Live from China: Coverage of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition
November 15, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Has anybody heard of the violin maker, Robert Meadow?
November 15, 2007 at 01:27 PM · I must have clicked the wrong section. I meant to click this to be in the "instruments" section. Anyway, it's a long story how I came to meet this maker and his instruments yesterday. But I was very impressed with one of the two violins he showed me. But so far as I know, he's not very well-known, yet he's asking $25,000! That's a price I'd expect from very well-known makers with long standing reputations such as Curtain, Alf, our own David Burgess, or Sam Z. Whether a particular instrument of the above gentlemen would suit this or that individual player, it seems to me that price structure does relate somewhat to fame and reputation as far as a recognized investment. So that even a terrific fiddle by a lttle-known contemporary maker priced at $25,000 must give one pause. I sent him an e-mail asking him about his background, bur am not heartened by the reply:
Thank you for your interest. Looked over your web site, very nicely done. The only thing that is of any relevance about me is the instrument that you had in your hands today. If you are a serious client for a violin from me please get in touch. Robert
On Nov 14, 2007, at 9:31 PM, rkviolin wrote:
From the Desk of Raphael Klayman
Hi Robert. I enjoyed trying your violins today after the Glenn Dicterow master class. I'd like to learn more about you. Could you tell me where or with whom you trained? Have you won or placed at any violin making competitions? Do you have a customer list or references? Thanks very much!
Even if I played as well as Perlman (-if only!-) there's no way I could or should command his fees. Still the echo of that fiddle is ringing in my ears...
November 15, 2007 at 01:24 PM · I had a similar experience with an Texas maker over the last several years. He wanted $25k for a violin but his total oeuvre(over 30 years) is 20 instruments.
I liked the sound (particularly of a copy of the Tuscan viola) but I couldn't get over my reservations about name and reputation.
It turns out that his instruments (particularly cellos and violas ) are all starting to fail because of collapsed belly arches.
I say be very careful.
November 15, 2007 at 05:22 PM · Mr. Meadows has been building instruments since before the 1980s. For much of that time he was focused on lutes. Back then he had a reputation for being into traditional methods, and incidentally he has a strong background in Japanese tools.
None of this helps you particularly I know. :-)
November 15, 2007 at 08:03 PM · Corwin - yes, I had that sort of thing in mind when I asked him about customers and references. He complimented me on my website. My professional life is like an open book - and I know that most makers are the same way. So I don't know why he was not forthcoming. I tend to equate 'mysterious' with 'suspicious'.
Andres - yes the little I found out about him through net research revealed similar information. Well, violin makers are called 'luthiers'!
November 16, 2007 at 08:43 AM · Raphael, you should check out Philip Perret in Katonah, NY. I was very impressed by him when I went to his shop, your teacher (Glenn) goes to him as does Midori, and a few other well known people.
November 16, 2007 at 03:56 PM · The Texas maker was full of secrets. He knew the secret varnish recipe and the secret wood treatment formula (no he wasn't Navagary) etc. etc.
He wanted all of his money before he got started and he had backlogs of two or three instruments that were paid for but not even started.
Later on I found out that he was spending the money on living expenses and hitting the buyers up for more money to complete their instruments.
November 16, 2007 at 06:05 PM · Thanks for all the comments. Keep them coming, even though I may not reply. My schedule is getting insane again until after Christmas.
November 17, 2007 at 05:34 AM · Hello Raphael,
I knew one violin-maker in my past life. He was an amature, not professional luthier. He made violins for own pleasure and never sold any instrument. I played on his violins when there were no varnish yet... Unforgettable...
I just wondering if the luthier you wrote about is not well known but makes a really nice instruments?
November 17, 2007 at 09:41 PM · Hi Rita - good to hear from you! Yes, the violin was very impressive, or I wouldn't be going to all this trouble. But is it worth 25k? Will it last? Are other owners of this maker's instruments very satisfied?
Well, the correspondence has continued, and gotten curioser, and curioser. Perhaps he implied that he found out about this forum, and that's OK. (Hi Robert!) A major theme that has develped has been one of candor and full-disclosure - not that either one of us is running for any political office! So here I go with the whole corespondence story, so far, and let all concerned decide what's best and makes the most sense. If he, or anyone else wants to have the last word, by all means. For this sort of thing can go on and on, and I really must be going now.
Happy Holidays to all!
[The chronology starts at the bottom, and works its way up.]
