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Buying an unmarked violin

Instruments: Would you for $21,000US?

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted June 23, 2005 at 03:29 AM

I'm looking at purchasing a new instrument right now, and one of the options is an unmarked italian instrument for which the people at Wilder and Davis in Montreal have assigned a value of $21,000 USD if I remember correctly.

If ever I wanted to resell this instrument in another city or place, would I have trouble getting equal value because the lack of history? A talented and knowledgeable luthier will undoubtedly be able to ascertain a great deal of the violin's history, but nevertheless, is it a risk to buy an unmarked instrument?

From Keith Loke
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 03:56 AM
Peter, I wouldn't do it, personally. As you mentioned, resale might be a little tacky with an unmarked violin. In fact, it almost certainly will. Besides, there are plenty of other options around if you've got US$21,000 or more to spend. Many of the top living/contemporary makers come to mind.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 04:42 AM
You'll have the same trouble they're having selling to you, probably more. If I was going to spend $21,000 on a violin, I'd sooooo jump on the famous living modern makers, probably American, since those are the ones I know.
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 05:20 AM
Of course I am considering modern makers as well. In fact, my Morassi that was stolen, was in fact a very good modern italian, so I am not adverse to a newer instrument. It's just that this violin is very beautiful... but unfortunately I have my reservations. If I ever wanted to trade up to a much more expensive violin, I wonder if I'd have trouble.

I am planning on keeping this violin for a very long time, but you never know when that special instrument will pop up, and you definately don't want 20k of dead capital sitting there without being able to unload it.

From Preston Hawes
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 08:59 AM
If you have any inside connections with a luthier of any repute, go to him or her with the violin and ask their opinion on it. If you do not know a luthier that well, go in with the violin and maybe ask them something non-commital like "if I were to purchase this violin and bring it to you, would you be confident enough in it's heritage to be able to certify a maker or school?" Something like that. Get a second opinion if you are really in love with the violin. Perhaps the sound is worth $21,000 to you.

But in the end, I agree with the others that if you have $21,000 US burning a hole in your pocket, I'm sure you'll find one just as nice but with some certification.

Preston

From Bob L.
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 10:02 AM
I once heard from an appraiser that many will look at the label last in indentifying an instrument. There's plenty of other features to look at - which pretty much encompasses all of the physical features of the violin. A trained eye will be able to identify (and value) an instrument without looking at the label.

Let's put this in reverse. Let's say that a violin has a Strad label in it. Does that make it a Strad? No. Likewise, a violin with no label doesn't make it a "nothing" violin.

However...you're playing with serious fire if you're gonna buy violin "cold" without no paper identification NOR label for 21k...

From Sarah Benedict
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 11:37 AM
Could you take the instrument to several different Luthiers and have them give an apprasial on the instrument to see if the numbers are consistant with each other and with the price tag?
From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 01:19 PM
For that kind of money, the violin would have to be handmade by a fairly well-known maker. A good luthier should be able to tell. One thing you can look at if there is no label is to see if it is signed somewhere on the inside using a dental mirror. In some ways, that is a better piece of information than a label. If it is not signed and there is no label, it might still be authentic, but you need someone reputable to tell you.
From Keith Loke
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 01:37 PM
"For that kind of money, the violin would have to be handmade by a fairly well-known maker."

Well, not necessarily. A former teacher of mine had an unlabelled 18th-century Czech violin which cost him around A$25,000. I don't think he ever had it certified as being made by anyone well-known or well-established. Admittedly, A$25,000 is a $1450 or so less than US$21,000 (1AUD = 0.775202USD), but it is in the ballpark nonetheless. The tone was pleasant but not, in my opinion, phenomenal. Beautiful varnish though - it had been involved in a narrow escape from a fire in its lifetime.

From Francis Browne
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 02:26 PM
The way I understand it, lack of a label is near irrelevant if it is an old instrument - in the 19th century, label collectors (!) stole a lot of the original labels of real authentic now-famous instruments, and put fake ones in their place...sometimes fakes of the wrong labels (!!) if I remember correctly from reading.

