Discovering unknown talented Luthiers

November 9, 2010 at 02:36 AM ·

Yes, I know ebay is a den of thieves but I've often wondered how the big name violin-makers go from obscurity to charging 10K+ for a new instrument.   Obviously, the instrument should speak for itself but does it when there is a lot of competition and the person is unknown?   So it becomes a question of:  Is it even remotely sensible to gamble on a 2500.00 instrument that was used in teaching (as shown below) or is it simply ludicrous that a so-called quality instrument could be priced so cheaply if the luthier really made it all himself?

Replies (49)

November 9, 2010 at 04:39 AM ·

The firs thing that got my attention, also possibly the reason of the lower price, is that he's a lute maker...

November 9, 2010 at 08:54 AM ·

It always amazes me that people are even considering buying an instrument on Ebay!

It could have the most awful sound imaginable. It could be hard to play. It could be worth a lot less than the asking price.

I recently tried a new Chinese violin, with the Jaid Haide label (or some name like that). It was close to that price - in fact slightly more expensive.

It had a big sound under the ear, (rather nasal) but carried no better than other instruments in that price bracket or cheaper. It was very hard to play quietly on it, and it was not easy to play.

But how can you try an Ebay instrument?

November 9, 2010 at 10:10 AM ·

Getting good instruments from a good maker prior to the time he becomes famous and his prices go up? Yes, that is possible with violins, oil paintings and ... stock market. Van Gogh sold just one of his oils during his lifetime...

But it is not easy. First you have to develop a "violin culture" in terms of sound and visual aspects.  You have to know what a good scroll is, what is a good model, a good varnish, what good sound is etc.  And it takes time and is not all that easy.



November 9, 2010 at 11:36 AM ·

Sooo... if you are a luthier yourself you could make a business out of this ;)


November 9, 2010 at 11:46 AM ·

Yes, if you are a luthier yourself - and, in adition to that if you are player - you will be in a good condition to evaluate new and old instruments and profit from that. That's why many  dealers are also luthiers.  

But I prefer focusing in making new instruments.

November 9, 2010 at 11:57 AM ·

Just remember you could pick up a G B Guadagnini violin in London in 1960 for about £2,000 and a Rocca or a Prescenda for £500

A Hill bow for £30

A french bow for £50

In the late 1970's a Strad could be had for a mere £150,000

My latest Strad recently cost me £3 Million ...

November 9, 2010 at 12:49 PM ·

In the mid 50's there was an Amati cello for sale in the old established Tinney's violin shop (now Cremona House) in Bristol for a "mere" £400.  I drooled over it on my way home from school.  £400 in the '50s would have been the best part of a working man's annual wage, but that cello would have been within the reach of someone a little further up the ladder.  I wonder what that cello would sell for today.

My German cello bow, and my 19th century French cello, both of which I still have, were bought for me in the '50s for £15 each. The cello was acquired for me by my teacher, who bought it at a Phillips auction in London. He did this regularly for his pupils and knew exactly what to look for. My old violin, anonymous, but possibly French (some think it's German) belonged to my mother, and to her grandfather before her. Apparently, her teacher offered to buy it for £100 in 1920, but her parents refused the offer, a decision I've always been grateful for.


November 9, 2010 at 12:55 PM ·

In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories Conan Doyle relates how Holmes bought a Stradivarius for 5 guineas (£5.25) from a Jew in London's East End. This would have been in the last two decades of the 19th century. I have wondered if Doyle was referring to an actual happening which he then applied to his fictional character.

November 9, 2010 at 01:13 PM ·

If you go to Stefano Renzi's website it is evident that his main business is violins, violas and cellos.

November 9, 2010 at 01:15 PM · Buying instruments on eBay has the same appeal to some as any gamble. It's one factor that has contributed to it's success. Folks getting tired or burned has contributed to its' problems. It's about the chance of falling into something rare & valuable for a relative pittance. Some folks' pittance-tolerance is just quite a bit higher than others' ;) They don't call auction,yard or estate sale finds "a steal" for no reason. I would be very unlikely to buy as instrument off eBay, but I've had made a couple lucky purchases from craigslist. Sue

November 9, 2010 at 01:22 PM ·

The firs thing that got my attention, also possibly the reason of the lower price, is that he's a lute maker...

