Appraising Your Violin, with Luthier Jean-Jacques Rampal

January 21, 2019, 12:34 AM · If you wish to sell a fine violin, viola, cello or bass for the high price you bought it for -- or for more, then you'd better make sure that fiddle has its papers. In other words: an appraisal.

But what is an appraisal, and when do you really need one?

Certainly there is a difference between the value of an instrument made by the great Italian maker Stradivari some 300 years ago and the old "Stradivarius"-labeled fiddle found in Grandma's attic -- unless Grandma was a world-famous violinist with an extraordinary instrument! The real Stradivari would be worth millions of dollars; the other is likely an old factory violin that maybe could fetch $500.

How does one know the difference, and at what point does one seek out a formal certificate of authenticity, signed by a qualified luthier, which verifies the instrument's origin, maker and year of creation?

I decided to pose this question and a few more to Jean-Jacques Rampal, a luthier who specializes in these kinds of certificates and who is one of five French luthiers who will be offering appraisals next week (Jan. 24-27) at a special event at the LA Violin Shop. The other luthiers coming from France to Los Angeles for that event include Jean-Francois Raffin, Sylvan Bigot, Yannick Le Canu (for French bows) and Jonathan Marolle. For those who wish to find out the value of their violin, viola or cello, in this case it costs $60 for a verbal appraisal, and more to have a certificate of authenticity made.

Rampal spoke to me about appraisals, why they are important, and what can make an instrument have more or less value. First, does every violin need an appraisal?

Jean-Jacques Rampal
French luthier and violin expert Jean-Jacques Rampal.

"It is tempting to say that each violin deserves a proper appraisal, but it is up to the musician to decide," Rampal said. "If a musician deeply loves the instrument he plays, whatever the instrument, he should get a valuation of it in order to insure it. Much safer! I see so many musicians with beautiful instruments with no appraisals. They don't even think about it until a problem arises; for example, the instrument is stolen or destroyed in an accident. By then, it is already too late. And don't count on insurance companies to show compassion."

For his part, Rampal specializes in the appraisal of high end instruments. Rampal learned to make violins, violas and cellos as an apprentice with Jean-Jacques Pagès, a violin maker in Mirecourt, France. Rampal then went to Charles Beare’s workshop in London to study high level restoration and expertise of antique instruments. In 1983, he returned to Paris and worked for 15 years under the guidance of Etienne Vatelot, restoring and setting up instruments played by international soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Slava Rostropovitch, Boris Belkin, Salvatore Accardo, Isaac Stern, Maxim Vengerov, Patrice Fontanarosa, Olivier Charlier and more. In 1998 he succeeded Vatelot as head of the workshop and is now considered an international expert. He has been doing appraisals for 20 years.

Not every luthier is an expert appraiser; appraising is its own art that requires a particular kind of training and experience, he said.

"Being a violin expert is a real job -- not a hobby," Rampal said. "My associate and I spend our days looking at violins: we see hundreds, thousands a year, taking notes, taking pictures, making comparisons, writing articles, and giving lectures. Over the years, a violin expert is more experienced and has a deeper knowledge of the different schools. It takes time, and you have to see tons of violins, non-stop, good and bad instruments."

"Our shop (Vatelot-Rampal in Paris) has been doing this since 1909. Over a century, we have collected a massive archive which helps us to do our job as experts," Rampal said. "Many luthiers believe they can do appraisals because they think they have the knowledge and moreover, what is an appraisal for them? A sheet of paper! But it is much more than a simple piece of paper. Giving an opinion on an instrument is a big responsibility. Musicians should be aware that only few workshops around the world have the real knowledge and experience to deliver solid opinion on instruments."

What does an appraiser seek to discover about a violin or other stringed instrument?

"First, we have to be sure of the origin of the instrument: the period of time it was made, country, city. Of course, ultimately we want to determine the maker, which is something we cannot determine all of the time," Rampal said. "Once we know the origin of the violin, its condition will also be an important factor for the appraisal. For instance: take a nice violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, all original, good condition. Its value should be around US $250,000. Take the same instrument, with a soundpost crack in the back, and the valuation should be reduced by 40 to 50 percent because of that. So you see the importance of the condition, for appraisals."