However, if they want 21k for it, they ought to be able to tell you a very good story about its history (who made it, or at least what country, what century, etc), and should be willing to put that instrument into a certificate of some sort. Luthiers do not use labels for authentication, except - maybe - to confirm the judgement they have already made. (Anybody more knowledgeable want to refine my point? Am I overstating? I am not an expert, but this is the sense I have got from several luthiers.) Good luthiers can often identify an instrument like we identify the face of a friend, as an instant recognition. (That said, I've taken an old factory instrument into three different people and gotten three different confident answers...all were similar time period, origin and value though, and it was not a handmade instrument.)

If all they have to say (that they are willing to put into writing) about the instrument is "this is a 21k instrument", by all means take your money elsewhere. And I second those who recomended going to modern luthier route...I did, for a lot less capital than that, and have been deliriously happy with my instrument for going on 4 years now. I believe for that price range you would be looking at near the top rank of modern luthiers. (The kind of guys who write articles in the Strad, win a lot of VSA awards, and have their instruments in the hands of soloists with major label record contracts.) I have never played one of this level of instruments, but by all accounts they are amazing.

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 07:25 PM
The dealer in question has quite a good reputation and no doubt has the confidence of their peers. On second thought, I find that I am almost insulting the intelligence of expert luthiers by implying that they even need a label at all to find the value of the instrument.

It would be nice to know who the maker is, but they do have a date and background information. I am sure that if I asked, they could give me a lot of info. It was just a prelimanary playing, and I narrowed it down to 6 violins, including a Joseph Hel, which might be a little more than I'm willing to spend, but we'll see.

From Preston Hawes
Posted on June 23, 2005 at 08:31 PM
I would assume that a dealer with an honest reputation wouldn't inflate the price of an instrument with no attribution to a maker in hopes of duping someone, so I would probably be pretty comfortable weighing my decision on that violin a bit more heavily on the sound. If you are willing to pay that amount for the sound of which the violin is capable, then do it. If investment is more of a concern at this point, then perhaps a violin with some outlined lineage might be better.

Good luck! Violin shopping is fun!

Preston

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 01:11 AM
If 21,000 is your limit I don't think that one should be thinking about sound investments. Im just looking for a good violin and this one is on my short list, and falls quite a bit under my limit. I'm not looking to beat the Dow, because at this price point you don't really get the great investments.
From Preston Hawes
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 07:27 AM
Of course $21,000 will get you a good investment! I'd be hard pressed to find a mutual fund that would get me the same interest that a good and desireable $21,000 violin would. If you buy smart, a $21,000 purchase can definately be a good investment. An investment doesn't have to be in the $100,000's or more just to get a good return.

Preston

From Josh Hunton
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 02:06 PM
You'll have to get a written appraisal of the instrument for insurance anyway, the luthier doing the appraisal will most likely look up the violin's history and you can use that information to help resell the violin. If I could afford to spend $21,000 on an Italian instrument, I would.
From Francis Browne
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 02:48 PM
While I wouldn't (necessarily) accuse a reputable dealer of artificially "inflating" prices, there is a certain very subjective and arbitrary component to instrument pricing.

Ultimately, though, I agree with Preston that I would really make the decision on the sound and playability, more than anything else. It comes down to whether you like the instrument's personality. (At least, that's how I did it and I've been happy.

Francis

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 06:32 PM
Preston I stongly doubt that the instrument will appreciate between 5%-8% a year. Regardless, you advice you give is sound and I definately am looking at it for its sound. A comparable italian instrument with more information is likely to go for much more. I tried a Poggi not long ago, and I prefer this violin a great deal more.


Granted in that same trial period I tried abotu 10 other total gems, but at $50,000 and up they aren't in the cards...

From Graham Clark
Posted on June 24, 2005 at 07:39 PM
Be glad there's no label: it would cost a lot more otherwise!

gc

From Michael Molnar
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 12:03 PM
Remember: When it comes time for you to sell it, there will be a cloud over the sale, namely that it has no label. Will YOU be able to recoup your money given this situation?
From Michael Avagliano
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 02:11 PM
As was noted earlier, lack of a label is not a problem if the instrument has been properly identified. Much more important than the label is an expert opinion on the instrument, either through appraisal or certificate.

