Hypocrisy in the violin trade

July 1, 2010 at 03:17 AM ·

The Vieuxtemps thread has apparently breathed its last, but it generated so much interest that it seems a shame not to resurrect some of the questions it raised.  I'm just an observer of the market--I'm not wealthy enough to own an old Italian violin and I don't play well enough to deserve one--but here are my thoughts:

Two or three dealers enjoy a shared world-wide monopoly for instruments in the highest price range--where else would you go to unload your 1739 del Gesu or your "golden period" Strad?  To maximize their profits, they've deliberately pushed the finest instruments out of the reach of even the most successful musicians by aggressively marketing them to very high net worth individuals as investments.  But the dealers still need to maintain a favorable reputation in the community of musicians because they want to be able to sell instruments in other price categories too, and musicians are their market for instruments in the intermediate price ranges.  So they pose as generous and altruistic patrons of art by setting up arrangements where the wealthy owners of the top-level instruments flatter their vanity by loaning them out to deserving musicians.  

Maybe that model is the only way the market would allow access to the instruments by musicians--maybe market forces would have rocketed the prices of the instruments up to stratospheric levels even without the dealers' efforts to market them as investments.  (But a market for the instruments as investments wouldn't be possible--investors wouldn't be able to buy them with confidence--without the expertise that the dealers bring to bear.)  And you can't blame the dealers for ruthlessly seeking to maximize their profits by any means--that's just capitalism.  And you can say that the dealers are only acting in the best interests of their clients, the sellers of the instruments, many of whom are undoubtedly musicians reaching the end of their careers.

But it strikes me that there's a certain amount of calculated hypocrisy on the part of the dealers in question in  the "owner-horse-jockey" model.  The dealers in question are themselves responsible for the situation that makes it necessary for top-flight musicians to place themselves at the pleasure of wealthy patrons--they've brought this situation about to maximize their profits--and the dealers' unctuous efforts to present themselves as benefactors of the musical community strike me as more than slightly disingenuous.

And there's at least one flaw in the "owner-horse-jockey" analogy:  you can't put the Vieuxtemps out to stud.

Replies (60)

July 2, 2010 at 05:17 AM ·

No, it's no use trying to put that $18,000,000 warhorse out to stud. You cannot even extract DNA and do ghoulish things in labs. That's why there's such a market in "body doubles" such as exists also in the fiim industry, for example - or in North Korean politics. Assassinate a President, long live our same beloved President.

The big question is who, exactly, do the body-doubles fool ?

July 2, 2010 at 07:25 PM ·

I keep thinking that the model allows wealthy people (who can be capricious and demanding simply because that's expected and permitted at that level) to kneecap their musicians.  It also puts the musicians at some risk for other less malicious reasons.  There've been stories of wealthy arts patrons who got sick, died, or were in accidents where their lawyers had to call in the various instruments they had out on loans, leaving the musicians in the lurch as well.

That's to me a huge problem with this model -- the musicians are in the power of another person and can get the rug yanked out from them too easily when they can't afford their own instruments.  What I'd like to see are some of the top-flight musicians making a point of performing on modern instruments.  Maybe not for the whole concert -- people like to imagine Sarah Chang playing on a centuries-old Italian fiddle -- but for a few pieces during a concert, to whip out a Zyg or a Hutchins something and play on that.  Just as a means of opening things up.

Even that may be impossible though ... precisely because once a musician is using that one centuries-old Italian fiddle, they have to keep its owner happy or else it will be taken away from them.  :-(

Bottom line: these prices give the owners way too much power over the musicians and what they may say and do.

July 2, 2010 at 08:48 PM ·

The romance of playing an ancient instrument could be partially balanced by playing a national modern (or local if possible) one.  thus, Sara Chang performing on a Canadian violin (in Toronto) - has quite a ring to it for me....

July 3, 2010 at 07:36 AM ·

Janis Cortese

Excellent points in your recent post. I really do agree!

 

July 3, 2010 at 09:16 AM ·

 and then consider the additional control/limits placed upon artists via their contracts with the major recording labels. little wonder we hear the same stuff on the same violins over and over again.

the solution is to break the myths.

July 3, 2010 at 02:03 PM ·

If there were a movement on part of the musicians to refuse the use of these "high level" instruments and use more modern instruments - it would do wonders for the  more modern day high level instrument makers. That's really what is needed now. It's nice to use an instrument made hundreds of years ago that also sounds wonerful. But there are also many skilled violin makers out there that don't get the exposure that they deserve. Woudn't it be wonderful to give those skilled craftsmen a boost by using some of their instruments at high exposure events instead of instruments supplied by "corporate" investors on behalf of their clients!

July 3, 2010 at 02:49 PM ·

I agree completely with the poster's comments.  Right on the nose.  I've wondered whether most of the old-is-better belief is a form of mass delusion.   A certain dealer in Chicago I'm sure you all are familiar with has been papering the violin world with self promotion and purple prose for years now, but it is an old story.  My favorite example of dealer malarkey is a 1920s catalog from another Chicago violin shop - long out of business -  that proclaims that Stradivari and Guarneri's instruments "have never been equalled and can never be equalled.", proving that his expertise extended even to predicting the future! 

July 3, 2010 at 03:57 PM ·

 I'm not sure I agree with the original post (hey, do I ever?). For one thing, it's not true that only 2-3 dealers in the world enjoy a monopoly on the greatest old instruments. It's natural that the very most expensive violins would end up at those firms with the most resources and connections, but great violins can be found in lots of other dealers as well, including auction houses. There are also many great instruments besides Strad and Guarneri. Many people very happily perform for their careers on Bergonzis, Gaglianos, Pressendas, Beckers, and Peressons. And for 99.999% of the players, $18 million-dollar instruments just aren't on their radar and don't have to be. 

The great players, like most other people, make mostly rational economic choices--it's not like they have been drugged and have chosen to throw out millions on instruments.