Does an instrument's value increase, when it has been restored? Usually not, he said, but on rare occasions, yes. "But we're talking here about massive restorations that take months and sometimes even years," Rampal said. "And of course, the instrument has to be worth doing that."

More often, past restorations can be problematic for the value of the instrument.

"Restoration is a complicated work. The motto should be to do what is necessary, but as much as possible, you must also preserve the original wood and original varnish, and you must preserve the 'integrity' of the instrument," Rampal said. "Throughout the long history of string-instrument restoration, there were different schools of thought on this. Not so long ago, it was normal to rework thicknesses, polish the varnish of an instrument to make it look shiny, or simply to double the edges, even though it was not necessary. Terrible harm was done to great instruments because of accumulations of unnecessary restorations. I think that the best way to preserve an instrument is to do only what needs to be done in order to bring it back to life and make it playable and comfortable for the musician. Simplicity! Don't do million things because you think it will turn an average violin into a Strad! We see that quite often, unfortunately. So yes, restorations can sometimes damage instruments."

As we know, rare Italian fine instruments are now worth astronomical sums. What is the highest value that Rampal has set on an instrument?

"I won't mention the exact price here but, we recently appraised a wonderful cello made by Strad," he said. "We're talking here of several dozens of millions."

For more information about the appraisal event at the LA Violin Shop, please click here.

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January 21, 2019 at 01:52 PM · A fascinating subject, and no doubt interesting work for those genuinely expert in it. It seems that "appraisal" constitutes 2 different aspects, 1) the technical identification of the origins (and ideally the maker) and condition and history (repairs, etc) of the instrument, and 2) estimating a market price based on knowledge of recent comparable transactions.

The technical aspect is to me truly interesting, but the market aspect quickly leaves me behind as entering a world of money unreal to those of us amateur players who work for a modest hourly wage. Luckily I think there are still many affordable violins good enough --meaning potentially sounding quite more gorgeous than I can get them to sound myself.

January 21, 2019 at 03:17 PM · I had my violin appraised from the maker. It’s not old, just 3 years now and it’s not “high end”, it cost 3500.00 (high end for me though ??). The reason being that it has a beautiful , rich, warm tone and likely I’ll keep it the rest of my life and it will be given to one of the grandkids.

January 21, 2019 at 03:30 PM · @Will, don't be put off by derisive language such as "old factory violin that maybe could fetch $500." Of course many such violins are rubbish, but we also understand that some reasonable fraction might be quite nice-sounding violins that we, as amateurs, would enjoy playing for practice, ensemble playing, and solo performances. We are fortunate that there are still luthiers that will give such a violin the time of day, sometimes they are the younger ones eager to test and improve their own skill, and we are giving them that opportunity, and sometimes they are experienced luthiers who still enjoy that challenge of restoring a humble fiddle. And who knows? Maybe with some care and feeding such a violin will gain a little in value. At the same time it's important that we have experts who can evaluate the rarest and most valuable instruments, which often are not even owned by the performer.

January 21, 2019 at 07:06 PM · A lot of the old violins really are rubbish, though, and you have to be prepared for the fact that, not only is it not going to be worth a lot of money, but it might cost more than it is worth to make it playable, and then even after all the work and expense, it may not have a very good sound! There are so many really nice student instruments available these days; it might be better to spend time and energy getting to know those kinds of options.

I'll say, though, it was the "Strad" from my grandmother's attic that got me going on the violin! :) But I should have switched to a better instrument way, way sooner than I did!

January 21, 2019 at 08:30 PM · Laurie, It sounds like a wonderful version of Antiques Roadshow, but just for violins! Wish I could be there.

January 22, 2019 at 06:46 AM · The appraisal business can work in mysterious ways as well.

A luthier friend of mine had a violin with a certificate by a B-list appraiser, who certified it was an Amati. Wanting to sell the instrument, he took it to get certified by an A-list appraiser before putting it on the market.