That being said, there's an excellent article by Roger Hargrave in this month's _Strad_ that deals with how an instrument can be disputed, even one by a maker as famous and well-documented as del Gesu. In that case, both sides of the debate had excellent points that could stand up to scrutiny. Fortunately, in the end, dendrochronology was able to settle the question, but that isn't normally the case. It comes down in the end to trust. Do you trust the dealer who is representing the violin, and does he (or they) have a respectable standing in the community? The first part of the question deals with your own doubts, and the second with the doubts of others. If the answer to both questions is yes, then you should reasonably expect to be able to sell the violin at a later date.

From Scott 68
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 04:04 PM
If I had 21,000 Id buy a Curtin
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 05:21 PM
Actually I think Im just going to blow it all on hookers and booze.
From Preston Hawes
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 05:55 PM
You'd need another 5 grand at least.

Preston

*Later*

I was actually writing this in response to Scott 68 but it's even better now!

From Patty Rutins
Posted on June 27, 2005 at 06:22 PM
Pieter, an excellent investment to be certain! (the hookers and booze, I mean...)

Mr. Clark has it right, though, I'd expect. If the violin has the right sound, then with a label and/or certification it'd sell for a lot more. What is the price of violins of comparable quality that are labeled?

As someone above said, it really depends on whether you like the way the instrument plays. If you like it (and you're just gonna blow the $21k anyway! ;)) then don't let the lack of label deter you. Maybe try to bargain them down a little, using it as an excuse, though!

From Clyde Pearce
Posted on June 28, 2005 at 11:06 PM
Just FYI my violin has no label and I like it better than a dozen others I tried first, some in the price range you're talking about. I bought in based on it's sound and it has several physical features that make it credible as an instrument from the 1760's, as claimed by my luthier.
From Bill Platt
Posted on June 29, 2005 at 12:42 PM
I thought that labels are the least trusted authentications---they fall off, get stolen, fakes etc.......
From Wilhelm Klingenberg
Posted on June 29, 2005 at 03:02 PM
It's a no-win situation with violin labels: if they have one they don't count and if they don't then that puts even more of a question mark on it.
You need a designation of period and area of make of the instrument to determine its market value.

I would compare its sound to that of a top contemporary instrument at a similar price
and consider it if it sounds better.

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 29, 2005 at 04:17 PM
They have a Gadda that I kind of like, a bit more I think though. I'll keep you updated.
From Andrew Pickering
Posted on July 11, 2005 at 10:29 PM
If you buy a violin for $21,000 from a dealer wouldn't you have trouble getting your $21,000 back if you sell it in any case? In other words, you will never be able to sell privately or at auction at the same price you just paid for it.
From Dan Winter
Posted on July 11, 2005 at 11:23 PM
If it is worth the $21,000, I don't see why you would sell it later on! It sounds like a very special kind of instrument, and I think that if it's the one that you positivley think is for you, that you should go for it, reguardless of the label.

If you were to re-sell it, I'm sure someones else would have the same worries as you.

From Preston Hawes
Posted on July 12, 2005 at 02:01 AM
Andrew,

Fortunately, violins aren't like cars in the sense that once you drive them off the lot you lose = or < 10% of their value. If the violin is priced on a fair market value then he should have no trouble getting his money back and more for it.

Dan,

$21,000 really isn't much when looking for a professional grade instrument, especially one with antique value.

Preston

From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on July 13, 2005 at 04:12 AM
I'm thinking of the Mario Gadda at the same price...
From Oliver Bedford
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 12:31 PM
If they can't even say, with evidence, which Italian school this violin comes from (Milan, Turin, Naples, Cremona?), let alone who made it, I would be very very very careful before splashing out $21,000. You can purchase well attested violins by most good makers of the last 50 years (not Samuel Zig admittedly) for no more than, or less than, this sum.