Hi Robert. I'm not sure I got all of your implications, but once again, I have nothing to hide and am not at all concerned with anything my site reveals. Anyone must be concerned with the investment value of an instrument, monetarily, tonally, and in its long term structural health. As to businessmen or artists, perhaps we can agree that in order to survive, both makers and players must be both. It's a fairly rare player who reaches a certain age without getting into a bit of dealing or collecting, if that's what you mean. That doesn't mean that many things don't form a part of a cherished permanent collection. I have violin and bow that I've had for about 20 years, each.
Anyway, good luck to you.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Saturday, November 17, 2007 12:34 PM
Subject: Re: hello from Raphael Klayman
Dear Raphael, It seems that you were able to answer your questions on your own. without the need of my help bravo! for your curiosity. What would life be without a little mystery?But I imagine there are still more questions than answers as regards where I have come from and what is my reputation,and least of which what am I capable of. Where will those questions lead you I venture will have more to do with the nature of your heart, that of a businessman or of an artist. In the way your web site is an open book, maybe you should be concerned with what it reveals. Sincerely yours, Robert
Hi Robert. Of course I didn't come to the master class expecting to try out any instruments, nor do any extemporized playing, myself. But without particularly being in the market for something to begin with, I've acquired more than one instrument and bow over the years. So I could possibly end up as a serious client. I wouldn't have e-mailed you, otherwise. But I think my questions were fair and reasonable, and I was surprised that you were not forthcoming. You complimented me on my website - thank you. As you see, my professional life is an open book. I've found most makers, many of whom have websites, to be the same way. If a concert presenter happened to hear me play live, or came across my CD sans bio, no matter how well they liked what they heard, they'd want to know something about my background, before considering engaging me. If I told them that the only thing of relevance is what they already heard, I don't think that would go over too well.
It's OK with me if a maker didn't necessarily graduate from this violin making school nor go on to apprentice with that well-known maker/dealer/ restorer. But I need something to go on. It's also OK if they didn't win a competition. Many highly individualistic makers - and players - don't. Of course the instrument, itself, is the main thing. But reputation in the field counts, too. If I'm not too well-known as a soloist, what shall my asking fee be to a concert presenter? If a client for an instrument is to consider investing 25k - a fee very well-known makers are asking - or even 10k, the most intrinsically terrific fiddle still needs some recognized and accepted context as aninvestment. I don't know you, and nobody that I know in the business knows you. I want to know who you are. I need some help here. And clients that can speak well for a maker are absolutely essential. Are they still happy with the instrument they acquired a few years ago? Is it getting better or worse? If there is some problem, has the maker been ready, willing, and able to address it to the customer's satisfaction?
I hope I haven't offended you in any way. It's just that I've been in the biz for some time now, and this how I, and many others see this sort of thing. Of course, in the end, everyone has to do their business in the way they see fit. I really liked one of your fiddles very much, and would like to try it again, sometime.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Thursday, November 15, 2007 2:12 AM
November 18, 2007 at 04:31 AM · Questionnaire for a dealer:
1. How many violins have you made?
2. May I contact the owners for references?
3. How many violins have resold?
4. What were the resale prices versus the original prices?
5. What is the repair history for your instruments?
6. What is your current backlog?
7. What is your payment policy?
8. What if I don't like the instrument you make me?
9. Have you had any disputes with buyers? How were they resolved?
Making a violin is a very risky business for a dealer. He can spend a lot of time on it and if it doesn't turn out he may not eat that month. In my mind a serious maker needs to produce a serious volume of instruments so that they can attain a certain consistency in craftsmanship and quality and deal with the vicissitudes of happy vs. unhappy customers etc without going broke. Its a tough trade to succeed in but it is no different than any other artistic endeavor.
November 18, 2007 at 06:40 AM · Good questions, Corwin!
November 18, 2007 at 11:17 PM · Greetings,
excellent questions as Laurie says, but you missed one.
Do you actually have written proof you were discharged from the looney bin cured?
November 19, 2007 at 06:43 AM · Raphael,
Maybe it would be good to meet and talk with the maker inspite of his far not normal attitude? This way you might make him tell something about the violin, about his other violins and their owners, about his teachers, etc. But you should be very "diplomatic" with him to not ruine the conversation.
Thank you for everything and for your beautiful playing. We enjoy your CD a lot! Happy Thanksgiving!
November 21, 2007 at 05:04 AM · I was reminded of another question today.
Who owns the violins, amateurs or working professionals?
December 27, 2007 at 04:15 AM · I know Robert Meadow's instruments, he lives and works at Central Park West. Having played on couple of his violins I was impressed with the unusual beauty of instruments, simplicity in sound production and a deep tone. It's a question of personal taste weather you like it or not, but one thing I would say if the violin sound good and fits well in your hands than don't worry about the name or the brand just try to make the best music out of it and it will become your investment.