The large shops in Chicago and elsewhere are doing what they've always done: try to make as much money as possible, just like you and me. I don't see the hypocrisy. And I don't see the evil in loaning great instruments to promising artists. The fact that so many great instruments are possessed by collectors is a good thing: It's kept the instruments from wear, theft, and damage. Instruments that are played and used go down with airliners (or Titanics), get left in taxis, or are the victims of poor repair work.

I'm not sure what is expected. Should someone be giving away the great old rare instruments to be nice?

July 3, 2010 at 05:23 PM ·

Good point, Scott. If the "owner" in the "owner-horse-jockey" model buys him/herself the feel-good factor whilst at the same time spreading happiness all round, why let resentment or jealousy eat you up? The wealthy have always bought up works of art. This state of affairs is hardly going to be affected by posts on violinist.com !  And the patronage of the rich has played a crucial part in the development of all artistic traditions.

Anyway, where's the person who built the racecourse in all this ? 

July 3, 2010 at 06:36 PM ·

Frederick, about the "have never been and will never be equalled" business ... I agree.  If this is true, it would be the only case in the history of humanity where technology did NOT advance over 400 years.  Flutes got better, pianos got better or at least vastly different, guitars improved, all instruments improved ... except violins?  Doesn't make sense.

The wonder for me is that Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri, and all the rest of the old makers were able to make such wonderful instruments without the benefit of modern technology, even electricity much less modern acoustic physics.  Nowdays, I have no doubt that the average quality of the modern makers is better than the old ones on average, only their clunkers have all gone into the fireplace by this point.  :-)

Scott, I don't feel that the instruments shouldn't be worth anything -- they are gorgeous and sometimes a smuch as 400 years old.  That's worth something -- but the expectation that a good violinist would of course use only them and that anything modern can't compare risks turning musicians into serfs.  When the very wealthy buy up great old works of art, it doesn't translate into obligation on the part of or control over modern visual artists.

July 3, 2010 at 07:54 PM ·

 "That's worth something -- but the expectation that a good violinist would of course use only them and that anything modern can't compare risks turning musicians into serfs."

Actually, musicians ARE serfs, but not because of rare instruments. It's because there are too many music schools churning out too many musicians. 

I guess I'm not sure how, apart from the market, old rare instruments should be priced. It should be obvious at this point in violin history that many musicians do feel modern instruments compare favorably, are using them, and are financially better off. Personally, I'd rather buy a really good $20k instrument than a $100k mediocre one.

Scott

July 3, 2010 at 08:56 PM ·

Serfing the internet again? Yes, I was an orchestral fiddler, a prole, a lackey.

"Virtue by association" is what the wealthy buyers of the legendary old fiddles hope to gain, along with pride of ownership. The "great" fiddles of Strad themselves achieved virtue by association when players such as Viotti put them firmly on the map. The instruments, the tools of the trade, themselves became stars. Reflect for a moment on the huge pay-packets the film actors or the sporting heroes get. There comes a point at which reason breaks down and the "intrinsic" worth becomes a meaningless concept. Emotion and irrational belief take over; appearance and "name" becomes more important then any individual acoustical merit in the mad rush for that socially desirable "must have".

To be serious, even the old lutanists knew that an old lute was very likely better than a new one. Indeed, if you consult Maces "Mufick's Monument" of 1676 you will find that huge sums could be paid for such a relic.

The early fiddle-makers worked in the days when the circulation of the blood was a newly discovered novelty, and a frequent medical intervention was blood-letting, with leeches. Their "genius", if they really did have any, predated the scientific age. That making a really good fiddle was somewhat hit-or-miss is echoed in Leopold Mozart's famous book, in which he seemed to plead for someone to come along and sort things out.  Time and use may enhance the practical worth of a violin, but history and romantic associations seem to advance the monetary value far, far more. And, yes, a lot of old fiddles were never much use in the first place, IMHO.

July 3, 2010 at 09:22 PM ·

If you have millions to get a fine Italian and you play a lot and thinks you need it, go on!

But there are many soloists using more "humble" instruments and producing a fantastic sound, I know a fine Russian soloist who lives in London who plays a Paul Knor violin, made in Germany in 1920, if you listen to him you just can't complain about his sound: rich and powerfull.  And, yes, there are many fine contemporary instruments today. Stradivari and Del Gesù made new instruments.

I prefer a player saying  "I got this violin from  a dealer" than a player saying "I got this old violin from a widow (or old musician... ) and eventually, after studying it for 2 minutes, you have to say him that his fantastic old Italian is a diguised factory made instrument or a poor copy.

But I may be wrong.

www.manfio.com

July 3, 2010 at 09:30 PM ·

"The large shops in Chicago and elsewhere are doing what they've always done: try to make as much money as possible, just like you and me. I don't see the hypocrisy."

To my mind, the hypocrisy lies not in trying to make as much money as possible, but rather in portraying yourself as a benevolent patron of the arts after having done so--made as much money as possible--by forcing the most talented musicians into a patronage system that leaves them at the mercy of the very rich.

July 3, 2010 at 11:22 PM ·

I don't know if its hypocrisy, but it certainly serves their best interests, and as collectorship by 'non collectors' increases, for whatever stimulating self serving interest THEY have, the true collectors (and true collectors will know what I am talking about) and the musicians, have to pay inflated prices for things that are of real value to them.  I suspect Heifetz, donating his Guaneri (which used to piss me off a little), did the smart thing, and took it out of the hands of the Violin trade.  The only Strad/Guaneri dealer I ever had personal interactions with was Jacques Francais, who I had on a pedestal when I was a student, because he was so helpful to me, and seemed like a very kind and generous person.

July 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM ·

"..... by forcing the most talented musicians into a patronage system that leaves them at the mercy of the very rich."

Bill,

A "patronage system?" I have no idea what you're talking about. You're obviously talking about the Strad society. So you're saying that letting talented younger violinists have the use of fine instruments is part of some malevolent plot to keep them subservient to The Man?

Should we then discourage those same Very Rich from funding new buildings on campus or cancer centers?

Someone who doesn't like the idea of accepting patronage from the rich should NOT go into the field of classical music because it is they who keep orchestras and chamber music series afloat and get concert halls built.