Stradivari's shop produced lutes, guitars, mandolins and at least one harp. How does this gamut of other instruments affect his violin prices? But that's not what throws up a flag in my mind, as far as 'made by one luthier' is concerned. The name "Stefano Renzi" is printed literally as such. In quotation marks. Think about that for a moment. If someone tells you their name, they say:

Hello, my name is John Doe.

But what if that person holds up their hands and makes the well-known quotation mark gesture as they say their name?

Hello, my name is "John Doe".

Odd? Of course. Seems, I dunno, not technically lying, but still intentionally misleading somehow. This may seem like a silly scenario to take seriously, but in all actuality there's no reason to put your own personal name in quotation marks. Trade names, aka brand names, can go in quotation marks. That right there tells me why this Italian violin is priced so far below that of others.

 Not that it's necessarily a p.o.s. by any stretch, it might be a wonderful instrument. :)

November 9, 2010 at 01:25 PM ·

Back in the 70's we could get a Poggi violin from his hands for the price of air ticket Sao Paulo/Roma, that costs less than 1K dollars today...   and you can't get a Poggi violin for less than 100K dollars, perhaps. 

November 9, 2010 at 01:51 PM ·

Ron - I didn't went into exploring about Renzi or lute-maker, but seeing a label inside the violin stated that it's made by a lute maker is giving me an impression that making violin is not his primary business. ;-)

Anyhow, a good violin is a good violin is a good violin. To be fair, I bought my primary violin off ebay for the price of doubled of the violin shown by original poster. I couldn't be more happier, and have been playing on it for 4 years already and haven't come by anything I liked better in the price range upward to $15k.

November 9, 2010 at 02:23 PM ·

"Stefano Renzi" (in quotes).  This is something that may happen if the original owner of the business was indeed Stefano Renzi; but if the business has now been taken over by a new owner who has purchased the goodwill (a legal term) in the name "Stefano Renzi" then the new owner would use "Stefano Renzi" to show that there is continuity.
This happens a lot in business, especially businesses owned by an individual or a family. For example, the "Tinney's" name for the 19th century violin shop in Bristol was retained for many years by successive owners after the departure of the original owner Mr Tinney, and it is only fairly recently that the name has been changed to Cremona House (same business, but updated consonant with the 21st century).
I therefore see no reason on the present evidence for concern about "Stefano Renzi" (in quotes). 

November 9, 2010 at 02:32 PM ·

 Trevor, that is of course another valid reason to put the name in quotes and as such, follows the argument I was making. I didn't mean to attach any harshly negative connotations to "Stefano Renzi" or the instrument in question. Any misunderstanding there is partially my fault. It might be a great instrument, I just wanted to state something for those who don't catch it, that the quotation marks in this case are not simple happenstance and that it'd be an outright lie to say that someone by name of Stefano Renzi made that violin from scratch, from start to finish, hence the lower price tag. And I'm terrible with run-on sentences sometimes. 

Besides, we all know that Stradivari and Guarneri had some helping hands around their shops. :)

November 9, 2010 at 03:26 PM ·

"Google" seems to think there really IS a Stefano Renzi but offering a hand-made violin for $2,500 seems too good to be true. But as you all know there are many, many trained young makers in Italy and elsewhere trying to get their foot in the door. They have to sell cheaply at first. I myself benefitted from the low price quoted in the erly 90s by a Cremona maker who had just started working under his own name and the instrument has turned out well. I had the opportunity to try a few of his violins before placing an order.

 Points to consider in this particular instance are that (a) you can't easily get to try one of his violins, let alone this one, and (b) how can you be sure it's really a handmade job, and not one knocked together from a kit of cheap parts from Schoenbach or somewhere like that ?

November 9, 2010 at 03:51 PM ·

Let's see, 120 hours for one person to build everything by hand. Say the wood cost $200 (there isn't much wood in a violin!) That leaves $19 per hour.

Use some high production techniques (pantographing, series production of components, etc) you can see half that.

What is so hard to imagine about a price of $2500 for a little wooden box?

