Looking for an "older" violin

Edited: February 9, 2020, 7:49 PM · My teacher and I were talking, and while I won't be purchasing anything this year, I am going to be looking for an "older" violin. That means something from the '20s (or mid/early 20th) assuming I can find something that fits my budget (when I have one) and has a better sound than my current workshop violin. I will not purchase via the internet. I don't really care what it looks like, it's all about the sound.

Any suggestions of good shops to visit in the MidWest? I want to develop a list of shops in Indiana and surrounding states that are close enough for me to drive.

Replies (15)

February 9, 2020, 7:37 PM · Go to Chicago. There are a ton of good shops there. Note that you do not need to look for an "older" violin. If you all you care about are sound (and other playing qualities), you will find those just as readily in a contemporary violin as an older instrument, and you should look at everything in your price range regardless of age.
February 10, 2020, 5:18 AM · Why do you want an older violin? Because of the bragging rights of having an older violin? There are just as many crap older violins as there are crap newer violins, and there are just as many great new violins as older violins. In my opinion you should go into the purchase of a different instrument with an open mind.

Lydia is correct that you should consider everything in your price range. I will add that you should go with an upper spending limit in mind but also be willing to try some instruments which cost less. Especially with older instruments, sometimes you can find an instrument which doesn't look that great but which plays beautifully and may be your ideal musical soul-mate at a lower price because it's been on the market for a long time and nobody else wants it. So many people go shopping with some amazing non-musical goals in mind and miss out on otherwise great instruments.

Also, be willing to try different bows on those violins. Just because your current bow is good with your current violin doesn't mean that it will be good with another violin.

And don't go with the idea in mind "I simply MUST come home with a different violin today!" I know that shopping trips to places that aren't local are a real bother and can't always be arranged at the drop of a hat but when you are trying to move up to a better violin make sure it's truly the best of what you can afford and not simply better than what you currently have.

Before you go shopping have your current violin looked at by a luthier to be sure the bridge is correct, the soundpost is in the correct location and you have good strings on it, so your current violin is sounding and playing the best it possibly can.

Bring an extra pair of ears, preferably another violinist so that they can play an instrument you're interested in and you can listen from the audience's point of view as well as from the player's point of view. Instruments usually sound quite different to the audience than they do to the player so be sure you like how the instrument sounds from both locations.

February 10, 2020, 6:01 AM · If you want an older violin, get an older violin! Its your life :) But as said, take your time. I did - my new violin was the third one I tried! Actually, I didn't buy it at first, I then tried dozens more and came back to it.

But before you get the old violin do be aware that instruments age, and sometimes not in a great way - like an old car things start to need fixing. Sure, that can happen to a new violin too but its very unlikely if you get one from an established luthier.

When you go to the shop make it clear that you are looking for a playing violin. That may seem odd but most dealers would love to sell you an instrument with a 'name' - which means a lot more $$. One dealer (a very well known one) I corresponded with confessed to having 'playing' violins in a separate category to violins with 'providence'. These are often german workshop instruments - and I have come across them over and over in orchestras. Instruments that people would give their lives to protect. [My current concertmaster plays one for instance.]

Good luck!

February 10, 2020, 7:53 AM · 1920s is not a good time for violin quality, you really need to get back to the early 1800s or before to really get the benefit of an older violin, when instruments were hand made in small workshops
Edited: February 10, 2020, 8:08 AM · Good advice, and thanks! My teacher is encouraging me to look for an older one. I understand the difference between playing and and providence, I am not a collector. At the end of the day I want the one that has the best sound that I can afford. This will likely be the last violin I will buy so when I start looking I will take my time.

Lyndon, that's good to know!

February 10, 2020, 8:22 AM · A real old violin can have a richness of sound that's very hard to find in a new violin, new violins seem to do better at being louder and brighter.
February 10, 2020, 9:29 AM · Lyndon - that is really what I'm looking for, that richness of sound. He may have suggested the 20's from a budget perspective, that is quite likely. Let the savings begin!
Edited: February 10, 2020, 2:30 PM · I'll agree with Lyndon, two posts back, in that violins made in the late 1700's though early 1900's tended to be a bit lame, compared to those made in earlier and later time periods. There are some exceptions, of course.
February 10, 2020, 10:32 AM · How far you travel for your quest will have a very direct correlation with your budget. I don't know what you currently play on, but basically there are a few different tiers of "old" instruments (in the case you are dead set on getting an antique).

At the bottom end, early-20th century workshop instruments can be had for under $2000 and be perfectly fine to play. Most shops will have many of these, and it's probably not worth the extra time travelling long distances to dealers (plus, the big ones don't really even deal in instruments in this price range).