Scott

July 4, 2010 at 01:38 AM ·

To my mind, the hypocrisy lies not in trying to make as much money as possible, but rather in portraying yourself as a benevolent patron of the arts after having done so--made as much money as possible--by forcing the most talented musicians into a patronage system that leaves them at the mercy of the very rich.

Bill, I honestly believe the kind of thinking you've illustrated in this thread contributes to the great mental divide of powerful/powerless. The rich, many who have made their own fortunes, many who have inherited them, support of the arts, and seeking some advantage (notoriety, profit, pride, emotional satisfaction, PR, etc,) for doing so, is nothing new.  Maybe the new self-made royalty are software geeks and bankers... but the wealthy merchants, the old money families, and royals have been the patrons of the arts for centuries. Read about Venice and Florence. That's how things work. Seeing things as they are is fine, but blaming instrument merchants who are bringing the artists and patrons together (even if the motive is better control and bigger profits) for the situation is a bit silly.  Others in the trade may certainly have less mercenary motives, but they don't swing as big a stick. Flaws and all, the Strad Society model works.

There's nothing out there preventing you or anyone else from creating their own workable model, btw. Create one that is more to your own tastes and sensibilities, and lets see if you  can fund it.

 


 

 

July 4, 2010 at 04:12 AM ·

Yes, patronage has always been a part of the classical music scene (although its importance was somewhat reduced for 150 years or so by the emergence of public concerts towards the end of the 18th century).  But the situation where performers at the highest level can no longer afford the instruments that answer most adequately to their needs (at least as they perceive their needs), is very recent--it's only in the past 20 years or so that the finest old violins have rocketed up out of reach of all but the super rich and some German and other banks.  (Apart, of course, from sporadic earlier instances where patrons loaned violins to deserving musicians.)  As a result of the profit-maximizing efforts of dealers, these violins have been transformed into investments.  And it's a situation that strikes me as sad and also unhealthy because it leaves musicians at the whim and mercy of their wealthy patrons for the very tools of their trade.

Now, again, we have a free-market economy, and in that context the dealers can't be blamed for making all the money they possibly can by marketing violins as investments.  But when they actually take credit for the unhealthy (in my view) model that they've imposed to maximize their profits, posing as generous and benevolent patrons of the arts--that's when I personally start to feel cynical.

It's true that not all soloists feel they need old Italian violins to achieve their purposes.  But some do, and who are we to tell Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell that they really don't need those Strads or Guarneris because contemporary violin makers turn out instruments that are just as good?

And I recognize that maybe the rise in prices for the expensive old violins--to some degree--will have a positive effect on violin prices up and down the scale (hopefully not at the entry level, though), which could be good for contemporary violin makers and could lead to better and better products as contemporary makers are better and better compensated.  We're no longer in an era where some of the best violin makers had to resort to forgery to make a decent living because the market was flooded with so many high-quality old Italian instruments.

July 4, 2010 at 05:12 AM ·

 Bill,

I believe you are not correct. The finest instruments have been out of reach of most musicians for far longer than 20 years. This is nothing new. For most people, there is really little meaningful difference between $50,000 and $18 million. They can't afford either.

There are far more deserving violinists than great violins. You see some evil plot, but I just see mathematics.

July 4, 2010 at 05:37 AM ·

As I understand it, "Property is theft" is Marxist ideology, as is "To each according to his needs". The perceived wickedness of the one frustrates the realisation of the other. Despite the protestations of the idealists, nothing changes. Am I being defeatist ? The rich will continue to hold artworks hostage.

It's probably incorrect to blame the dealers alone for the escalation in prices. These folk are influential, but still just intermediaries. The irresistible pull of the "ego trip" upon those with money to burn is surely the unpalatable "fact of life" here.

The owner's responsibility is to see that the horse is fed, watered and exercised. Many do this. Very few slam shut the stable door. Not that many horses bolt.

July 4, 2010 at 02:05 PM ·

"The finest instruments have been out of reach of most musicians for far longer than 20 years."

Most musicians, maybe.  But not top soloists like Perlman or Zuckerman.  And in the 1960s, many musicians further on down the ladder could own great old instruments.  As late as the early 1980s, I think (correct me if I'm wrong), Strads could be had for just a couple of hundred thousand dollars.  Maybe not the highest-priced Strads, but Strads nonetheless.  This was of course a lot of money back then, much more than the same sums would be in real terms today.  But many of the lesser tiers of old instruments were still very affordable to musicians.  I can recall meeting quite ordinary musicians who were able to afford instruments such as Testores, Grancinos, Gaglianos, Gofrillers, and even in one instance an Andrea Guarneri (at least that what she said it was and she probably had papers to back up the claim).   Vuillaumes went for $30-40K and "semi-modern" Italians were clustered around $20,000.  There has been inflation since then, of course, but violin prices seem to have risen faster than inflation.

Which is the pitch that's being made to investors to drive the prices up even further.  But violins aren't really good investments, especially for those of us who can't rely on our own personal base of expertise.  Violins don't throw off a current income stream, so you have to rely on capital appreciation at a rate higher than inflation to realize any return at all.  If you need to sell your violin in a hurry when your software business is heading downhill or you discover your trusted investment manager has been running a Ponzi scheme, you may find out that it takes a long, long time to find a buyer for an instrument in your price range, even if you want to recover your original investment, but especially if you want to tack on a decade or so of returns at rates higher than your money-market fund to the already inflated price you paid way back when. 

And all sorts of things can happen that devour value overnight.  The expert whose certificate you relied on when you bought the instrument retires or dies and people have started questioning his judgment.  Someone takes a closer look at the scroll and decides that, despite having most of the characteristics of del Gesu, it's really just a very skillful copy "in the spirit of the original" out of the Vuillaume shop.  Your "Strad" turns out to have actually been made by the Voller brothers.  Census records have been discovered showing that del Gesu actually had a bunch of shop assistants living in his household (or maybe they just lived next door) and the fiddle you paid $18M for ten years ago--the one that has "the finest sound of them all"--looks like one of them had a hand in it.  Just ask the New Jersey Symphony or Gerald Segelman's executors what can go wrong.  I'm not suggesting that the Segelman debacle involved fraud, and I'm sure that insiders in the trade know much more about what actually went on in those cases than I, but what those cases really show to me--someone who is definitely not an insider--is the fragility of the expertise that the market relies on.