November 9, 2010 at 04:11 PM ·

Yes, Bill, put it like that and nearly all the violins on our planet are wildly over-priced ! Well-made and inexpensive Chinese violins are everywhere to be seen and heard. "Factory" production-line methods can and do reduce the costs. However, the original poster suspects he might get something better than a Primark shop fiddle and that's where it's difficult to be sure. You just never know, it might be worth a punt !! For some reason, those Italian boys and gals often succeed in getting a great sound where others fail, and therein lies a fascination.

I thought the pictures looked pretty much OK, IMHO.

November 9, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·


You say "Yes, I know that eBay is a den of thieves". What an absurd and defamatory statement are you making here about an organisation that has very strict control over its members and provides outstanding service. Maybe you can tell us who was done in by them, but I doubt if you have any evidence.

The violin on show looks handmade and not machine made. The price offered is a starting price and it can go sky high or stay there, depending on the bidding. That is how an auction works. 

I have bought many items on eBay, including violins and plenty of accessories and not once was I disappointed. The service of their members is outstanding and a Birds-eye violin that I bought on eBay for $780 is the envy of everyone that see and hear it, including symphony players.



November 9, 2010 at 05:28 PM ·

I sold my 17" viola on ebay for what I paid for it (it was mid $800s). The buyer was a pro and he wrote to me to say it was super.

The only problem with ebay, really, is that you can't touch and feel and play the instrument first, but some sellers have return policies...

November 9, 2010 at 05:51 PM ·

One thing you may not be looking at is the skill part of the equation, not the talent.

Someone may be talented, but it may still take years to develop the small things that go into a substantial instrument. Although the name may be the same on the label, the actual instrument quality will probably take some time (years?) to develop.

I would be interested to see a luthier comment on the development process of their craft. I do not think that any maker starting out would be a peer of the same maker 10 years later.

November 9, 2010 at 06:49 PM ·

Roland: It would be terrific if one could get a 'vertical tasting' (AKA wine) of a luthier's work to see how it has evolved.  I tried a violin made some 10 years earlier than mine by the same luthier and I doubt I would have bought it (assuming, of course, that that does not mean the dreaded decay of new instruments, see other topic).   I suppose this is possible for very famous luthiers as the quality of their work is well catalogued.  Perhaps each craftsman should create an archive of recordings for both his and his customers information...

November 9, 2010 at 07:52 PM ·

" Perhaps each craftsman should create an archive of recordings for both his and his customers information..."


You can't really tell from a recording what these instruments are like. It depends on the players (and most are not very good) and you can't tell how the instruments carry, or how quietly one can play on them, just for starters.

November 9, 2010 at 07:56 PM ·

So first we have to invent the SVBM (Standard Violin Bowing Machine TM; patent applied for) which both holds and bows the instrument using synthetic horse-hair and new synthetic strings....

November 9, 2010 at 08:16 PM ·

I  think Toyota already holds that patent on that device...

November 9, 2010 at 08:49 PM ·

The Toyota patent is void; it seems that it was patented by Mary Anderson, a New Yorker in 1903. The patent eventually expired.

The invention has variable speed, and also included rests.

I have three of them, two in front, and one in back of my van.

Now, All I need to do is figure how to connect my bow to the wiper, and place the violin in the correct place!

November 9, 2010 at 11:11 PM ·

How much does it cost for the wood to make a violin?  I was under the impression that the wood alone is about $1000 if you get good quality aged wood.  If you figure a luthier can make about 10 instruments a year, they need to make at least $5000 profit per instrument to scratch out a living.  So they have to sell their instruments for about $6K minimum.  Of course, that assumes they are NOT living in China.



November 10, 2010 at 07:40 PM ·

Hi Smiley! A luthier cannot make a living in the free wold if he sells his violins for 6K, at least in Europe and in North America.

What I saw for 6K during the exhibition of the International Viola Congress were Chinese instruments that were varnished and had their set up made in the USA, their cost was 6K.

