September 2010

An Auction Adventure

September 14, 2010 20:14

On April 28, 2010 I attended Tarisio’s instrument auction showing in New York. I brought along a friend and fellow fiddler, Ted Malevris, who had never experienced an auction. It was far from my first rodeo. Both at Tarisio and at Christies I’d successfully bid on a few violins and some reference books in the past.

I also brought along one of my better violins – a Vittorio Villa, made to order for me in September, 2009, as well as one of my favorite bows, also as it happens, made to order for me – but from one of China’s best bow makers, Hong Wang. It’s very helpful to have a familiar basis of comparison. I especially brought my Villa, because I was aware that there was another Vittorio Villa made back in 2002 offered at this auction, and thought that it would be fun to directly compare them.

There were hundreds of items at the auction. Each item is identified by a lot number along with a description of the item in Tarisio’s website. I whittled down this number in advance as I looked through the online list. I usually focus on contemporary violins and bows, both for reasons of financial limitation, and because I’m a strong believer in and patron of first class contemporary work.

The night before the auction showing I had a phone conference with a former teacher of mine that I’ve kept in close touch with over the years. He’s highly knowledgeable about violins, bows, dealers – and auctions. With his help, I whittled down the list a bit further. He knows that I’m not a newcomer to auctions, but his experience is much more extensive. His last words of advice to me were “remember - many of the items thrown into an auction are there for a reason.” In other words, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Well did I know this. In fact, a friend threw a violin of hers into the auction. Though made by a well-regarded modern maker, this one was a lemon, and had resisted all efforts at successful adjustment. (It ended up doing well!) A reliable auction house like Tarisio or Christies will give you a condition report upon request, indicating such aspects as cracks. But many instruments at an auction are in a poor state of adjustment, or are even put in without strings or bridge. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Another thing to be aware of is the auction house’s language in describing an instrument. There are several levels of auction house endorsement of an instrument, and they usually explain that in their catalog. For example, if they say "lot #17 - violin by so and so" - that means that they believe that "so and so" made it, and should stand behind it. Or they may say "ascribed to" - meaning that someone else had issued a certificate, but they're not standing behind it. Still weaker is "school of". "Labeled" means almost nothing. And if they say "interesting violin" they haven't the foggiest idea!

A long subway ride brought me and Ted from my home in Brooklyn’s Coney Island to the Carnegie Hall area in Manhattan. Nearby is what is sometimes called the “violin building”, as a number of dealers have had studios there. The large suite that once held the Jacques Francais shop is now home to the Tarisio auction house. We entered the large room where most of the violins were. I brought with me my list of items I wanted to see, along with my Villa violin and Hong bow – both duly stickered, so they wouldn’t be mixed up with any items on auction. I quickly got down to work, pulling out violins from marked cubbies (e.g. lot 267), putting them on the table and starting to play on them. Occasionally a violin wouldn’t make it to the table. Years of experience in trying innumerable violins have sometimes led me to very quick decisions. Sometimes just plucking the open strings, I can quickly discern a violin with a very poor quality of tone, or one where the sound is just staying inside the instrument. Several did make my first cut. The instruments I did play on included that earlier violin by Vittorio Villa. Made in 2002, it was quite decent, but not as good as my own Vittorio Villa, custom made for me in 9/09. But two other contemporary violins impressed me. There was a pair by Laura Vigato that caught my eye. One didn’t speak to me – or sing for me. The other did. It was bright, brilliant and penetrating – but with substance and good quality along with its sheen. I felt that my Villa was sweeter and richer, while the Vigato was more brilliant and soprano-like. At the same time, the last couple of weeks, I had come to feel that my Villa, which had developed more richness and quality, didn’t seem to have as much direct bow contact lately that I like. A few days later, in fact, I brought my Villa to Edward Maday to check it out. Ed has made two of my other wonderful fiddles. (Flying to Vittorio in Cremona for an adjustment would have been a little impractical!) Ed adjusted the soundpost, and the Villa really took off! It now has the old bite and gustiness - and more, together with the recently developed increased quality. One thing bothered me about the construction of the Vigato that I’d otherwise liked: very elongated corners, to the extent that it seemed to me that it might not fit in all standard cases. There was another contemporary violin that really impressed me – a David Caron. It was very powerful in a more chesty sort of way, with a darker quality and a lot of core.

Who goes to instrument auctions? It could be anyone, but most typically you will find dealers carefully inspecting, and professional players furiously playing on instruments at auction showings. Dealers are usually more willing to take a chance on an instrument in currently unplayable condition. They rely to a certain extent on their own expertise and have faith in their ability to successfully restore a “fixer-upper”. All things being equal, such instruments will go for less, and allow a dealer a decent profit margin. I saw one inspecting a violin that was in two pieces and quipped to him “you broke it, you bought it”! Everyone acts a bit differently at these events. Some are rather uptight, and don’t want to talk to anybody. Others are more garrulous. I’m usually more in the latter category, and am always open to networking possibilities. Once at a previous auction showing, a husband and wife dealer team, noticing me try out instruments for myself, asked me if I would mind playing on a few violins they were considering. I obliged. We exchanged contact information. Some time later they got in touch with me, saying that they had been impressed with my professional skills, and hired me a few times to do some consulting work for them.