In short, it strikes me that the violin market's deficiency in both liquidity and transparency draws into question the premise that has sustained the recent dramatic rise in prices, namely, that old violins are a good investment medium.  I'm not suggesting that the absence of liquidity and transparency is the result of nefarious activity by any participants in the market--it's inherent in the nature of string instruments as unique objects that can't be commodified.

Yes, violin prices have risen faster than inflation over the last 50 years, but who knows if that trend will continue.  The stock answer is that burgeoning demand in the Far East is bound push prices to even more stratospheric levels.  Maybe that will prove true.  Maybe not.

Incidentally, I never said I saw an evil plot.  As I stated before, you can't blame dealers for maximizing their profits in a free-market economy.  My original complaint was directed at what I see as their hypocrisy in posing as benevolent patrons of art when they've maximized their profits in a way that works to the detriment of musicians.  And I question the premise that is the basis for the pitch they've used to do this--that violins are good investments for the very wealthy.

July 4, 2010 at 03:02 PM ·

 Bill...  in the 1980s I could buy a pretty nice house in a desirable small city for a little under 60K.  Even with the present downturn in property values, a similar house there would cost at least 350K to 400K.  That's an increase of about 6 or slightly under 7 times.  This town is not in California...  a state in which homes in some communities would more than make my point.

The lesser (for lack of a better word) Strads you spoke of in the 200Ks in the (early) '80s may have appreciated slightly more quickly... maybe a factor of 8 or 10...  but you can still find one near the factor of 7 if you look.  The rest of your sited examples hit pretty darn close.  A Vuillaume at 30K in 1980, by a factor of 6, would be 180K.

I'm not defending the organization you seem to be hung up on, but again, why not put together your own foundation instead of giving all this energy away to one whose ethics you don't agree with. 

July 4, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

"Again, why not put together your own foundation instead of giving all this energy away to one whose ethics you don't agree with."

I'm old and tired and don't have either the energy or the leisure.  Certainly not the money or the expertise.

And I'm not saying that--given what has already happened, irrevocably and irretrievably, in the market--I fundamentally disagree with the ethics of the "owner-horse-jockey" model or that I necessarily think a different model could work in the current environment.  I don't really have any ideas on that score.  I'm just sad to see it's come to this.  And I think it's just one more nail in the coffin of the music I love.

But maybe there's room for hope that contemporary violin makers are rising to the occasion and delivering products that match the old masters.

(Jeffrey, could I ask you to re-read my last post?  I've added some thoughts and I'd appreciate your reaction.  And I apologize for casting my thoughts in a way that's maybe a bit more truculent than warranted.)

July 4, 2010 at 03:14 PM ·

Interesting point. Here in London my house has gone up by 11 to 12 times since 1982.

I suppose a £200,000 Strad then (in 1882) would be worth about £2.5 million now. I don't think I could even afford the insurance on it. (Probably £40,000 a year?) NO, I defintely could not afford to insure it!

July 4, 2010 at 03:31 PM ·

And I question the premise that is the basis for the pitch they've used to do this--that violins are good investments for the very wealthy."

If that Guarneri fetches anything close to $18 million, then you'd be proven wrong. Instruments of course have their limitations as investments, but so does everything else, including gold, of which there is a hysteria now. Housing, stocks, pensions--there are no guarantees. But over a long period of time, an 18th century Italian violin of solid provenance is probably as good as any, illiquidity not withstanding. The prices for these instruments have little likelihood of falling in value in the long term.

July 4, 2010 at 03:43 PM ·

Hi Bill. I re-read the previous post.  You make some very valid points about investment risk, liquidity and return (unlike stocks and rental property, no dividends, etc.).  For the record, I am very careful not to tout unrealistic expectations of the investment potential of instruments and bows...  though I certainly don't ignore the history, especially if a specific violin can be "tracked" through several transactions.  You my find it refreshing to know that certainly more than one of the individuals who I know that acquire fine old instruments are really not so concerned with the appreciation potential...  they'd just rather not loose value (they want the instrument to maintain the value within the instrument market), which will give them flexibility as they refine their collections.  In other words, they are driven more by their passion for the instrument than by greed. There are plenty of investments out there that have better return levels if you're willing to accept the risk involved, but once past the authenticity and condition issues, the relative stability of the instrument market over the past century provides these collectors with a certain level of confidence. For a professional musician, there are often other advantages in owning a fine instrument (maintenance and insurance may be tax deductible, lower rate on capital gains may be available, etc.).

July 4, 2010 at 05:23 PM ·

Scott:

"If that Guarneri fetches anything close to $18 million, then you'd be proven wrong."  That might be true of the current owner who's selling, but what about the buyer who tries recover his or her outlay down the line?  We just don't know.  Anyway, one swallow doesn't make a summer.

"Instruments of course have their limitations as investments, but so does everything else, including gold, of which there is a hysteria now. Housing, stocks, pensions--there are no guarantees."  Of course there are no guarantees, but a market that is deficient in liquidity and transparency is particularly treacherous.

"an 18th century Italian violin of solid provenance is probably as good as any,"  I think that many if not most of these instruments have a gap in provenance between the time they left Cremona and the time they showed up in Vuillaume's shop.  And that gap is supplied by expertise, which is susceptible to change.  If you read the auction catalogues (online, of course), you'll see that even the Hills' attributions are sometimes questioned, not to speak of Jay Freeman or Dario D'Attili, who at one time were considered virtually infallible.  And new information comes to light:  the Stradivari shop was really more of a workshop operation than anyone suspected and maybe his sons or others had a hand in instruments that have hitherto been attributed exclusively to Antonio; some of the Guarneri products shift their allegiances between del Gesu and filius Andreae in whole or in part . . .  Who knows what shocking secrets will be exposed by research on some of the other old masters?