November 10, 2010 at 08:45 PM ·

Hi Luis,

that may be true, but I have looked at three, maybe 4 different young contemporary maker's fiddles for between $5 and $7k here in the US. They are young, and work in a shop, so do repairs during the day, and develop their talent at night. Not yet making a living full time on new fiddles, but definitely making a living and ultimately selling their work for gain...and that is the gamble. You buy one of these and maybe in 20 years, it will have beat inflation a bit and makde great music along the way. Or maybe only great music, but at least you didn't pay too much.

Some people believe that all of the "established" makers will see their used fiddles go for more and more and more. I don't see what the certainty is in that at all! Buy a Curtin today, maybe it will be like the future Strad, but maybe not. Or is Sam Z the one to pick, or etc etc...

November 10, 2010 at 10:53 PM ·

Hi Bill!

I was referring to established luthiers. The number of full time makers (no restoration, no sales of other's instruments, etc., just new making)  in the USA is below 20, and I think they are all over 40 years old.

Yes, you may find cheaper instruments by young makers. The problem is that, in order to make good instruments for professionals,you have to make many of them every year in to get experience, and it will take many years till you reach a good level.  I bet these young makers you know will be making different  - and better - instruments in 10 or 15 years, mainly if some of them becomes a full time maker. 

I see the instruments I make as tools for musicians. Just imagine the money we have spent in the last 20 years with eletronic products, computers and new cars. What is their value today? Nothing! 

Bench made instruments by makers in the free world will become more and more expensive because the Chinese competition will reduce the number of makers, just the top makers will survive this competition. That happened already wity taylors, watch reapairers, etc.  Some decades ago we had many taylors and we could pay for a custom made suit that would last for many many years when made with those marvelous English fabrics. Today it will be hard to find a taylor, if you  find one he will be working exclusevely to very rich clients and will ask a mint for a custom made suit. The same will happen to violin makers, I think. 

But I may be wrong. 

November 10, 2010 at 10:56 PM ·

Hi Luis,

I said $6K minimum.  You are basically saying the same thing I am.  During my violin search, all the violins I tried from living makers were over $10K -- that is, unless the violin was made in China.  And I personally wouldn't spend $10K on a Chinese made instrument.  I just don't trust them, and I'm Chinese.

Basically, I think you have to be living in a fantasy world if you think you can get a bench made violin with quality wood for $2500.


November 11, 2010 at 12:57 AM ·

Contact Don Leister

He makes some nice instruments and they are reasonably priced.

November 27, 2010 at 07:49 PM ·

Maybe to be a little on topic, the sale the OP mentioned ended without the item being sold. A lot of times that happens and it gets re-listed and could sell later.

I would be slightly suspicious and the seller even brings up the subject of different makers claiming to be "Italian" and then you see the label written in English. (?)

EBay is fun and I guess a lot of people do on-line gambling when they can't get over to Vegas. I rationalize gong there by telling myself I'm just researching. But it does happen that I will place a bid when I see something I like. I would not say I'm addicted but I think I need to stop going there because it is too much temptation for me. But there are lots of good pictures and I save them for possible future reference.

Bill's calculation on how much a violin maker could make might sound appealing to people in the USA who are out of work. I know personally, I was not doing any better doing construction building new houses, and there arent any being built now, at least not where I live. I'm seriously considering making some violins myself and it is not too different than what I have done a lot of anyway. So, what do you have to do, make like thirty or something, to get any good at it? Maybe not such a big deal if you would be just sitting around otherwise. From what I gather, there isn't a such thing as apprenticeships here, so maybe that's not a prerequisite. Attention to detail and personal integrity verging on the compulsive may be what's important. The actual science is well established and not so secret as it would have been long ago.

So, I don't feel as pessimistic about the future of American violin making as the opinion some posts on this thread may reflect.

November 27, 2010 at 09:12 PM ·

Frank, my maker does that.  Sell their violins with a much lower price than what they worth to establish reputation. (it's not my interpretation, they told it)  It's nice to benefit from that.


November 28, 2010 at 04:14 PM ·

I see there's a Stefano Renzi violin on the UK section of ebay. It's been there some time, listed at a"buy it now" price of £2,950, a somewhat higher price than that one that's the subject of this post.

Probably the maker doesn't expect to sell but is using ebay as a way of getting his name "out there".