Cheers
Oliver

From Rob Schnautz
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 01:36 PM
I wouldn't pay that much for anything except maybe something big like a car or house...I couldn't afford it!

Yay for cheap community colleges...

From David Burgess
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 01:55 PM
I see three possible scenarios:

(1) You buy the violin, take it to an expert, they are willing to ID and certify it as being something worth much more than you paid for it, and you stand to make a lot of money.

(2) You are able to get ID and certification for roughly what you paid for it, and you do OK.

(3) Nobody is willing to identify it, making it difficult to resell.

Scenario number one is unlikely, because the potential for profit would make it likely that this has already been tried. I doubt that the selling dealer would pass up such an opportunity.

From Robert Berentz
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 03:50 PM
What does the violin sound like?

Try at least 20 to 40 violins and then, if it is in the top 5% of all the $21,000 instruments you have tried, I would consider it.

Some people make a mistake by not looking at a big enough selection. They are like the kid that runs out and buys the first horse he sees and then discovers it has crooked legs. There is a learning process that occurs as one looks at more and more violins, horses, mates, whatever. You become an expert.

I have ridden a few crooked horses in my time and in the show ring they just fall apart. Same with the violin.

From Scott Cole
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 04:38 PM
A few years ago I bought an old violin from the widow of a Cleveland Orchestra member who had passed away recently. I was seduced. And everyone I took it to talked it up, including two of my own teachers and the preeminent shop in Cleveland. Bottom line:
I started to dislike it, and when I shopped it around no one would take it except one shop where it took 4 years to sell. I paid $18,000, and netted $8000.

Your situation seems a little more secure, but I'd say you should really love it.

From Andres Sender
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 07:03 PM
This all happened in 2005. Presumeably the story is over--I wonder how it ended? :-D
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on June 29, 2007 at 11:42 PM
This is how the story ended:

It was between this unnamed violin (which interestingly was owned for some time by a fellow student at McGill), and the Gadda violin. I bought the Gadda and am actually waiting for another violin so I can sell it.

So that's the story.

From Megan Chapelas
Posted on June 30, 2007 at 07:45 PM
Pieter, was that unnamed fiddle Gagliano school, or Neapolitan? I might have played on it for a few weeks after my violin got stolen - nice instrument. I actually considered trying to buy it, even though I was broke...
From Barbara S
Posted on July 1, 2007 at 05:01 AM
Hi Pieter,

Sounds like a wise choice.

I read the thread fast, but what did you or the luthier think that the other violin 'probably might have been'...?

Good luck with the new one anyway...

From Christopher Burndrett
Posted on July 2, 2007 at 10:24 PM
I wouldn't pay that much for an uncertified violin. I am currently having a Ceruti copy that is of unknown provenance shipped to me for trial. It is reportedly a magnificent sounding instrument (verified by two close colleagues) in excellent condition, possibly Czech from @ 1850-1860 and the price tag on it is well below $10k US.
From Scott Cole
Posted on July 3, 2007 at 01:47 AM
I've never played a Czech instrument that was worth a damn.
From Christopher Burndrett
Posted on July 3, 2007 at 03:33 PM
Maybe so, but that doesn't mean there are't any. I may not like it when I get it, but it's worth a try. The owner replaced a Scarampella with this violin and has played for 30 yrs since. Evidently, he preferred it to his Italian...
From Bruce Goldstein
Posted on July 4, 2007 at 04:43 PM
As a famous person once said, If you want to find out the value of something, put it on Ebay and see how much it sells for. Bottom line with violins is that the value is in the eye of the beholder.No private party will give you 21K for this violin and the dealer wont either because they need to make a profit .Buy it if you love to play, otherwise other instruments would be a better investment
From Sean Bishop
Posted on July 5, 2007 at 12:48 PM
Hi Pieter
$21 000 seems ok to me if the violin is Italian and of 'some' quality. I have quite a few unknown Italians in my shop ....the most expensive being $60-70 000US. Just because it does not have a name does not stop it being a quality instrument. If you can narrow it down to a certain date and area ...more the better.
good luck
cheers
Sean

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