us have I think
players will do well looking for a few things:

  • Can you trust the dealer?  Someone who has
    been in business for a while and intends to be in
    business will want to maintain the very best
    customer relations.
  • Does the dealer understand business in
    general?  Do they understand consumer law?  Do
    they seem trustworthy?   Trust your gut.  Ask for
    references if they make you feel better.
  • Do they really have expertise?  Frankly, I’m
    biased.  I've always preferred to buy things from
    people who could actually make the things I’m
    buying.  That gives me some confidence that I can
    get solid information on the products.  The same
    thing with violins – can the dealer or his staff
    actually make violins from scratch?  Have they
    handled a wide range of violins?  Or do they simply
    import violins and surround them with hype and
    advertising?
  • Large v. small?  Big time players and dealers
    always say to deal with big established shops with
    resources in depth.  Perhaps not an unbiased
    opinion.  Others think that the personal attention of
    a luthier is important.  Think about what is important
    to you.  As a low-priced (under $10,000) buyer, one
    faces the possibility of being ignored or given
    minimal attention at the big shops, but is likely to be
    an important client at a small venue.  I recommend
    the big shops for the very big purchases!  Small
    dealers do not have the resources to stock an
    inventory of $20,000 violins!!  

How About Auctions?
Traditional auction houses keep working at attracting
consumers rather than only dealers.  Auction houses end
up with wild and unpredictable bidding for the more
attractive pieces, making bidding a risk.  Dealers also
dump the dogs and pieces that don't sell on the auction
circuit, another risk.  Auction houses aren't really set up to
advise clearly on provenance and authenticity, although
the buyer is protected.  Likewise, auction houses aren't
equipped to give estimates of the quality of the items
except in general terms.  One loses the information on fine
distinctions that a relationship with a dealer will bring.  
Deciding which items to bid on is not a trivial task.  And
you're competing with dealers for the good stuff.  There
may be little or no trial time.  There are no backup
services.  If you can evaluate things quickly, can get
needed work done, and are willing to finance any losses or
bad deals, then go ahead.

I put together a
separate section on eBay.  I can't
recommend eBay for novice buyers.  Keep in mind that
folks are always willing to trumpet their successes, but are
unlikely to publicize their follies, thus tales of eBay
successes abound.  New fiddles aren't generally set up
well and are hard to evaluate on eBay.  For example, "it's
the wood" is right to some extent, but that seller doesn't
really have "the wood."  And vintage violins can be a
nightmare for the somewhat informed.  Certainly be careful
paying much or taking a more expensive purchase without
a return option.  We have had serious problems with
"dealers" on eBay who do not know the rules of
commercial trading, who have poor ethical standards, or
who sometimes seem to hitting on only a few cylinders.  

On the other hand,
Tarisio Auctions backs up their
statements.  If you want to buy on eBay, use some kind of
protection, such as an escrow service, and make sure a
process server will be able to find the other party.

Buying From Individuals
Buying from an individual can work well, but one really
needs an advisor for an expensive  purchase this way.  
One should expect to pay for the advisor.  Thus some of
the commission costs avoided through private purchase
are balanced in arranging independent support for the
purchase.   If you can evaluate a violin or have it
evaluated and don't mind paying for service, then a private
purchase can work.  At the higher price levels, the risks
rise.  Many apparent bargains on quality violins and bows
are highly suspicious.  Be aware.
     
     
     
3 So Write About Violins, Already!
Develop a strategy.  Just like with fine violins, figure out an
upper price for a step up or college violin.  But don't limit
yourself to violins near that price.  Sometimes a more
expensive violin can be brought within reach by a loan or a
trade in.  No one can see the label when you're playing, so
if a $1500 violin works for you, go for it!  There are a few
things to watch out for.  First, condition: serious repairs
devalue violins.  A back soundpost crack will likely
decrease the value by 50%, even if well repaired.  But that
may give excellent performance at a bargain price.  Think
about these tradeoffs before you shop.

If you're a beginner or step up player, you may not be able
to evaluate a violin very well.  In that circumstance,
consider finding a seller or advisor that is very sensitive to
your needs and having them select you an instrument.  I
do this on line and over the telephone all the time with
success.

More-advanced players can successfully shop on line
when an experienced seller is on the other end of the line.  
We talk about the sound and response of violins all the
time with other dealers, so we have the vocabulary to
determine what character a buyer is looking for.  This is an
attractive option where local shops are high priced or have
determined not to serve low- and mid-level buyers.  Or are
simply incompetent!

Be sure to consider the range of circumstances you'll use
the instrument in.  If buying on line, explain these
circumstances.  The differences between a big-orchestra
violin, a small-orchestra violin, and a soloist instrument are
pretty clear.  Most top dealers will be able to suggest
several matches based on a short interview.

If buying at a distance, get the seller to play the violin over
the phone for you.  We use a hands-free headset that has
a microphone near the face, giving a player's "viewpoint"
for the violins.  The differences among the choices
become surprisingly clear.

If you can actually borrow or buy and return the violin, try it
out in a wide range of circumstances.  Be realistic!  If
you're not a soloist, then you don't need a soloist's
projection.

Continued next column
  Keep in mind that the market is about the violins, not what
they play or sound like.   The sound and tone are just one
factor.  Some inexpensive fiddles sound wonderful and
some expensive violins are dogs.  Buyers don't
understand why appraisals don't consider tone.  On the
other hand, dealers (including us) are quite startled by
buyer's tone requirements and evaluations.  We could tell
you stories . . . .    We'll just say that tone can be greatly
modified by work on the violin, the bridge, and soundpost,
and so on – the "
setup" of the violin.  So an initial "flaw" in
tone might be fixed in a matter of minutes for you, if you
ask.  And other aspects of tone can be changed by
changing one's playing to match the violin.  Most players
seem to want a violin that essentially plays and sounds like
the one they have, just "better."  This is an illogical and
bizarre place to shop from.  For an advancing student, a
better violin may well be a challenge because of increased
responsiveness.  Indeed, I have to avoid making beginning
violins too responsive or the beginners don't like them!  
Buyers need to think of quality and value as distinct from
tone.  My favorite violin may drive you nuts, but a different
setup might make it your favorite!  Tone and value to a
particular buyer are subjective.

A final point: the very best players seem to screen quickly
for uncorrectable flaws in response or tone.  Past that,
they look for a violin that behaves well.  One that responds
to their playing in an intuitive manner.  One that projects
sufficently.  Tone doesn’t seem to figure into the decision
as much.  We can tweek tone and a good player gets the
tone they want out of many different violins.  The best
players and most dealers think beginning and advancing
players concentrate too much on violins’ tone and not
enough on the other factors.

Listen to your instincts and your heart first, then be guided
by practicalities.  And take good advice if you’re unsure of
your ability to evaluate.

How to try a violin out.
     
 
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