December 27, 2007 at 05:59 AM · I agree. It doesn't matter how many satisfied customers someone has, and so on. I know of some extremely popular comparatively boring makes. If whether you can get your money back out is a big concern, maybe you're getting ready to spend too much money.
If you'll never be able to sell it for what you paid for it, then compensate by buying an interesting car that will hold its value, instead of being worth nothing in ten years :) Then you'll have a good violin and a good car, both. Having said this, sometimes instrument maker/repairer types with a real attitude don't do things right. They have too much of a mind of their own to have learned as well as some others. They're easy to spot, in my experience though. They'll be showing you obvious poor work and going on about how great they are.
December 28, 2007 at 12:14 AM · Well, I'm glad that SOMEBODY else is familiar with this guy and his instruments. And keep in mind, I felt similarly about one of his fiddles, or I wouldn't have gone to so much trouble. But Meadow was so secretive and strange with me, as you can see from his e-mails, that one friend of mine expressed the plausible theory (though I'm not saying this is the case) that he was really a dealer who didn't make any of the instruments he purported to be his. There are some darn good fiddles coming here from China w.o. labels. A dealer getting these will sometimes put a label in to the effect they were custom-imported to his specifications, and shop-adjusted. That's OK. But a more uncrupulous dealer might just say 'made by me'. Should it not matter to us that a violin we paid a lot of money for turns out to have been made by an anonymous maker, or group of makers in China? (I'm not knocking Chinese work at all. I have some Chinese violins and bows, and want more. But the price should be right.) We need to understand very clearly that like it or not, tone and workmanship aren't everything. Context does affect value. If that same anonymous Chinese maker moves to the West, sets up shop, legitimately puts in his own label (no more anonymity) maybe wins a prize in a makers competion, and/or gets a famous player to go to bat for him - then we have a whole new ball game, with more recoverable value. The maker is no better or worse, but the context has changed, and so has the investment.
Why will a poor-sounding Strad still command a lot of money (though still not as much as one of his best exanples)? And the market is most fluid when it comes to contemporary makers. Ask any auction house. A Sam Z. may go through the roof; a Peresson may hold a reasonable value. But an equally good fiddle by a scarcely-known "Mr. X" may yield a pittance. This is good news for a lucky bidder, but a bitter disappointment for the seller. This has to matter - unless we've got a bank account like Bill Gates. We may fall in love with a violin for a while, but decide to sell it after some time. We need to be aware of these realities. Auction houses and dealers often discourage consignments of contemporary instruments, unless they're known to be hot names. The maker may or may not take it back, or give a trade-in deal.
It's similar in the performing world. If I play half or a quarter as well as Perlman, can I command half or a quarter of his fee? I wish!! Indeed (and here I REALLY wish!) if I played just as well - could I get even a quarter of his fee, being little known in the larger market? Of course not. And what sort of impression would I make on an otherwise interested prospective manager or concert presenter if I balked at telling them anything about my background?
So if none of this still matters, and you love the way a violin sounds, and it hopefuly checks out structurally - even if the contemporary maker is little known, go ahead and shell out $25,000. But again, you never know how your feelings or circumstances may change, and don't be too shocked if you can only get a fraction of your investment back.
December 27, 2007 at 04:12 PM · I agree, but just remember you aren't buying it to sell.
If you had it and similarly-priced fiddles by a half-dozen makers who were more well-known to try, it would be hard to argue that it was overpriced if it beat the others, even it it was the first fiddle he ever sold. But realistically, there are plenty well-known makers selling at this price, and their being well-known says what you're likely to discover. But I've made the mistake of not buying an instrument for reasons that should have been irrelevant. If I could do it over, I'd pay twice what was being asked for it, even if I couldn't sell it period. I think extra-musical considerations actually kept me from realizng what a good instrument it was.
December 27, 2007 at 10:19 PM · Jim, actually in your example, I'd still argue that it was overpriced. But if it just blew me away, maybe I'd still buy it. Now in that example, let's say there was one of those anonymous Chinese violins I referred to above. Let's say that it beat out all the others (-and believe me, that could happen-) and the owner wanted a price comparable to the better-known contemporary makers, and its origin was known. Would you pay such a price? Every case and every person, and every circumstance is different. I stand by the criteia I outlined above, though they can't cover each individual case. As far as Meadow, add to this his strange attitude, and the fact that the better of the two violins he showed me was still not better for my tastes than my favorite violin, I had little trouble passing on it.
