Descriptive title in auctions

March 20, 2020, 11:40 PM · Have anyone had experience in buying an instrument from auctions?
They are such descriptive terms as "fine", "good", "intersting", "probably by..." which appear quite eye catching

I wonder if these terms correlate with more superior instrument/ sound quality
And for those "probably by..." instruments, to what extent can it be authentic?

Replies (13)

Edited: March 21, 2020, 3:43 AM · There's no official lexicon but my non-comprehensive interpretation goes:

Fine - exceptionally well crafted
Good - less fine but a cut above the average
By - Probably labelled, maker verified by an expert (or so obvious as not to need one)
Probably by - consistent with the work of a certain maker and labelled accordingly
Workshop of - has a good label but this guy owned a violin factory
School of - unlabelled; has the hallmarks of a certain maker but lots of them were making similar instruments at this time
Attributed to - Possibly labelled, an expert thinks is "by" but the auction house isn't entirely sure
Labelled - contains a label of a certain maker but either can't be guaranteed, or "we've never heard of this guy" or "could easily be fake" or "obviously not "by" but we can't say who"
Interesting - We think we can plug this one a bit without perjuring ourselves
Auction houses NEVER comment on sound quality

March 21, 2020, 6:50 AM · I thought most of the top auction houses published a list of definitions of these terms. Maybe look at Tarisio?
March 21, 2020, 8:36 AM · I've never come across a published list. The only reference I can find on Tarisio says "The precise meaning of words used to describe instruments, how payment is received, and the amount of the auction house commissions vary by company". The auctioneers aren't always very knowledgeable. At the last one I attended the man with the hammer told us that a violin was labelled "Garnius".
March 21, 2020, 11:38 AM · Fine - very good/excellent in condition (soundpost crack + minor cracks possible)
Good - Beware - many small/mid cracks + soundpost crack
Nothing - Beware!!! - major cracks and intensively worked up
March 21, 2020, 12:16 PM · I'm sure it varies from place to place but in the UK "A fine violin..." doesn't refer to its condition. The condition report comes separately and is another can of worms!
March 21, 2020, 3:10 PM · The terms used in auctions to describe instruments are based on condition and quality of workmanship. The terminology is very carefully worded to reflect the amount of confidence the auction house has in each lot’s authenticity.

Excellent and outstanding refer to instruments that are in especially good shape and have had little to no alterations other than setup. It also applies to instruments that are the best examples of makers’ work; these are the instruments that collectors want to put in reference books.

Very good refers to instruments that don’t have structural issues but may have some minimal signs of wear and even some minor repairs. It can also refer to instruments that are pristine but somewhat average examples of makers’ work.

Good refers to instruments that have had more damage and repair and show more signs of wear from heavy playing. This term can also be used for instruments that are structurally sound and genuine but are not the best examples of the makers’ work.

Interesting is a term that tends to be used for instruments that are either suspected of being fakes or are made by more obscure makers. They’re interesting more as eccentric examples. It can refer to experimental instruments that are departures from makers’ normal work.

The other part of the terminology is the part that deals directly with authenticity.

If a violin is considered genuine, it’ll be listed as “a violin by ___.”

If it’s listed as “probably by ___” an expert has most likely suggested it looks right but hasn’t written a certificate. Sometimes this just means the auction house has a strong feeling about it, but there’s no certificate to back it up. If the buyer can get a top expert to write a certificate, should it ever sell again, it’ll be listed as “by ___” and will fetch a higher price. Lots of buyers spend their lives looking for these rare cases.

If it’s “ascribed to ____” it had a certificate written in the past that is no longer considered accurate. This category often applies to instruments that have been shown to experts and rejected as fakes.

“Possibly by ___” tends to mean the auction house is making a guess about the origin of the instrument. Likelihood of its genuineness is very low, and it’s doubtful enough that no one has bothered to try to get it certified.

If none of the four terms above are used, no one has any idea what it is, or the instrument has been altered to the point of being unrecognizable.

Tone is not a deciding factor because opinions of tone are extremely subjective. Unlike workmanship, tone can be adjusted and changed by luthiers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that instruments often go to auction because they fail to sell in shops.

March 21, 2020, 10:20 PM ·
Edited: March 22, 2020, 4:06 AM · Rich, can you tell us where you found those terms like "excellent" and "outstanding", very good" and "good" describing condition because it isn't my experience in the UK. To illustrate the variation that occurs, I've just been through the catalogue of a specialist auction by an established company that took place in the UK 9 days ago. The cheaper lots are listed with absolutely no comment, presumably on the premise that the buyer would need to discover their condition by personal inspection. In the better half of the sale comments amounted to no more than "has condition issues", "in need of extensive restoration", and "neck detached from body"! Other auction houses are certainly more assiduous, for example Amati shows a detailed diagram of the cracks and other defects, but one cannot absolutely rely on the descriptive material or its absence to gauge the state of the instrument.
March 22, 2020, 12:32 PM · Stan found the thing I was thinking of. How those crude terms would apply to a rare antique violin, however, I have no idea.
March 22, 2020, 3:50 PM · Steve, those terms are often used at Tarisio. I consider them standard auction terminology, and as I mentioned above, auction houses that specialize in instruments are careful to use specific terms like these.

In the same way, violin experts use very carefully selected language in their certificates. Just the choice of one word on a certificate can make a major difference in value.

March 22, 2020, 4:32 PM · The "by", "attributed to", "ascribed to", etc., are fairly clear, even if the divisions between them won't be.

It might take some informed demonstration to show why, if there are four Sartorys or Lamys up for auction, one of them might be "good" and another "excellent," while the others will have no comment.

Edited: March 26, 2020, 1:26 AM · Something else that can dictate the difference between multiple items by one maker is the materials. A gold-mounted bow is going to valued more highly than a silver one, assuming both are in similar condition.

For some bow makers, the best fittings are used on the best sticks.

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