November 28, 2010 at 06:07 PM ·

"Probably the maker doesn't expect to sell but is using ebay as a way of getting his name "out there".

Why not? I sold two of my Violins very successful two years ago on ebay, and get an order from the buyer for another one for the price I charge regular.
I know two makers personal who win gold medals on appreciable competitions those phones never rings.


November 29, 2010 at 02:28 AM ·

I think the tough part is to recognize what the instruments made by said maker will be like in a decade or two. That is pretty close to identifying which stocks will be the best to buy now, or which horse to bet on.
The desired luthiers of tomorrow are starting out today, but so are the also-ran luthiers, and those destined for a different profession. To make this anything less than a gamble will take significant skill to identify the intrinsic value of the instrument independent of the maker. Then you may select a good value instrument, and wait for it to appreciate. Odds are, however, that without you learning enough to be adequately discerning, the instrument will maybe hold its value. In a decade, how it sounds will define the value, not the maker.

November 29, 2010 at 04:09 AM ·

If it is sound you want, the nit is easy to judge. Just play the fiddles. Buy what sounds best. Done.

November 29, 2010 at 04:53 AM ·

I don't understand this statement:

"Bench made instruments by makers in the free world will become more and more expensive because the Chinese competition will reduce the number of makers, just the top makers will survive this competition."

Aren't Chinese makers not makers? Don't they make bench made instruments?

How come the makers get reduced to a less number? If one American/Italian gives up due to lack of competition or ability to beat up the others, then there might be more than 1 Chinese maker rise on the market. So, I don't see how the number could possibly get reduced?

November 29, 2010 at 06:13 AM ·

Only the best will stay in business. That's the point.

Violins are ridiculously cheap now. Except the good ones. When I was a kid in the 70s, a regular Scherl and Roth import, low level instrument cost $800 and that was when a dollar was still worth 50 cents, rather than the devalued  5 cent Ben Bernanke special we have now.

Chinese production shows little sign of slowing. Much of it really sucks but lots of people actually rave about the sound of sucky $1000 Chinese instruments, just as many rave over fiber reinforced epoxy bows that actually sound like total crap.

Good Chinese fiddles do of course exist but are rare. Basically any instrument less than $5k or so is lucky to be good at all.

But that competition and pushing down of the price of the bottom end, combined with the buying public's growing acceptance of crappy sounding shrill, strident Snows and other crap, will push many makers out of business. That's the way it goes.

Once upon a time, giant mandolins roamed the earth [quoting Mike Marshall], but were supplanted by tenor banjos which were in turn subjugated by arch-top guitars. Banjos ruled before the mandolins, too, but they were sweet, gut strung fretless devices then. Fine sounding violins will be replaced by shrill Chinese instruments, and eventually the tide will turn back to good sounds, after the public grows weary and re-discovers sweet, rich violins but that could be many decades ahead. Of course there is no reason why a Chinese factory shouldn't be able to make violins as sweet as, say, a Romanian or a German or a Japanese one, but they need better wood or something to do it. God knows what the market will look like then!


November 30, 2010 at 10:46 PM ·

The problem is that, in order to be a top maker,  you will have first to be  a "minor" and  a "middle" maker, and pay your bills for years while you are in that position.

And  in the free world today (high costs), you can't pay your bills if you are a minor or middle maker because you will not be able to survive the Chinese competition and pay your bills till you get experience (many may years...)  to be considered a master maker and start selling your instruments for a good price that will make your economic life possible.  That's why the number of top makers will get smaller and smaller with time, I think, and the instruments produced by this small elite will get more and more expensive.

Most of the successfull makers today are over 40 years old, some are much more older than that, but I can't mention names here !!!. This current generation of top makers  was formed and started to make instruments 30 years ago - or more - in a scenario that was much less competitive than today, so they were able to progress from minor, to middle, to top makers. That would be impossible for many of them in today's  scenario, I think.  

Many makers that are considered "top" today were considered "minor" or "middle" when they were alive, and they would not pay their bills in Italy if they lived there  today;  they would not survive today's competition. I would include in this list  names such as Scarampella, Rocca (both were very poor, but today they would starve...), almost the entire Neapolitan School,  perhaps 50% - or more - of modern Italians, and even the violins made by Del Gesù in his final period. We know Stradivari was rich ("ricco come Stradivari" was a saying in Cremona) but, as mentioned by the Hills in their book on Stradivari, most makers lived from hand to mouth.

In Italy, during the 60's,  a maker could sell a violin abroad and live 4 or 6 months with that money.  Those were the times of the undervalued "Liretta", I miss it! Today life is darn expensive in Italy and unless the maker can break the tough competition barrier and sell in the  top range he will starve... 

One could say: "well, if the free world is not producing master makers for such reasons, China will produce them", but it is not all that easy. Ours is a very traditional craft.  China was not able till now to produce decent strings for professional players, for instance. The important instruments are still in the free world, the same for teachers, violin making schools, master violin makers, etc. The same for the players, we makers have to rely in  the important feedback of players, otherwise we can stay in the wrong way for the rest of our lives. And as soon as a Chinese player or maker starts making success he will scape to the free world. Top violins made by Chinese makers in the USA are no longer Chinese instruments, they are American instruments, and they have American price tags because the maker is now living in costy America, and not in China anymore. 

America has produced many top makers in the last decades but many  - or most - of these makers are linked someway with Sacconi, who brought the Italian tradition to America in the 30's and produced many pupils, who are responsible for America's success in this field today.

So, tradition is quite important in our craft, and you can't create tradition in 10 or 20 years. 

But I may be wrong.   

December 1, 2010 at 03:28 AM ·


Upon reading your post, suddenly I have this thought about progressing as a maker. If making a living is a problem as a lone ranger, perhaps working at the chinese factory is a better route? It's going to be a big stress trying to produce satisfying instrument to ownself yet speed is needed. But nonetheless, I take that as a great training, and since living cost in china isn't sky high, it doesn't sound like a bad idea afterall, no?

Also let's not exclude the fact that doing lots of repair and setup works can gain lots of knowledges and experiences, while earning some money to survive too. I believe makers aren't just doodle with new violin constructions and doing nothing else.

Of course, what do I know? Please correct me if I'm wrong...

December 1, 2010 at 12:23 PM ·

I am skeptical about gaining lots of experience in a violin factory in China because you will make just a small part of the work in a production line. You will not make entire instruments, you will be specialized in making just a small part of it since the more specialized the worker the more he works fast and gives more profits for his boss. So, in a violin factory  you will know just a part of the whole process. And perhaps you will not like working in a factory in China:

Yes, you are right, most people in the violin business makes money with set up, repairs and restoration.

December 2, 2010 at 12:32 AM ·

I agree with Manfio.  I believe that Scott Cao's enterprise does try to somehow identify and further train promising candidates in their Chinese factories/workshops with some of the best of them coming to the U.S. to work under Scott in his Campbell workshop.  And the best of them eventually get to the point where they produce entire instruments themselves and could eventually go off and set up shop as violin makers themselves.

But I suspect that's the exception and not the rule.

December 21, 2010 at 01:00 AM ·

 Don't you think "lute maker" is just a funny English translation, meaning exactly "luthier"? It's just a generic for a maker of stringed instruments. Violin makers are called "luthiers."

December 21, 2010 at 08:43 AM ·

Laurie, I believe this is because at the time the word was coined such luthiers principally made lutes, along with a number of other instruments. Violins were a much later development embraced by "lute makers". The profession as we know it today, with individuals specializing in a small sub-set of stringed instruments (guitar makers, violin makers, harp makers, etc.) is a very modern development. Even Stradivari made lutes, guitars, viols, etc.


December 21, 2010 at 12:16 PM ·

Stradivari made a number of types of instruments, and perhaps even some cases and bows, but as far as we know, he was basically a violin specialist.

December 21, 2010 at 01:05 PM ·

Does anyone know whether the bow  with a frog in the shape of a tiny lute is still attributed to Stradivari?  It's illustrated in Boyden. 

September 12, 2012 at 05:08 AM · Its interesting to see an eBay listing 2 years after the original post with eseentially the same kind of violin for sale - a "Stefano Renzi" - at exactly the same price.

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