Edited: June 9, 2021, 6:57 AM · There has been talk of investment value recently in threads about buying instruments for children, and I too, before COVID, and when I didn't now how much I wanted to spend on a violin, was advised to spend my life's savings on one, since it was a worthy investment.

And I remember a year ago when COVID was on the horizon, we were trying to recall what happened to instrument prices either after Spanish flu in 1919 or after the 1929 stock market crash, since we were expecting a COVID-related crash. I can't remember any conclusions, except that maybe Strad values temporarily plummeted. Also I'm not sure if the crash has been quantified yet or if it is still expected to happen.

Why are people so interested in modern makers, is it because they are expecting them to appreciate in value more than antiques?

What about a general discussion to remind ourselves or to focus our thoughts or to predict the future?

Replies (33)

Edited: June 9, 2021, 9:49 AM · There may be expectation that prices will continue to rise, at least in the near future, which could be driving some of the investment. In other words, a violin could be a good investment if it could be sold for a higher price in the future that provides a return exceeding the rate of inflation.

Even when the US had a 20% prime interest rate in early 80's, people were still buying houses, cars, and jewelery with the expectation that prices could be even higher the following year. Today, everything including real estate, hamburgers, 2017 Volkswagons, and tennis shorts on eBAY are going up in price. Perhaps the only thing that might contain these price increases is a tighter monetary policy from the world's central banks.

I think antique violins could be a good investment long term but I also think there is a chance they could be a not so great investment if players/collectors started to prefer newer instruments as opposed to antiques.

June 9, 2021, 9:57 AM · not interested in them as an investment, but there's some very good modern makers making very nice instruments that are great to play. That's enough reason to be interested in them.

As investments, violins are like everything else. When they popular with investors, they're good. When they're not, they won't be. Many high prices are the result of others buying for high prices. When the carousel stops, values fall.

Edited: June 9, 2021, 4:10 PM · Things really did crash in the GREAT DEPRESSION. I recall reading that the value of classic instruments really did plummet. I was not born until 5 years into the depression, but because my father had a job he and my mother were able to purchase really fine used items that the formerly wealthy were forced to sell: complete furnishings for our home, Chickering baby grand piano, Scarampella violin with Voirin & Weichold bows, etc.

Nothing like that has happened because of COVID-19. I'm no economist and my Econ 101 course 69 years ago did not equip me with the prophetic insight to foresee what proposed changes in tax laws might cause in the future.

A friend of mine bought an early 20th century Italian violin from Bein & Fushi for $100,000 over 20 years ago. He put it up for sale a few years ago after he stopped playing because of failing health issues. I had seen that sales prices for that maker had risen about 50% by then - but if you sell on consignment the seller probably takes about 20%, you don't get your money when you want it - you might have to wait for years. If your instrument sells at auction it will likely bring no more than 50% of it's retail "value." Dealers will also likely offer no more than the likely auction return unless they have a buyer "in hand."

My own auction experience is limited to a single event in which I was the seller not a buyer, the item was not a musical instrument and I did not attend the auction. We were disposing of several antique items, one of which sold for fifty times (i.e., 5,000%) above the initial estimate by the auction house. That can only happen if there are multiple buyers who know what the item is and want it very much.

Instruments by some modern makers have really appreciated significantly - especially when well-known world-class musicians have acquired some of their work - also, when makers get a reputation for consistent high quality their value goes up pretty fast and far - and when those die and can't make any more!

Edited: June 9, 2021, 10:55 AM · The price of everything dropped during the Great Depression, 1929--1939. Part of that was essential deflation. Economist Milton Friedmann argued quite effectively that the Federal Reserve bank did the opposite of its primary responsibility, stopping financial panics. They reduced the money supply, raised interest rates, while banks were failing and the stock market was dropping. The Feds other responsibility is to prevent inflation; match the money supply to the real aggregate of goods and services. Since the Feds start in 191_, gradual inflation has reduced the value of the dollar by more than 90%. Having failed at both of those responsibilities, during our recent Great Recession, the Fed has also tried to stimulate the economy by taking the short term interest rate down to zero, like pushing on a wet noodle. The Fed has recently announced that they will tolerate an annual inflation rate of 2%, instead of the previous 1%. During this virus shutdown, trillions of extra dollars have been sent to people that are not working. Even orthodox Marxists know this to be wrong (labor theory of value). Inflation is equivalent to an added tax on all bonds, bank accounts, and income.
Edited: June 9, 2021, 11:48 AM · In my opinion, with rare exceptions the only people who are making money on violins are the dealers. I would never advise the average non-wealthy person to consider the purchase of a violin as an investment. Violins are the very opposite of liquid, for one thing, and then there is usually a commission if/when one does sell.

I have sold two professional quality instruments in my life. Both took over a year to sell. I made a few thousand dollars on one sale and lost $10,000 on the other, mostly because the violin had originally been misrepresented to me and I had paid for what I thought I was buying instead of what it turned out to be.