Anyway, thanks, Jeffrey and Scott and everyone else, for your constructive responses to my dark thoughts.  Maybe I overreacted to the NYT article and a newsletter on a certain website.  But I've had my say, and now I'll shut up.

July 4, 2010 at 05:59 PM ·

"Should we then discourage those same Very Rich from funding new buildings on campus or cancer centers?"

Possibly, if by doing so they will have control over what's taught in them ... This does mean that another means of funding would need to be found, obviously.

The problems inherent in this may be solved by the creation of a contract of sorts -- this sort of thing may exist already, or some owners may use them.  In the contract would be specified what the rights and responsibilities of each party would be, how much control the owner would have, and how much freedom the musician would have.

If this isn't the case, I'd still say that the system gives the owners too much power to kneecap the musicians, and puts the musicians too much at risk from events outside of their control.  Everyone will meet this problem their own way, though.

July 4, 2010 at 06:18 PM ·

When seeing these prices, am I the only one who thinks "Bubble"?

July 5, 2010 at 05:22 AM ·

Bubble. bubble, toil and trouble.

July 5, 2010 at 10:12 AM ·

I'm probably missing the point entirely, having not read the other thread at all but here goes...

I love Italian violins. But, other than a few modern Luthiers, cannot afford to buy one. Then again, I'm a mere lowly 2nd violinist, not a soloist. I just experienced an extensive search for a new violin. I wanted something that would blend in with other violins for performances, but also would suit me for quatuors, and duets, etc, when I play with friends. I found that violin in a 1949 Roger and Max Millant. What I learned during my two year search was that violins that are "old", as is 18-19th century, are priced ridiculously high even if they sound like a whiney sardine can. You are paying for the name and it's age ("But Madame, it is a Villaume!"). I'm not talking about Strads, etc, but Mirecourts and Italians from other less known but reputable Luthiers. As far as I could tell, the reason (or excuse) for this that I was told the most often was "But Madame, it is an antique". So, not only are you dealing with stringed instrument dealers/shops trying to sell instruments, but they take on the role of an antique dealer. I believe a lot of the price is the idea that you are paying for an antique and less to do with quality.

July 5, 2010 at 04:20 PM ·

 "Possibly, if by doing so they will have control over what's taught in them ... This does mean that another means of funding would need to be found, obviously."

Janis,

I've never heard an accusation of a donor at a college or university having any say over what is taught in an epynomous building, aside from a general specification of the subject (science, music, etc.).

Scott

July 5, 2010 at 05:44 PM ·

I have, unfortunately, especially when it comes to pre-college schools (and especially corporate donors).  Nevertheless, the necessity to keep someone with a great deal of power happy creates a power differential between the musician and their sponsor that gives me the creeps.  Given the chance to abuse power, most people will.  :-(

I wonder whether or not musicians don't use modern instruments or copies on stage while saying that they are using their old Italian instruments.  Does that sort of thing happen -- like keeping the diamonds in the vault and wearing paste to the ball?

And what other instruments are there where people revere centuries-old devices?  I'm trying to think beyond strings, but nothing is coming to mind that compares.  Pianos are obviously post-industrial revolution machines, so they're out.  Brand names are big there, but no one really cares if you're playing so-and-so's piano.  A five-year old Bosie would do Martha Argerich just fine.  Keyed wind instruments are also relatively modern; it took some time for them to be able to manage a chromatic scale.  But when it comes to strings, people revere age -- guitars are like that too, maybe?  Old recorders from way back ... ?  What other instruments revere age and individual makers as much as strings?

July 5, 2010 at 06:03 PM ·

"I'm not talking about Strads, etc, but Mirecourts and Italians from other less known but reputable Luthiers. As far as I could tell, the reason (or excuse) for this that I was told the most often was "But Madame, it is an antique". So, not only are you dealing with stringed instrument dealers/shops trying to sell instruments, but they take on the role of an antique dealer. I believe a lot of the price is the idea that you are paying for an antique and less to do with quality."

In fact I bought an antique approx. 200 year old fiddle which is not Itaian (although a Gaspar copy) and it was extremely cheap. Has a great sound too.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on July 5, 2010 at 05:44 PM

"I wonder whether or not musicians don't use modern instruments or copies on stage while saying that they are using their old Italian instruments.  Does that sort of thing happen -- like keeping the diamonds in the vault and wearing paste to the ball?"

YES!! It does happen. Someone I know made a CD on a modern fiddle of about 2 years old. But on the CD it said it was on his old famous Italian fiddle. No one heard or knew the difference. It still sounded great.

July 5, 2010 at 06:05 PM ·

Sorry that previous message was from me - I don't know what happened! I must have messed the quote up!

July 5, 2010 at 07:42 PM ·

"In fact I bought an antique approx. 200 year old fiddle which is not Itaian (although a Gaspar copy) and it was extremely cheap. Has a great sound too."

It's hard to tell from your statement what is really going on. What do you mean by "extremely cheap"? Everyone has their own idea about what "cheap" means, I'm sure. You haven't explained where you bought it, nor who the Luthier is, for example. Maybe your violin is nameless and impossible to estimate. Do you have an estimate done by an expert? There are many violins out there like that. I have played quite a few "cheap" old violins that sounded pretty good, but were not good investments because they were mysteries and I would have had to fork over potentially thousands just to find out what it is. I'm not talking about those violins. I'm glad you found a cheap violin. But, when one is searching for a quality violin and has an important budget, and is presented with violins that are quite below one's expectations, it's frustrating. I found what I was looking for in a French violin from 1949. 

July 6, 2010 at 04:48 AM ·

 Janis,

A five-year old Bosie would do Martha Argerich just fine.  

On tour with a professional orchestra we arrived at a venue where a Bartok concerto was on the programme but a Bosendorfer piano was installed on stage. The soloist said it was unsuitable for Bartok, and insisted on playing a Mozart instead ! Some pianists are sensitive to which model of Steinway is made available, and one famous player would travel with his own instrument, (and tuner, too, I think).

