cello shopping

Edited: March 23, 2018, 9:38 AM · When I met my husband and we started playing string quartets together, he was playing a really crappy student cello. But he was a grad student living in Boston on an NSF fellowship so buying a really nice instrument wasn't in the cards.

We did eventually go to Reuning and Son, where he tested a number of instruments, including a glorious one that cost $16K. We laughed, and then he purchased one that was a compromise: still so much better than his student cello, but affordable given his savings–-basically a match for my student violin.

Fast forward 18 years: I have recently acquired a much nicer violin; he has a great job and financial security. When we play piano trios together he claims that it's harder to hear himself. He got to play someone's Haide Lin instrument a year ago and was blown away. It's time to go cello shopping again.

For those of you who are familiar with this ritual, what should we know?

How much should one expect to spend on a cello to approximate the caliber of a $12-15K violin?

What about a bow?

There doesn't seem to be as much inventory in most shops (for reasons that seem obvious to me). We'll hit up Ifshin. Where else should we go?

Is commissioning a new instrument a good way to go? We've heard good things about William Whedbee...


Replies (9)

Edited: March 23, 2018, 11:00 AM · We just went through this. A really good cello from the best modern makers averages around $40K, ranging from the 30s to the 50s. A violin or viola from the same maker might run in the high teens to 20s. Good luck!

Edit: under 20 you'd be looking at something like a higher-end Polish maker or German workshop instrument, still very nice; 20-30s you may find younger US makers who are doing really good work but still getting established, for instance Larry Wilke's son, David Folland's long-time assistant, etc.

You really have to play in person instruments by a maker before commissioning, they vary so much in character. Also the size and design of a full size cello varies considerably between different patterns, significantly affecting sound as well as comfort and playability.

Someone in California may need to point you to the right shops there. I know Reuning these days only had two that weren't beautiful expensive antiques, but Carriage House has literally dozens that we got to play like this.

Bows will run around $4-6K for the top modern makers in silver and ebony. And I know Ifshin has a great selection. Vivian is the cello specialist there.

March 23, 2018, 4:39 PM · I never had the pleasure of meeting Stan on his search, but his thoughts are pretty on point with what to look for in instruments of comparable price range and quality of your violin.

Great modern makers averages around ranging from the 30s to the 50s, some top ones a bit more. Usually for cellos of comparable quality, expect to pay double or close to it compared to the price of violins by the same contemporary maker. It really seems to be more than twice the amount of work to make a good cello!

In the 10-25k range a lot of nice first half of the 20th century German workshop cellos can be found, depending on shop and condition. French ones generally run more than that.

For bows, great contemporary makers seem to be in the 3-8k range, depending on silver or gold mounting and reputation.

If you're in the San Francisco area, consider making an appointment to see my shop collection as well! I can do viewings in San Francisco or San Jose. A lot of the descriptions I mentioned are carried in the shop collection, and can be viewed at www.bayfinestrings.com I'll be happy to help and hear from you.

Edited: March 24, 2018, 9:38 AM · When I spent some time at the traveling Cremona Makers' show three different years the prices of the cellos by a given maker tended to be about twice the price of their violins. So you might expect to pay $24 -$30K to match your violin in price. But there can be real bargains from lesser known makers. A mechanical engineer friend of mine became a violin maker (first as a hobby and later as a retirement vocation - he has made and sold 99 instruments - still has his first and last!) and it took him about 120 hours to make a violin and about 300 to make a cello. The wood for a cello is more expensive too (it takes a lot bigger tree!).

Ifshin's has become my "exclusive" shop since I moved to the North Bay 23 years ago. I have tried a number of cellos there, bought one in the late '90s and traded up in 2005. Both are Jay- Haide instruments I would say when set up with proper strings and the right bow they have competed well with cellos I have tried up into the $20-thousands. I also had a one-time student who came by with a Jay-Haide made with European "tone-woods" that would compete with $30K cellos. It's worth a try. I have 2 other cellos (German workshop instruments made in 1877 and 1960) but the Jay-Haide is easier for me to hear when playing in ensembles. I've heard it recorded in a string quartet recital we did and it sounded good!

Ifshin has many, many bows. When I have tried bows there I tried up to 66 in one testing session. I think it is worth trying all bows and cellos the dealer will let you touch even if you can't afford them all. (Jay Ifshin loves bows and spent an hour with me back in his "private collection." I got to hold a Tortoise-shell Kittel that had been Pinchas Zukermann's.) It is worth knowing what you are missing! It helps you know if you are getting closer to your sound goal as you restring your instrument and try other rosins, etc.

I have played Strad and Guarneri violins in Ifshin's shop and had two of my own violins there at the time - I didn't feel bad about my situation. On the other hand, I did spend the summer of 1963 with an incredible antique cello that had cost $10,000 back then, never felt good about any other cello I have played since then - but I still aspire.

Yeah! Visit Ifshin and plan to spend a day! Say "Hello" from me!

ADDED 3/24/2018: Other Bay Area shops I have visited include Joan Balter in Berkeley, Kamimoto and Stevens in San Jose and Feller in San Francisco. I think Ifshin is the largest and they have their own private parking lot!!! I also visited Scott Cao - but I think he only sells his own stuff.

The relationship between a cello and an optimally matching bow is so intimate that one should try the compete price range - sometimes a lower end bow can be just right for a particular instrument. That's why I tested 66 bows in the aforementioned trial (by the way I only found 2 that I thought best matched the cello I was buying for - the only two Ifshin had that were made by Paul Martin Siefried - I bought the one that did not have gold trim).

March 24, 2018, 4:23 AM · How much does it cost for you to "pop across to Poland"? You could save much on the purchase of a good orchestral standard cello.

How much would you spend on a car? One of those dinky four-wheel drive SUV vehicals will cost you more than a first class cello, and the cello will outlive it by several hundred years.

Seriously, my Dankiewicz cello is such a good instrument I would travel the world to replace it, should the need arise, knowing that the replacement would be a fine master-craftsman made instrument at not much more than your violin's price.

Edited: March 24, 2018, 4:32 AM · I don't know how many times I've had conversations with friends wherein they shake their heads in amazement when I tell them what I've spent on violins, violas, and cellos for myself and my kids. And then the total is still less than they spent on just their current vehicle.
March 24, 2018, 7:05 AM · ... and the vehicle already lost 15% of it's resale value even before turning on the engine the very first time - just by putting on the license plate!
March 24, 2018, 9:33 AM · Well, yes, I agree, of course. Just don't ask me how much we've spent on road bikes. ;-)

(more than on our car, that's for sure...)

But this is exactly the kind of perspective that helps. Road bikes, even well-maintained, tend to get replaced after 8-10 years. We drive our cars (well, car, which we buy used) until they stop working, but there, too, we're talking about a sub-20-year horizon.

Graeme, I've been looking for an excuse to go back to Krakow. It's been 22 years.

Heading up to Ifshin this morning, where (I hope) Cy will play celli and I might test some of their famous bow collection. Thomas, we may reach out to you next.

Thanks, everyone!

March 24, 2018, 1:55 PM · I've never spent more than $15k for a car. Right now I have my eye on a 94 Mercedes.
March 24, 2018, 3:21 PM · Katie, I'll look forward to hearing from you. I'm in town this week. Happy searching!

I feel like the car to string instrument analogy works in regards to performance, but not necessarily price, I would much rather have an overall appreciating collection of string instruments rather than depreciating cars! Collectable cars in 6+ figures are the exception, but that seems to be a much more money and space consuming hobby than fiddles are!

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