December 27, 2007 at 10:49 PM · "Would you pay such a price?"
I would! Assuming I was going to play it, not sell it. It would be crazy not to. Would you choose the second best one instead, for the same price? Doesn't make sense.
December 28, 2007 at 12:18 AM · Well...have I got a super Chinese violin for you! It's bright and brilliant and very projecting, but also has complexity and substance. It's also a beautiful, close copy of the famous inlaid Strad known as the "Hellier". If I decide to part with it I'll let you know! Excellent Chinese bows, too. The trouble is that I'm too honest, and would find it difficult to set an asking price too far beyond market value, if I'm aware of the market value. Then again at least a small portion of the market will sometimes bear a lot of pushing - witness the Tarisio bidding war for Sam Z.'s Stern del Gesu copies, a few years back. So...who will start the bidding? ;-)
Sometimes a wealthy collector just has to have something at almost any price - and that's it. Going back to tone, in the example we've been bandying about, I think we've both been presenting a bit of a false choice. It's not that we necessarily must choose our favorite or the runner up from that table. But, OK - let's say that on that table were, for our taste and considerable experience and judgement, a dozen of the best sounding fiddles on the planet - not excepting the finest Strads and del Gesus. Let's say they were all contemporary work selling at the same price. Our absolute favorite turns out to be that anonymous Chinese. Money (in this thought experiment) is no object, and resale is not, and will never be an issue...well, in that case maybe for me, and I guess, defintely for you. But here's a more likely scenario. Life is unpredictable. Vissicitudes happen. Down the line we find something we like better, but since we're not made of money, something has to give, and we need to sell what we thought was our soulmate - and if we paid $25,000 for the "anonymous del Bejing" we're in a lot of trouble. In all likelihood we'll be able to find something vey comparable down the line at a far lower price.
December 28, 2007 at 12:25 AM · Just buy the fiddle you like the sound of, and if you want to make some money, do this. Get a dead horse from somebody. Sell raffle tickets to win it, but don't say it's dead. When the winner discovers it's dead, give him his money back for the ticket.
December 28, 2007 at 12:38 AM · And keep the tail--for your bow. All them squirrel tails gone to waste! surely--it would've worked. Next time I kill a rattle snake though, I'm mak'n little decoupage thingys fer my scroll.
December 28, 2007 at 02:39 AM · I agree with Ralph. New violins change as do our tastes, etc. and it is hard to sell a violin from an unknown maker.
The advantage, however, is an ax from an unknown maker should be a lot less than from a well known maker. If this is not the case than I would not even think about it unless the fiddle was considerably better than anything I had tried before.
December 28, 2007 at 11:25 AM · There must be makers of repute whose violins can compete with those of Mr. Meadow's. So why overpay for a Meadow? There are gorgeous copies and forgeries of master paintings, but who would knowingly buy the copy for the same price as the the original, no matter how beautiful it was?
December 28, 2007 at 08:42 PM · There is a maker in Texas of relatively low output who basically prices his instruments by taking his annual income requirements and dividing it by the number of isntruments commissions he expects. The output has fallen and the price has been going up accordingly. He doesn't seem to understand why people won't pay up. Of course this isn't fully reflected in the contract price. He does require up front cash and when he gets in an income crunch he keeps asking for more to finish the instrument. The poor unfortunate buyer is caught in a bind because he sees this as the only way to get his initial up front money back.
Fortunately not too many have fallen for this but a few have to their dismay.
Can't say his name but you'll know him when you meet him if you ask the right questions.
December 28, 2007 at 10:27 PM · My own policy is to take a deposit (it's a way of letting me know who's serious, and helps me schedule the work) but this deposit is refundable at any time for any reason. For example, if the customer gets tired of waiting, finds something they like in the interim, or the finished violin doesn't meet expectations, the money is returned. Why would a maker (particularly one who has a waiting list) operate any other way? Isn't it short-sighted to compel someone to purchase a violin they don't really want, or make them take a financial risk on a violin they haven't played because it doesn't yet exist?
The challenge of making a living is something a maker accepts when getting into the business, and shouldn't be forced onto the musician (in my opinion).
December 29, 2007 at 01:59 AM · Mr. Burgess, I wish all makers did as you do. Once again your class and integrity are cleary visible!
I do have one question for you: from what I understand you do not antique instruments and yet you are still one of the most respected and in demand makers. How are you able to keep this high level of interest in your fiddles when so many palyers want an antiqued fiddle?
Please know I am not putting your practice down, actually, if anything this shows how much players think of the sound and quaitly of your fiddles.