It seems to be stringed instruments where the wood vibrates, such as violins, that become more sought-after with age. The sound-boards and mechanism of keyboard instruments deteriorate beyond a point of no return, I believe. Wind and brass instruments were redesigned during the industrial age, most would now be of the wrong pitch and in any case,the tuning of woodwind deteriorates as the wood "moves" over time. If concert pitch rises - you can tune up a violin, but simply sawing an inch off an oboe is no use.

There's a CD on which Baermann's clarinet is played alongside Brahms' piano. To me it sounds like Brahms' clarinet and the famous clarinettist's piano ! No disrespect intended to the excellent clarinettist on the cd, Keith Puddy.

July 6, 2010 at 05:46 AM ·

"The sound-boards and mechanism of keyboard instruments deteriorate beyond a point of no return, I believe."

Very true! I get together with a group of people I met online at a friend's apartment who has a piano. It's very old. A week or a few days before the planned date she has it tuned as close to 440 as it can get without folding up on itself! We all tune to whatever A she can give us!

July 6, 2010 at 01:10 PM ·

 i am not sure what is hypocritical of highest end dealers to further their chosen profession: increase or maintain market share and exposure, increase profit margin, drum up ways to market themselves, etc, etc, etc.    in a way, it is like saying, i don't like what i see and i don't have a better suggestion either.  granted, most talented violinists not playing a great instrument probably don't like what they have, and there is not much they can do about it.  except complaining about it.  

what if a person on v.com is ready to dispose of a valuable violin to the tune of 4 mil, as confirmed by several reputable sources.   is it possible that under the influence of "less greed",  "playing fair", "let the little guy have a chance" that the seller will be convinced somehow to part the violin at 250k because one, he will be labelled as not greedy, two, the future buyer will be able to save a bundle and uses the savings for the good of the classical world?  is that truly a win-win situation?  come on, 4 mils is way out of the range for an average violinist. how about being really supportive and let it go at 10k?

how about not going to the exclusive top music schools and let someone less fortunate and less qualified to use the spot instead, in a way to show the dominant, monopolizing top tier schools that you are doing your share to make a statement?   when you are enjoying the privileges in juilliard, don't you for once think of those studying in the third tier schools who upon graduation have less of a chance of getting noticed by the power to be?

should walmat take it easy on the mom and pop stores?

should google help other startups to start their own search engines?

should laurie teach us how to interview people the way she does and her husband how to set up our own violin sites?  and if they don't, hmmm...

is it possible that we all regret we are not selling that 18 m violin, deep deep inside?

 

 

 

July 6, 2010 at 02:02 PM ·

al ku

"granted, most talented violinists not playing a great instrument probably don't like what they have, and there is not much they can do about it.  except complaining about it. "

I think most people are reasonably happy with their instruments - you don't have to have an expensive instrument to make a great sound.

Or perhaps some players need to improve their own sound production rather than their instrument.

July 6, 2010 at 02:10 PM ·

Any big-time dealer has to sell at the very highest price that the market can stand. If word got around you could buy from him/her, then sell round the corner the next day for a profit, whoever it was would be thought of as a mug. Once in that business, there's no turning back. Onwards and upwards .....

Pity the poor dealer !

July 7, 2010 at 08:30 AM ·

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward violin dealers...But....I don't really care how they look to others, etc. I just want to be able describe the violin I want and not have them bring me 200 violins that they want to move out of their shop that have zero to do with what I asked for. I remember one dealer that had a huge sign on his shop saying he specialized in Italian violins.  I could not get him to show me one Italian violin, but he kept trying to push Mirecourts on me because he had too many of them. There are reputable dealers out there that are honest. I finally met a few. I bought my violin from one of them (a reputable dealer that someone recommended to me) I recommend him to others. I don't recommend the ones that presented me with violins that did not come close to my needs, that they are trying to get rid of. So, if disreputable dealers have to keep their prices up in order to compete with other disreputable dealers...that is of no importance.

July 7, 2010 at 10:56 AM ·

Lisa, it reads as if the dealers you know have never heard that "the customer is always right ". Maybe that philosophy doesn't apply to us fiddle players, so we have to be told what we need, often rather condescendingly.

July 7, 2010 at 11:25 AM ·

Lisa, it reads as if the dealers you know have never heard that "the customer is always right ". Maybe that philosophy doesn't apply to us fiddle players, so we have to be told what we need, often rather condescendingly.

David, one has to wonder!! I'm just so happy I finally found "my" violin. It's for me, perfect in every way. I found it because I was put in contact with someone who listened to me. It was even above my budget. I don't care, it was exactly what I was looking for and he knew it when he heard me talking. That was so beautiful after all the disappointments I had and how I was treated. So, there are people out there willing to listen to us, you just have to find them. You have to kiss a lot of toads before you find your Prince Charming!

July 7, 2010 at 12:27 PM ·

 lisa, if i may,,,you had an italian in mind before shopping and now you have found a violin that you really like.  putting aside the rather obtuse tactic from that dealer that have attempted to show you hundreds of non italian violins (i assume you had clearly told him your interest in italians only),  before trying many many violins, italian or not, how can you be sure you have come to the right conclusion in terms of the violin you finally would choose?   the uniqueness of italian made violins is another story if not another debate.  as  a dealer, i think it is not improper to let the violinist try a variety of violins so that from the responses from the violinist the dealer can help narrow down the violinist's taste and style, if not understand the strength and weakness of the violinist.   can this positive process be interpreted in a negative way?  just show me the italian that i have been looking for all my life in 2 seconds so i can get going?

 

the other thing worth mention is about generalization or bias.  even from your inputs, it is clear that we cannot broadbrush all violin dealers, but the gist of this thread is precisely that, that buyers beware,,,that they are out there to get you.  we have to find the ones we can work with out there. for argument sake,  is it possible that "non italian" dealer shows a french violin to another italian looking violinist and by gosh, the violinist loves it so much that she claims the french violin to be her perfect match?  i wonder if she will go around to be a living billboard for that dealer, claiming that the dealer really understands the needs of violinists, to the point that the dealer broadens the horizon for those uninitiated?  is that possible?

July 7, 2010 at 02:39 PM ·

Al Ku..