At the top end (French or Cremonese master instruments), there are really only 4 or 5 shops that regularly deal in that kind of instrument, although luckily there is one in Chicago.

I will admit when I first skimmed your prompt I interpreted "mid-20s older instrument" meaning "an older instrument that costs in the neighborhood of $20k". There are a number of older makers in this range but I believe the French Vuillaume workshop makers mostly land in this range. Bein and Fushi, Darnton and Hersh, and Kenneth Warren from Chicago are good choices for this range.

Edited: February 10, 2020, 4:27 PM · Instead of buying something just because it's old I'd recommend a modern maker for about the same price. I have tried some fantastic moderns that beat old any day.

Also if you don't have a nearby shop try Johnson strings. They'll ship and are great to work with.

Edited: February 11, 2020, 7:27 AM · It may be true that there was a 150-year gap in the making of good violins starting in the late 1700s. I wouldn't know. But the thing about violins is that regardless of price-point, what you like in a violin will differ from what I like. And there are plenty of violins out there and a wide distribution of sounds to be heard, so just enjoy your shopping experience. I paid $3500 for a 1895 German workshop instrument at a shop in Richmond. People laughed at me -- they said I overpaid. But in blind tests against $15-18000 violins that I brought home from a different Richmond shop (with teachers and advanced violin students listening), everyone preferred the old German violin. I was ready to buy it for myself when I found a great deal locally on a 2006 Topa, which really matched what I was looking for. So I bought the Topa for myself and the German violin for my daughter. The German violin was better for my daughter because it has a brilliant, clear voice in the high treble and she needed that to advance her skill as she was starting to work on "real" concertos at the time.

My suggestion also is: Don't expect any violins to blow you away. If it happens, fine. But anticipating that, especially if that anticipation is based on the price, or the looks, or the salesperson's comments about a violin, will make for a very anxious shopping day. Better to tell the salesperson up-front that you don't want them to make any kind of prejudicial comments about how any of the violins sound or play. You want to decide that for yourself. I also suggest that you make an enjoyable day of it by bringing along a friend and planning a nice lunch in the middle. Your friend can listen to your comments and keep notes for you as you try several violins. This will, in turn, force you to articulate your thoughts in plain language. Another strategy that people often recommend is to develop a simple checklist or rubric of what you're looking for in each violin. And bring along some easy music.

February 11, 2020, 8:34 AM · I appreciate the helpful comments from everyone, thank you! Paul, I like your idea of taking someone with me, anything that forces us to articulate our thoughts verbally is a good idea.

My teacher told me of one of his former students who seemed talented at finding old violins in unexpected places, like second hand shops, that were very good after a luthier visit. I don't expect being that lucky.

February 11, 2020, 12:28 PM · I think where you go to maximize the number of instruments available to try will depend in large part on what your budget is. At $5k and below, you want to look at as many workshop violins as possible, regardless of country of origin or age. And don't forget to leave yourself money for a bow.
Edited: February 11, 2020, 2:29 PM · What I learned is that you don't need to limit yourself to shops that have dozens of violins in your price range because there is no way you can evaluate that many in a day or two. You're going to spend maybe 20 minutes with each violin, playing it, making notes, shifting your shoulder rest to the next one, etc. By the time two hours has expired, you'll have tried 6 violins. You're going to run out of gas pretty soon after that, trust me, unless you've been able to dispense very quickly with some of the violins you've tried. It can be very tiring and more stressful than you expected. If you are able to try 10-12 violins on your outing and bring home the ones you really like (say, the top two or three?), that'll be a fine day's work and sufficient cause to open a nice bottle of wine. When I went to Richmond I spent the morning at Jan Hampton's shop and the afternoon at Kapeller's, with a quick visit to Don Leister. Don is an example of a maker who charges less for his violins than many others. In the end, however, his violin did not compete with the 1895 German one.

But you should understand my attitude about this is different than most. A lot of people are searching for that perfect soul-mate of a violin. I decided to try a certain number, and unless I was truly dissatisfied with the whole lot of them, then I'd just buy the best from that group and that would be good enough. I wasn't about to make violin-shopping into a years-long epic because I just don't enjoy it enough. My daughter's cello was purchased on the same general stategy -- make appointment with Louis at Potter's, drive there, try 6-8 cellos, buy the one we like the best of that group, have a nice dinner out, stay over in a cheap motel, and come home. Voila -- new cello.

February 11, 2020, 2:45 PM · I don't think you need to spend 20 minutes with each violin. You'll know within two minutes whether it's at all acceptable. Winnowing the bunch to the ones that are acceptable won't take long. From there, it takes a bit longer to decide which are worth trialing and which aren't.

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