Different players have differing approaches to testing out an instrument. Some are relatively circumspect; others go for broke. I tend to fall into the latter category. The quality of an instrument – or lack thereof - tends to speak to me pretty quickly. I then need to make sure about quantity. In hopes of finding a bargain, a player goes to an auction. But then, he does not usually have the luxury, as he would at a dealer, of taking an instrument out for an extended trial. When I test out a concerto passage, I play it the way I would if I were actually performing it, trying to soar above the orchestra, and trying to reach the back of the hall. Such playing may not produce the sweetest sounds to ears standing a few feet away, but it tells me a lot about what a fiddle is made of. It helps to feel confident in such situations. I usually play characteristic repertoire passages that go across the strings, followed by passages up each string. I’ll also test for chords and other things. If I’m seriously considering a particular instrument, I’ll also play a two-octave chromatic scale up each string. Such a seemingly simple procedure can point out unevenness, weaknesses, and outright wolf-tones that my selected repertoire passages might have missed. A while back at another auction showing, I was so impressed by the quality of a Hieronymous Amati, that I was actually considering begging and borrowing to enable its possible acquisition. Then my simple chromatic test revealed three wolfs in a row on the G string! Adjustment may possibly have ameliorated this – but with such high stakes, I wasn’t going to take the risk. As it turned out, nobody bid on that one.

Another problem of testing out instruments at an auction showing is that most of the testing must take place in one large room where typically, anywhere from a couple to half a dozen people are fiddling away at the same time. Depending on the acoustics of the room, I’m usually pretty good at tuning out other people. Ted, being new to this, was having more trouble with this aspect. Auction houses usually have a couple of small rooms that you can reserve for a while when you’ve narrowed your choices so that you can play in greater privacy, far from the maddening crowd. Also, in whatever room you’re in, common courtesy dictates that you not hog any one instrument for half an hour. Others may want to try it too. At Tarisio, you can usually make an appointment for a more private follow-up inspection of a few items. Unfortunately, Ted and I arrived on the last day of the auction showing, so this was a moot point. Perhaps for the same reason, no small rooms were available during the time we were there.

Ted and I decided to check out some of the higher-end instruments, just for fun. We were not very impressed with a Storioni. And a 7/8 size Ruggieri had a 7/8 size tone – if that. A Maggini had a fine, deep dark tone. It would be really good for certain Bach movements. But I couldn’t imagine myself playing concertos or show pieces on it. Interestingly, my own 19th century French violin by Désiré, modeled on a Maggini, really captures a lot of that quality and sonority. Then I looked for the Vuilliaume. It turned out to be one of several that they kept separate in their vault. I’d tried a few Vuilliaumes in the past. They were never less than good. Generally, the ones I’d tried had a somewhat dark tone, with a certain roundness and good quality – but nothing to write home about. But this one was really excellent! It had lovely quality, ample quantity, clarity, openness, depth and complexity – a real concert instrument. Playing on this violin, I could understand why Hilary Hahn – a distinguished Vuilliaume owner – has so far felt no compelling need to acquire a del Gesu or a Strad. I returned this violin to the lady on the Tarisio staff who had fetched it for me from the vault. As she prepared to return it I asked “do you guys still not accept Monopoly money?” She chuckled and said “I’m afraid not.”

My second vault request was for the Nicolo Amati. I’ve tried a few Nicolo Amatis in the past. I’ve also tried some Strads, a few Guadagninis, and a couple of del Gesus. I’m not bowled over by big names. At a Christies auction showing a few years back, I was far less impressed by a Strad they had at the time than I was by a Carlo Biziach. But this Amati blew me away. As soon as I started to tune it, I was entranced by just the open strings. As I began to play, I was enveloped by molten gold – particularly on the lower strings. I went through much more than my usual testing routine. This violin had a beauty and complexity, a depth, clarity and warmth that for my taste made it one of the finest violins I’ve ever tried. My friend, Ted later told me that I looked like I was making love to the violin. I lost consciousness of my surroundings as I found myself launching into the Bach Chaconne. It was only after a few minutes that I began to realize that something unusual was happening in that erstwhile cattle-call room: apart from my own playing, there was dead silence. Everyone had stopped to listen – something I don’t remember witnessing before in such circumstances. I became a bit self-conscious. I hadn’t seriously practiced the Chaconne in about a year and a half, since recording it for my second CD. But I couldn’t stop playing for a while longer, and the silent attention of all in the room continued. Was it me? The Bach? The Amati? All three? Most probably, it was more the latter two. After a while, I left off the Chaconne, and played some of the Allemande from the same D minor Partita. I then stopped, with some reluctance.  I conjured up a scene in my imagination in which the “violin police” were called to pry it from my hands. Before I heard “Sir, step away from the Amati” I thought it a good idea to voluntarily return it!