"lisa, if i may,,,you had an italian in mind before shopping and now you have found a violin that you really like." I never said I started off looking for an Italian violin, where did you get that from? I said that once, I went into a boutique specializing in Italian violins. In fact I started off looking for Mirecourts and after 6-8 months of playing only Mirecourts I decided I didn't like most of them at all and I started looking for any violin, modern Italian, German, you name it.

"before trying many many violins, italian or not, how can you be sure you have come to the right conclusion in terms of the violin you finally would choose?" Who said I didn't try many many violins? And what you said makes no sense. How can I make a "right conclusion" about the "violin I would finally choose" if I haven't even found it yet? Where are you getting this from? I can tell you this, I can be sure of my conclusions and decisions and desires because I've been playing violins for over 40 years now. Who said I didn't play tons of violins before I decided? You jump to conclusions. Plus, I was well into my 2 year search at this point.

"just show me the italian that i have been looking for all my life in 2 seconds so i can get going?" Huh? What are you talking about? You seem to have completely missed the point. But thanks anyway.

As for the rest of your post, I have no idea what you are talking about. I can only present my experiences. Take them or leave them. Whether you think I generalize or are biased is not even worth talking about. I have an opinion based on my experiences. I don't understand, are you trying to teach me a lesson here?

July 7, 2010 at 09:55 PM ·

Lisa,

I don't think Al meant any offense with his posting.  He is frequently sarcastic, but I personally find his observations interesting and insightful.  Regarding your negative feelings about violin dealers, I think it is partially valid, but maybe a bit unfair as well. 

I also went through an extensive violin search like yourself and I understand how frustrating it can be trying one instrument after another, only be be disappointed time and again.  When I talked to shops and makers, I described the sound I was after, but the concept of sound is quite subjective, even to the extent that one person might find an instrument bright, while someone else might find the same instrument dark. 

I remember working with a large shop via mail.  I spoke with a professional violinist at the shop and described what I was after.  You would not believe the $18,000 tin can they sent me.  I don't think it was an attempt to deceive, it just wasn't a good match.  Let's face it.  Finding a violin that matches your personal taste is not easy.  By shear probability, the vast majority of instruments you try will not be to your liking so it is not surprising that when you go to a shop and try instruments, most of them are not even close to what you are after.  But, that in my opinion doesn't mean the dealer is dishonest.

That said, I agree there is an inherent sleaziness built into the violin trade.  Dealers have to move instruments, otherwise, they go out of business.  I would love it if dealers offered FULL DISCLOSURE when selling a fiddle or bow but I doubt that even the most honest dealers will.  Let me give an example.  Let's say you walk into a shop and find a fiddle that you love.  But it happens that the fiddle has been sitting there for 2 years, and previous people that tried it did not care for it at all.  Would you consider the dealer dishonest if he didn't tell you?  I'm a pretty honest guy, but I don't think I'd tell someone that the violin they just fell in love with was disliked by most people.  The violin dealer is a salesman like any other.  Their job is to sell instruments.  Provided they are not lying, they are going to say what you want to hear.  As with any market, there is always an element of "buyer beware."

 

July 7, 2010 at 09:57 PM ·

" I just want to be able describe the violin I want and not have them bring me 200 violins that they want to move out of their shop that have zero to do with what I asked for. I remember one dealer that had a huge sign on his shop saying he specialized in Italian violins.  I could not get him to show me one Italian violin, but he kept trying to push Mirecourts on me because he had too many of them. "

lisa,  from the above, i thought you were looking for an italian violin.

-------------

 

"I think most people are reasonably happy with their instruments - you don't have to have an expensive instrument to make a great sound.

Or perhaps some players need to improve their own sound production rather than their instrument."

i totally concur with that, peter.  to go further, when others market a 18 m violin, unless we are buying it or even considering to buy it, it is really not our business to ridicule the seller/dealer.  to use this 18 m violin hype to bash other dealers is a convenient thing to do, but i just don't see the connection.

recently i saw a report describing an interesting phenom in real estate.  apparently there are enough young billionaires out there but not enough houses that are good enough for them.  one guy insists on having the elevator going down to the basement garage to be made entirely of glass so that he can enjoy the view of his ferraris on the way down.   now, shall we throw stones at the glass elevator or shall we just acknowledge that the guy got where he is because he probably did something right and we have better things to do if we choose to? 

 

 

July 7, 2010 at 11:18 PM ·

Usually if one has that kind of money, one has simply exercised fiscal care in the choice of one's parents ... :-)

July 7, 2010 at 11:34 PM ·

Players are not obliged to get instruments from dealers, or from violin makers, they can MAKE THEIR OWN instrument!!! I met Ralf Ehlers yesterday, violist of the Arditti Quartet, and he made his viola!!!

www.manfio.com

July 8, 2010 at 05:01 AM ·

Yes, Luis,I believe that the eminent violinist Sidney Weiss made himself a violin, as did Albert Sammons. I wouldn't have the patience to make one myself, but I found a maker who did the job for me, making me a violin much as I would have done myself had I the skills.

Though posts on this thread have exceeded the half century I am none the wiser about that hypocrisy allegation, except that it's confirmed that money buys power. I'm sure that were I operating in the area of ultra-high finance I'd soon be acting in just the same way. I think that's human nature. And, as I suggested before, the dealers might be opportunists; they often facilitate yet they don't instigate those perceived social injustices. They are intermediaries.

One thing seems to be emerging - that "speed dating" is not necessarily the way to buy a violin for life !

July 8, 2010 at 09:06 AM ·

That is so funny! I actually was considering making my own violin at one point! There is no reason not to buy a "new" violin. This thread is about violin dealers, so that is what I'm referring too, not Luthiers. Maybe people disagree, but from my experiences, it's rare to find a dealer that will show you a modern violin right away.