My current main violin is a Cison which I bought a couple of years ago. My hope is that its value will go up when Bronek Cison stops making new instruments, which could be a long time from now (and I hope it is). I expect to sell it at some point in the future after I retire from the symphony, and while I hope to make money from the sale, that’s not why I bought the instrument. I bought it because I liked it very much and it was within my budget.

June 9, 2021, 11:58 AM · Buy gold. Its value relative to the dollar has been going up and up for decades now, ever since the gold standard was abolished.

I wouldn't "invest" in instruments, unless your desired return is hours of enjoyable playing and musical satisfaction!

June 9, 2021, 4:45 PM · In a financial book that I read recently there was an interview with a prosperous family with a big old Villa in Rome. Their family wealth had survived centuries of wars, revolutions, financial trouble. Their "secret" was only 3 things; buy land, gold, and art. How do people deal with hyperinflation?, as in Germany 1920, Argentina-twice, and Venezuela-now. Buy stuff as soon as you get paid. It is OK to buy things with loans at fixed interest rates. Exchange your money for another currency. Warning; - China is counterfeiting coins.
Edited: June 9, 2021, 5:58 PM · Cotton, keep in mind that if an actual crash happens, everything will plummet, including Gold. Gold is traditionally an inflation hedge, but as we are due for a deflationary cycle, it's not the best investment choice currently IMHO.

As for long term growth, gold has consistently underperformed pretty much all other investment vehicles.

As for the OP's questions:

1) don't spend your life savings on a violin, just as you wouldn't want to spend your live savings on a collector car. With a physical asset, you have to insure them which really digs into the returns you'll get. The only exception I can think of to this is if you're a top soloist, and by publicly playing on the violin, you'll actually be adding to its value.

2) If the crash was already determined to happen, that information would lead to a crash. There is no reliable way to predict a crash because the government can always jump in and do more artificial quantitative easing and stimulus to further delay it. So even experts on this topic are consistently wrong because crashes that *should* be happening tend to be delayed by government action. However, if you want my current opinion, it is that prices in almost all investments have run up too quickly, and we're going to be in a slightly downward-oriented limbo for a while. So not a fast crash, but a slow one. People who have made a bunch of money in the past year are going to be selling some of their investments once the crazy returns stop, and using their money to buy consumer items now that things are kinda-ish returning to normal. This will be amplified by interest rates increasing (which btw will likely decrease home values), and people reducing their margin (leverage) on stock purchases. And all this consumerism might cause some inflation, but once supply chain issues stop, I don't think it will be that bad. Anyways, this is highly complex and I'm losing my train of thought, but long story short, I think a slow downward limbo or perhaps sideways limbo is the most likely scenario for the next year or so.

Fun fact: Spanish Flu is the direct ancestor of all current flus. 100 years from now people may talk about getting the "covid" but it won't be a big deal because lethality will have similarly mutated out of the strains (that's my guess).

3) Not sure what you mean by "interested in modern makers." Do you mean as investments? Or do you mean: why are musicians interested in them? The simple answer is that you can get a really nice playing violin for a relatively low price with a modern maker, as opposed to paying significantly more with old violins. The problem I have with modern makers is it's hard to trial a lot of them in one place. I can't just go down to my nearest violin shop and trial more than a handful of modern makers.

But as investments, my guess would be that top modern makers' violins will appreciate at a similar rate to that of top old makers. The difference is that you can get a similar rate of % return for a lower minimum entry. You might buy a Burgess or a Curtin violin and have it appreciate at something like 10% per year, and you only have to put in 40-50k to get that return, as opposed to buying something like a strad, which will give similar % returns but requires a MUCH larger minimum entry point.

Edited: June 9, 2021, 5:54 PM · The best systematic return from art of any kind (as opposed to buying a Vermeer at a yard sale) is the untaxed dividends you get by enjoying it.

For musical instruments, you can also get by with calling them tools of the trade, and depreciating them for taxes. That does mean a higher capital gain when you finally do sell, but it allows you to measure valuation. If you're taking a $70,000 annual expense on taxes but your income is half that, for example, you might be going about it wrong.

June 10, 2021, 12:53 AM · As the topic of this thread is "investment", and not "violin investment", and in relation to COVID, I will allow myself to go off-topic for a moment.

All stocks crashed last spring. However, that presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy cheaply into companies that had strong fundamentals and would eventually come back to their previous value (aircraft manufacturers or cruise lines, for example), or those that had directly to do with COVID itself (vaccine-related firms).

Now those stocks are no longer bargains but they were a year ago. Suffice it to say that if you had invested six months ago into BioNTech (BNTX, Nasdaq), the inventors of the Pfizer vaccine, your investment would have doubled.

June 10, 2021, 8:30 AM · Dmitri is correct in his assessment of the stock market.

The advantage of contemporary violins is that you can get commission something to suit your desires. For the upper tier of contemporary makers, you'd be spending a lot less money than for a comparable-playing antique.