This gentleman (not Mr. Rampal) said it was a fine instrument, but unfortunately not an Amati, so no certificate. My friend returned home dejected. About a week later, out of the blue, someone who he didn't know called him asking if he would sell his "interesting violin" for a relatively small sum. He caved in and did.

According to my friend, that instrument is *now* certified as an Amati, and its worth quintupled. Interesting.

January 22, 2019 at 03:41 PM · Diana mentioned Antiques Roadshow. I've watched that several times, and I notice that the expert appraisers take the owner through as much of the detail about the piece and they think the owner can stand before doing the (dramatic) price-reveal. It really is a fun show.

I recently had my daughter's violin appraised by Dalton Potter, who I admire and respect. He said the label inside the violin was not correct, but the violin was made by Eduard Reichert ca. 1890. I'm fine with that because I had a feeling it was "just" a German workshop violin. The appraisal value was $3500, which is what I paid (at Jan Hampton Violins in Richmond). From his expression and body language I sensed that he was being generous with the appraisal, which does not surprise me -- I'm sure I overpaid, but it's a really nice-sounding and very responsive violin, it's been great for my daughter. But when I asked Mr. Potter how he knows who made the violin, his answer was, "I just know." I assumed that this reply meant, "I don't have time to explain that," so I let it go. But it's not really a satisfactory answer, even though my gut tells me it's the one most commonly given. "Pros know" might be fine for a $3500 violin, but it's not fine for a $3,500,000 violin. I think if I were an insurance agent facing a multi-million-dollar claim, I'd be calling whoever did the appraisal and asking (and paying) for a detailed report on how the appraisal was made, and I'd be sending that to other appraisers (double-blind) for their opinion of the appraiser's methods and an estimate of how certain they would be of the certification based on that report.

Sometime I think it would be very interesting for an "A-list" luthier to do a YouTube where they go through the fine details of how they would decide whether, for example, Dimitri's friend's instrument is (or is not) an Amati. There are a few YouTube videos of this type -- done by Antiques Roadshow (which does often link to additional details that the appraiser used, see second link below). Some of the stuff they said floored me, like "The purfling is inlaid" (OMG!) and "there's no trace of sandpaper like there would be on a later instrument." I infer that the only "smoking gun" connecting this violin to the Cuypers School is the evidence for caseinate backing under the varnish.

January 23, 2019 at 06:16 PM · Once I took a pass on the violin deal of a lifetime because I thought a crack repair hadn't been properly disguised. Wrong!

January 23, 2019 at 07:03 PM · Any item, whether it be a house, car, violin is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. A certificate of worth, from anyone will not matter if the buyer is not convinced.

January 24, 2019 at 05:40 AM · If you have a truly high-value instrument, appraisals (even insurance appraisals) should preferably come from an expert who can make an accurate attribution. To sell, it will probably need a certificate (which usually requires a percentage of the instrument's value).

January 24, 2019 at 12:42 PM · "Appraisals (even insurance appraisals) should preferably come from an expert who can make an accurate attribution."

How does anyone know who that is?

January 25, 2019 at 02:32 AM · I would like to get mine appraised but not sure if it is even worth it.there is some history that needs looked at and when it is. It brings up dome questions that I don't have.I am suppose to have a violin that my great grandfather bought in 1855 my grandparents took it to someone who restores and makes instruments.when they got it back it had been changed from red to natural. They swore it had been switched.looking at it the other day I noticed that it is made in Czechoslovakia which means it can not be the one bought in 1855.why did no one catch this before I wonder if it was even red before.who ever did the switch had the replacement altered to match the family grandfaurher made a repair in one of the openings when a piece came can see the piece in the picture and on violin.the family talks about him playing in okalahma when someone ran into the bar yelling Jessy James just robbed the Glendale train.this was in the late 1800 but Czechoslovakia didn't exist until the 1900's so at some point the violin was switched but do not know when or why.knowing that it is a 1900's violin makes me even wonder if it is worth being apraised

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