There are some absolutely fantastic modern Luthiers and I tried many of their violins and loved many of them. But, most dealers are not going to encourage you to try one. They want to sell their "old" violins that they can get more money for because that is what the market is looking for. I live near Paris, France. The ones I went to, and I went to them all, just pretend they don't have anything that is not from Mirecourt, or Lyon, or Bordeaux, most from the 19th century. You have to go back 3 times and try all the violins they want to sell you (regardless of what you asked for) before they even consider showing you anything else. They don't care what you want, they just pull out every violin in your budget that they want to move. It gets tiring. In fact, that whole process made me consider buying a violin from a modern Luthier! And I disagree, I can't tell you how many violins I played in the "18k-20k" (and higher) range that I would not even pay 8k for. I felt like I had "IDIOT" stamped on my forehead. They had no redeeming qualities at all, simply that they were a "Mirecourt" from the 19th century.

That said, as I stated before, there are some really great dealers who are honest. I did find a few! I ended up buying a violin from a Luthier who also sells violins. I told him what I was looking for and he brought me ONE violin that matched my description perfectly. The exact sound I'd described, even the lower registers. When he buys a violin he spends a lot of time talking to the owner to find out what it sounds like, he has them play it for him, and what they like or dislike about it. So when someone comes in he has that in mind. When I described what I was looking for he knew right away that he had a violin I was describing. He showed me a few others so I could compare, but everyone knew when I played it that I had found what I was looking for. My husband, who doesn't play an instrument, knew when he heard it that it was what I had been describing. And he also knew when I played one before that, that it was not at all what I described. He used to get mad and ask the Dealers why they were wasting our time!

July 8, 2010 at 10:31 AM ·

It would appear to me that most people have a different way of approaching a violin purchase to me.

I would simple go into a dealers and say "can I try all you rfiddles between say £2,000 and £8,000 (Or £500K to £1 million if I had that sort of money ...)

I would definitely NOT try and describe the sound or anything else that I was after.

I might end up rejecting all the fiddles, or find one or two I liked. I would make a note of this and try other fiddles in the same way elswhere.

Eventually one fiddle might grab me and I would ask for a longer trial period at home . I would, and have, recently done the same with a bow purchase.

Also, I never look on an instrument as one for life. I might keep it many years, or for ever, but equally I might decide to have a change after only a few years. (Bit like finding a wife really ...)

July 8, 2010 at 01:22 PM ·

 luis' suggestion of making one's own violin will make violinists more appreciative of luthiers and dealers.  after that everything sounds better :).

smiley was talking about dealers being more open and candid about the violins they stock,,,about full disclosure.   smiley has acknowledged that dealers have to move violins and buyers beware.   on one hand, fd may allow a few educated ones more educated, those who know the right questions to ask in the first place; on the other,  it can be quite confusing to dump every little details onto a buyer who may not be able comprehend the luthier aspects of info, who may not have enough experience in violins to reach a reasonable perspective. more info leads to less clarity.  for instance,  above all, i would prefer the dealers to be extremely upfront with any structural issues (past, present, near future).  but i am not sure if it is of help if the dealers voluntarily share with me their interpretations of work done on the violin if they are not very sure.    and even if they are very sure, i am not sure.

similarly, if i were to be admitted to a hospital for a procedure (a brain zap for better musicality) with known risks fully disclosed, i am not sure telling me also about pneumonia or diarrhea that is going on in some spots of the building will help me to decide to go forward with the procedure or not.   what does a 3% chance of catching a hospital pneumonia really mean?  if i trust the doc in charge, should he or i make the call?

i think what is missing is trust.  some of us rarely invest enough time to know dealers and vice versa.  we don't know who to trust.  we don't know who to trust if even we are willing to pay for it.   we are busy and we walk in and walk out.  when things don't turn out to be way we want,  we  point fingers.  so yes, in a way, it is indeed like how we go through spousal relationships.

i know of an older gentleman with 4 children.  his life philosophy is that to go through life one needs to befriend a doctor, a lawyer, a banker and a tax guy and that is what his kids have become.  if he had a 5th kid,  a violin dealer would be a decent bet!

July 8, 2010 at 03:52 PM ·

Yes, Al, it does take time to build up trust between a dealer and a customer. Years !! "Full disclosure" ? that's what you can get at a hi-fi, computer or car dealership - you can be overwhelmed by too much baffling technical info. Some customers will be more clued up than others, and readier to absorb background information. And a dealer's friendly advice can often seem like "hard sell". 

No dealer is going to show someone fresh off the street everything he/she has because with too wide a choice a decision becomes too difficult. Hills, an London, would typically offer 3 in your price range, then, when you couldn't decide, bring in another just above budget, a successful ploy, I believe - it nearly worked on me !

Honesty about repair work is good for the vendors reputation. If these things are discovered after a sale took place, things do not look too good for that dealer's street cred.

I am still surprised at Lisa's dealers, persisting in offering stuff in which she had no interest. This seems like the very opposite of "bait and switch"; show you something you don't like, then follow up with an item you REALLY hate, a kind of slow death by torture.

July 8, 2010 at 04:06 PM ·

You know, I was thinking about why my experience is so different. Maybe it's a French (Paris) thing! Because everyone has the same problem here. There's no "getting to know your dealer" here. We are almost convinced they get together and fix prices!

July 8, 2010 at 05:42 PM ·

For those interested in making their own instrument, I made a carving a scroll tutorial step by step, here:

http://www.maestronet.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=317301&st=0&start=0

www.manfio.com

July 8, 2010 at 10:44 PM ·

While the discussion about hypocrisy in the upscale antiquity market will never be happily resolved, human nature being what it is (instead of what it "ought to be", which might actually end up quite boring), I would strongle recommend the original poster (and anyone else) borrow a copy of "The Rainaldi Quartet" (published in the UK as "Sleeper"). It's a great summer read, a mystery about fine violins, players, and dealers.

It contains some of the most hilarious comments about violin dealers that I've ever read, and the book, written by Paul Adam, is intouch with the core of the situation. Go on and read it, it's a lot more fun than pontificating here. I promise.

July 9, 2010 at 04:58 AM ·

"Go on and read it, it's a lot more fun than pontificating here. I promise."

I assume you are referring to yourself.

July 11, 2010 at 04:18 AM ·

Manfio nice write up on the scroll : )

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Violin-Strings.com

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Warchal

Barenreiter

Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe