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Michael Avagliano

January 10, 2005 at 6:41 AM

Sometimes the instrument business can be so frustrating...

A client called and passed on a cello that I had been showing. After a month of taking the cello on approval, talking about condition, price, the services we offer, and everything else. I know that it's just one client and just one cello, and I also know that the sale isn't lost -- this cello is probably the best-sounding instrument we have that's under $150,000; it'll sell and sell quickly.

But the cello was a great fit for the player -- her teacher, her friends and others agree on that. Money is not the issue; we had worked out the rough details of payment and it didn't seem to be a problem. No, the only reason I can see is that the cello was killed by another luthier/dealer. And this is the part that gets to me.

Of course there is competition between shops, and everyone likes to think that "we're the ones who have the best". I tell people that all the time, and I tell them because I believe it. But of course, it can't be true all the time. Once in a while, a client will find the instrument that's best for them at a competing shop. And this is the point where some clever (and, I would say, misleading) dealers will perform a ritual known as the "kill". My personal favorite is the one that was used on this cello. Another dealer that my client showed the cello to told her that the top was not original, and therefore the cello's price was way too high because it was a composite. Quite simply, it's not true. But the kill works the way dirty politicians do -- once the seed of fear and doubt is planted in the client's mind, it becomes impossible for them to get rid of it.

What gets to me is that it's patently false, and anyone who knew anything about instruments would recognize that immediately. In this case, the dealer told her that it was not original because the varnish was duller on the back than on the top. Putting aside retouching and other repair issues, this cello has a slab-cut back. This means that the varnish refracts light differently on the slab-cut maple of the back than the quarter-cut spruce of the top, and of course it's going to be a little duller. But the outline, the arching, the purfling material, the edgework -- it's all the same.

It's not as if this cello doesn't have one or two legitimate issues. The ribs have a decent amount of repair to them, and we're not quite sure who made it, other than to say that it's definitely early 19th-century Neapolitan, and a Gagliano school or possibly workshop instrument. If the dealer had used that as basis for his kill, I could have understood. It's a valid point. But to say something that's so obviously not true maddens me.

I just had to vent my frustration about this. I look forward to a day when the industry is not this fractured and cutthroat. Honest competition and a healthy rivalry between shops is one thing; lying about an instrument to people who are not trained enough to recognize them as such is another. And shops wonder why musicians are not as trusting of them as they used to be.

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