It was time to check out some bows. As with the violins, I had a predetermined list of bows that I wanted to look at and maybe try. Maybe. Again as with the violins, most of the bows did not make it to my violin. Years of handling bows have given me, I believe, a good sense of a bow’s basic feel and balance. Just picking up a bow in my hand often tells me a lot about these basics. This deceptively simple test will surely not tell me everything. But if the basic balance and feel of a bow aren’t right as I pick it up, it will never be right for me. All but one of the bows on my list failed my preliminary test. But that one bow that did pass, passed with flying colors! It was the gold and tortoise mounted Lamy. Again, I’m not awed by big names. I’ve tried a Tourte and a Peccatte in the past that did not impress me. But for my taste and playing style, this bow had everything. I put it through some paces on my Villa violin, while comparing it to my Hong Wang bow. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Lamy killed my bow. But everything my bow did in terms of sound, balance, various technical bowings, etc. the Lamy did better. And it did so with strength, elegance, focus, and sophistication. With my financial resources, I couldn’t begin to bid on a bow like that. But it was a great pleasure to try it. It was now time to go home and consider my next move.

The Tarisio auction bidding is carried out strictly online. Christies still uses the classic live process that many people have seen in movies. There’s nothing like the drama of a live auction. But an online auction can generate its own kind of excitement. To bid, you must register, which I did. You select a pen name, and at any time within the bidding days set by Tarisio you may place a bid on as many items as you like. All items on auction are clearly delineated on the Tarisio website, including photos, certificates if any, instrument measurements, bow weights, etc. There is also the auction house estimate – the range they think a particular item or “lot” may reasonably go for. (A lot may sometimes include a number of items, such as a collection of books, or violin fittings, etc.) So lot number so-and-so might have an estimate of $6,000-$8,000 or $250,000-$400,000. Some lots in the past have (in)famously gone for wildly higher sums than the estimate. Others have gone begging, with no bids – or with bids that failed to make the “reserve”. The “reserve” is the lowest amount that the owner of a particular lot, in consultation with the auction house, has agreed to accept. The reserve usually closely tallies with the low end of the estimate. The opening bid that the auction house asks for is less than the low estimate in order to encourage people to start bidding. Very soon it is indicated whether or not the bidding so far has met the reserve.

It was now time to consider what lot(s) I would bid on, and what my bidding strategy would be. I decided to bid only on the David Caron violin. Some people like to stake their claim on a lot days or even weeks in advance. I never saw the point in that. I feel that you’re only tipping your hand to your competition about your interest, and calling attention to a lot that just might otherwise be coming in under many people’s radar. In fact, a few years ago, I had missed a brilliant-sounding and beautifully made contemporary Italian violin by Alessandro Scandroglio the first time I attended the Tarisio showing at the time. But thanks to another bidder, I saw it when I next went to Tarisio’s site. To make a long story short, I am the present owner of that violin! As it was at this time, I didn’t have much room to maneuver time-wise, as the bidding was to begin the next day. Still, I’d decided not to bid until there was only an hour left to the bidding. It looked rather promising. The Caron violin had only received one or two bids a while back. The price was still low, but it had made the reserve. I began to hope for what every bidder hopes for in such a circumstance – that I had found a “sleeper”. A “sleeper” is an item of good value that somehow escapes the attention or interest of most people – or ideally, of anybody. I quickly found out that this was not the case. As soon as I entered my bid, my “sleeper” woke up in a hurry.  Live and, as I recall, proxy bids quickly came to the fore. (A proxy bid is a maximum amount that a bidder decides on in advance, and registers this in the system if he prefers. Thereafter, the system will automatically register the ante upping, until a proxy bid has reached its maximum. A lot window can resemble a pin-ball machine game, as automatic bids quickly bounce in.) However – and this is so important – I kept my cool. Without using the proxy process myself, I’d decided what my maximum bid would be. I remember thinking in those last tense moments that more than I want to own that violin, I just can’t wait for the bidding to end, so I can go on with my life. My wish was granted soon enough. I was outbid, and I wished the successful bidder well – whoever that might have been. I also hoped that this person knew that between taxes and the auction house fees, the final price would be about 20% higher than the final bidding amount.

So this particular auction adventure had come to an end. I felt oddly non-attached to the Caron violin. At the same time I was pleased that a contemporary violin and bow of my own that I’d brought to the showing had been so competitive. And I’m still basking in the glow of those particularly fine specimens of Amati, Vuilliaume, and Lamy. Oh well, maybe another time. Hmmm…I wonder what the lottery jackpot is up to this week…

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