Violins bought at auction - good and (preferably) bad experiences
I see online catalogues are now available for the October slew of stringed instrument sales in London (Bromptons, Ingles & Hayday, Tarisio). I'm already starting to salivate. This time last year I visited Bromptons for a "private viewing", expecting to be shunted off to a broom cupboard, and was instead ushered into the director's office with the director enthroned behind his desk. A slightly intimidating experience, but I was willing to be persuaded to audition several instruments that were well outside my budget.
A year on I feel older and wiser but pretty happy with my two purchases. Would others like to share their own experiences?
What 2 things did you end up buying? For things outside of violins seems like often there is winner's curse and buyers regret every time I "win."
Last Bromptons I did an after sale bid on a Priestley. It had quite the seam coming undone under the fingerboard so I didn't bid that much. The price they came back with was more than I'd pay for one in need of repair. I'm forever buying at Amati's though.
Looking at how prices have gone over the years I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that English violins are currently very undervalued. My favourite buy is a Charles Harris c.1830 which impressed me in Brompton's alongside a few others including a Banks. I was lucky it didn't have any concealed defects so a little restoration and setting up only added 10% to the hammer price of £2K.
Last year I was under the idea that violins with neck grafts would always be a good buy without thinking how cheap labour was in the 19th century. It was always much cheaper to 'modernize' an instrument than buy new. So a lot of not-so-good instruments survived. Still, real happy with ones I bought and I get to marvel at the luthier's art! Still, paying any more that a couple of hundred is definitely "no play, no bid" for me.
If you buy assuming someone else would do the same, then it really is just a gamble to take it home and see what can be done with it. If it’s not to your taste, then just try to get your money back at another auction and if you profit, great, if not, you learned something.
The great temptation, of course, is to think you may be the only person to spot a violin's investment potential, but that's undoubtedly an illusion since there are a lot of dealers out there who know more than you do. Except at the very low end of the market the auctioneer will produce an estimated range of prices and the seller set a reserve maybe around what a dealer might be expected to pay if they re interested. A player, however, can have a crucial informational advantage over most dealers - they can find out (roughly) what the thing sounds like!
Auctions are a great way to buy. You will pay aproximately half the retail price. Sometimes you can spot a sleeper. I bought a Vigneron Pere at a small auction near Bath. Paid almost nothing for the bow although the papers from France were pricey.
Ah, the one that got away! I spare it a thought.
Back in the early '50s my cello teacher would go up to London to one of the big auction houses (Phillips?) and select a couple of cellos for his pupils. He had the professional experience to know exactly what he was looking for and invariably returned with something good. He would set them up well when he returned to Bristol and then pass them on to his pupils for no more than what he paid at auction. The cello, mid-19th century French, he got for me cost £15 which was perhaps about twice the weekly wage of an office clerk in those days (my Dad was a clerk), and it has served me, and more recently my daughter, well ever since.
Carlo - You must mean Gardiner Houlgate. I bought a couple of violin hulks there a few months ago, mainly for the practice of setting them up. The tailpin block of one of them became detached inside so I also discovered how to take a violin apart and put it back together.
I bought a beautiful violin at the Tarisio auction once. It had everything going against it: unknown maker although 18th Tyrolean probably, composite most likely, and substantially altered: the top might have been a small viola once! But it sounds amazing, and looks great. It had some fierce bidding from people who loved the sound and went for double the estimate. But I couldn't love it more than I do... it is absolutely perfect for me. Only caveat: Dealers call it a "player's violin" meaning it has little commercial value. They prize authenticity, condition, and name above tone... so if I ever sell it, it will only be to another player.
"player's violin" - as if there's any other! Sheesh, if that doesn't put the world's problems in a nutshell.
@Steve. Yes it was. There is not much expertise there so sleepers can occur.
Hopefully without starting another 'double-blind experiment' length thread, I contend sound, and to some extent handling, is all.
Now that more players are starting to take risks with auction violins we just might find prices becoming more closely related to the important thing which of course is the sound. Until that time arrives there are surely bargains to be had (to our way of thinking), although if we want to get our money back with interest we may have a long wait