Buying a violin, for any purpose, is not an easy task. Unlike buying groceries or a TV set, it is not easy at all to determine the value of a violin, and the market provides a huge amount of choices and a scarce amount of information. Moreover, there are enough shady practices and bad buy stories to scare off a potential violin buyer, or make a violin owner uneasy about what he paid. How can you know that you're not paying too much?
This is always a hard question, specially since violins are different things to different people. Given that, I think any violin buyer in the market for a violin, when looking at a particular violin, should first try to to answer the following questions:
1) Are you looking for an utilitarian purchase, meaning that you are mainly concerned in how the violin sounds and how it plays? If you are, then the way to determine the violin's value is solely based on trying it out. Does the violin sound better and play better than all the other violins you got a chance to try out that cost less than or the same as this violin? If yes, then it is definitely worth his price (unless all the violins you tried where all from the same seller, then prices might or might not correspond to the general market).
Another important point for an utilitarian purchase is condition, since you also want the violin to be usable for as long as possible. If the violin is new or has recently been set up for a luthier, it probably is in good condition and you can use its asking price for comparison. If not, then you have to take into account the price of the repairs you would have to pay for in order to bring it up to good condition (even if you don't plan on having it repaired). Only after that can you make a fair comparison.
2) Are you looking for a collector's purchase? If you are, then there are several important points. Who is the maker? When and where was the violin made? Has it been played by any important musician? Are there any special circumstances that contribute to the violin's value? Is there any person or documentation that can vouch for the autencity of the violin and its history?
Condition is also very important for the simple reason that given an accepted value for the collector's value, the actual value tipically scales predictably with the condition (being that only a perfect condition one will have 100% value).
3) Are you looking for a seller's purchase? If you are, then there is one single important point which is: does the violin have the potential to sell for a value which gives you enough profit in the market and time where you plan to sell it? For this to happen, you need to be able to assess the current market value of the violin, predict how it will change until you sell it, and quantify the amount of risk you are assuming.
Because people are idealistic, they often want their purchase to be all of these in one. Unfortunately, they are contradictory and the market for each of them is distinct. Each type of purchase also requires a different set of skills.
Generally speaking, people looking for utilitarian value will obtain the best value with violin dealers and makers that allow one to try out several violins, and where the violins are guaranteed to be professionally set up and repaired (if applicable). Return, trade, buyback and repair guarantees are also of most value for utilitarian shoppers. To be a successful utilitarian shopper, one needs to be able to play the violin and evaluate how it responds to the required technical demands.
People looking for collector's value will obtain the best value by buying from violin and antiquity dealers who can vouch for the instrument's authenticity and value, and are also able to provide an accurate condition report. Appraisals and condition certificates are of most value for these shoppers. To be a successful collector shopper, one needs to be knowledgeable about violin and violin making history.
Finally, people looking for seller's value will obtain the best value by buying from auctions and private sellers, where violins are sold below market value for various reasons. To be successful here, one needs to target a specific market and know it very well, so that one can gauge the potential sales value of a violin accurately (curiously, these are the kinds of shoppers that generally require the least amount of knowledge about the violin itself).
To summarize, in order to know if you're getting full value, you first need to define what kind of value you were looking for. Only then will you be able to assess if the violin is worth what you're paying.
(This blog entry is an adaptation of one of my posts on the suggestion of Elise Stanley. I hope you find it helpful!)
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