December 29, 2007 at 06:41 PM · I've always felt that the current popularity of antiquing would be short-lived. Whether that will turn out to be true or not remains to be seen, but lately, I've encountered numerous antiquers who are talking with interest, or experimenting with making "fresh" instruments. This is a huge challenge for copyists because many of them have never developed their own personal style. There was no need to.
From those I've spoken with, one of the motivations is the desire to make something distinctive. When most new instruments looked new, one could be distinctive merely by making something which looked old. Now that so many makers are making copies and old looking instruments (lots of commercial and factory stuff, even) that this doesn't look as attractive any more, and one might just as easily set one's work apart by making something that looks new.
And some of them are seriously questioning the concept which has been their bread and butter for years. One well-known copyist put this on the web a couple of years ago:
"Where would the world of fine art and literature be today if most of the painters since Leonardo and many of the poets since Shakespeare had limited themselves to recreating copies, in ever finer detail, of the Mona Lisa or Hamlet . . . why are we still copying?"
But I guess your real question was how I get away with NOT antiquing. I don't have a complete answer. The highly respected Carl Becker Jr. has gotten away with it for most of his career, and prices of his fiddles are about as high as anyones. I don't know the percentage of people who MUST have an antiqued instrument versus those who will accept something new, but roughly 1/3rd of people who contact me tell me specifically that they reject the antiqued look and are looking for something which is new looking, or isn't "faked". The rest may be indifferent, or maybe other factors influence their decision even if they have a preference for an old appearance.
One factor which may help is that owning a new instrument is no longer anything that one needs to be apologetic about. There's been quite a renaissance in violin making. Numerous makers today are good enough to stand along side some of the best from the past, in both workmanship and sound, and more musicians are becoming aware of this all the time. If owning a fine new instrument is something one can now be proud of, is it such a leap to be proud of them in the state that coveted old instruments were in when they originally left the makers hands? It's ironic that the newest looking and most pristine antique instruments by a given maker (all other things being equal) command the highest prices.
I suspect that history will record our period as a time when large numbers of people were making a transition back to new instruments, initially aided in that transition by new work which looked old. A logical next step might be universal acceptance of instruments which look more the way Stradivari intended, as they were when they left his shop, new and fully varnished.
December 30, 2007 at 12:46 AM · Thank you for the answer Mr. Burgess. I always enjoy what you write on here!
I honestly think that you probably “get away” with not antiquing because for most players sound and playability are what really matters. And of course I have heard that your finishes are really beautiful.
I actually agree with you because I like the look of a well-finished instrument, without making it look old. I can also appreciate the look of a well-antiqued instrument, but all things being equal I would rather have a good non-antiqued finish.
The thing is I have had this talk with MANY players before and I only know of a few who feel like I do about it. Trust me, I am in the real minority here!
The trend I have seen is players getting tired of the “abused” look. The players I know love a good antique sunburst type of finish, but most object to making the violin look like it has some rotten wood, or has gone to hell and back.
Again I think all of this shows how much respect players have for the sound and playability of your fiddles.
December 30, 2007 at 01:42 AM · Personally, after reading those e-mails he sent you... I wouldn't pay 25K for a violin from him. He's not answering your questions and asking a tremendous amount of money for no information. I would be very, very wary. I would want someone to be much more forthcoming. Of course, this is just an opinion and the decision is entirely yours. Just don't have any regrets if you do buy it, because I doubt you would get your money back out of it.
December 30, 2007 at 02:18 AM · Thank you, Karen - and others who have been supportive. In his last e-mail to me he finally put some curriculum vitae in an attachment. I wasn't able to open the attachment - but it didn't matter by that point, as I had lost interest.
David, I always like your contributions, as well. You're candid, direct, and informative. I believe I brought up the subject a while back - or was that Hamlet who did? ;-) - the thread,"To 'tique or not to 'tique?" The maker of my current favorite violin, Ed Maday, does both. I specifically requested fresh work, and he happily complied. He just removed a little varnish around the edges of the plates and the volutes of the scroll, just to outline them. But no patches of "wear", no nicks, no dirt, etc. One thing he did do, which I must admit I like, is to rub the varnish, giving it a vey warm-looking texture. I can get a kick out of good antiquing, and my Chinese "Hellier" is a good example. But I usually like a new violin to look like what it is, and let nature take its course. After a while, enough is enough with antiquing. Once even Sam Z., who does both, but has been more well-known for antiquing, said that being in a room full of antiqued del Gesu copies was a little like being in a room full of Elvis impersonators!
December 30, 2007 at 11:36 AM · That's funny! Sam has a great sense of humor.
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