Antique instruments with solid attributions to respected makers have a dual audience -- players who want to play them, and collectors that want to stick them in a vault. They are art objects, and this creates a price tension, especially as more and more makers zoom past reasonable affordability (and value for the money).

Now, the nice thing about instruments as expensive tools, is that you can eventually get your money back out, often with interest equivalent to having invested in the S&P 500. So your use of it has been basically free, other than your capital being tied up in it in an entirely illiquid fashion (rather than being put to work perhaps driving a greater rate of return).

For many older symphony musicians, who bought high-quality makers at a time when you could do so for a significant-but-achievable sum of money, their instrument represents their retirement nest egg -- and they've gotten a lifetime of satisfaction out of the thing.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 9:12 AM · Thank you, Lydia. The reason I brought this up was that it is not necessarily easy to sell your instrument at the proper value. Obviously you want retail value, but an instrumentalist will not be a dealer at the same time, and that brings up a problem.

I lived this experience myself when my dad passed away, and I had to liquidate the estate. He had two Steinways including a concert grand D-model, both purchased new. The latter proved very difficult even to place on consignment, and despite my own contacts in the business in the end I had to truck it across three states to a showroom which would accept it.

After a complete reconditioning including replacement of the mechanicals it took two years to sell for 2/3 of its original as-is appraisal. And this is for a piano that Vladimir Ashkenazy wanted for himself, but that my dad got because he had first dibs at the factory.

June 10, 2021, 9:56 AM · Another chapter in the "Bigger Fool" theory. You purchase something because you assume that one day, somebody else will want to purchase that item from you for more money than you paid for it.

Yes, there are businesses built on re-selling everything. However those are business decisions based on market analysis. People buy food instead of growing it themselves, people don't make their own clothes, et cetera. There is a market for all of these items, even instruments.

Unless you are very cold and calculating the risks of assuming that somebody is going to want your violin for a lot more than you paid for it just isn't going to happen.

There was a mention of the stock market. That also requires cold calculations that most people don't do. They buy and sell on emotion looking at the stock market as a big legal casino.

If want to make a small fortune buying and selling violins, you must start with a large fortune. Unless you are very good at the violin market, your large fortune will get smaller - guaranteed.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 11:11 AM · There is research being done on violin prices, mostly by people who are raising money to invest in them.

One factoid that puts some of this in perspective-- my grandfather was given what, in his day, was a very decent violin to go off to college. The requisite number of vowels, etc., although it wouldn't have made the cover of any auction catalogue. Today, its appraised value would be high enough to cause alarm among people who remember when bread sold for 15 cents.

But the compound growth of its value over those 108 years is only 5.7%. And that is only the gross return, not taking inflation, insurance, or repairs into account. With all that in tow, it is lower than you probably could have done with equities. And that is even after survivor bias favoring this maker. Plenty of other decent instruments would have seen less appreciation.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 11:19 AM · Something related that I haven't seen mentioned yet here is that over on the makers / dealers forum, the first rule of antique violin pricing is that the price has little to do with how the instrument sounds. Pricing is based on maker, provenance, condition, and the market. I'm sure you can find some happy medium but if I was a musician stretching to afford something as an investment first, I'm not sure I'd like that compromise. Maybe if the investment thing was just one consideration, in search of that happy medium, you'd come out better.
June 10, 2021, 5:25 PM · As with any investment, diversification will help to mitigate risk. I use the rule of no more than 5% of my total net worth tied up in instruments and bows.
June 11, 2021, 2:29 AM · Judging from auction prices some sectors of the antique violin market (e.g. English violins) have been stagnant for 20 or more years. And adjusted for inflation I think there are very few contemporary makers whose instruments will ever truly appreciate. Italian violins seem to be in continually increasing demand but that could prove to be a bit of a bubble.
June 11, 2021, 2:38 AM · "Judging from auction prices some sectors of the antique violin market (e.g. English violins) have been stagnant for 20 or more years."

With the proviso that my teacher's English viola cost her 11k 30 years ago. It's now worth 40k.

Edited: June 11, 2021, 3:01 AM · @Gordon - going back 30 years that's not so surprising and to be worth £40K it must be a pretty exceptional viola. Going back further of course there was a lot of inflation. My first decent violin (English) that cost £120 in 1971 would now probably be worth £3-4K retail, roughly in accordance with the PBI (Price of Beer Index).
Edited: June 11, 2021, 3:56 AM · In 1999 a study was published by the University of Cincinnati, where they took a group of fine violins ranging from Antoniazzi up to Nicolò Amati and saw how sale prices fared between 1960 and 1996. To maintain statistical relevance, Strads and del Gesùs were excluded from the list.

In that period, the DJI maintained an average 6.8% yearly increase, Standard and Poor's did 7.4%, and this group of instruments achieved an average yearly increase of value of 11.7%.

By any yardstick this sounds like an incredible investment, but I draw one's attention back to the main caveat, which is it is difficult for a musician to sell his/her instrument at retail price.

Edited: June 11, 2021, 4:24 AM · @Dimitri - was that adjusted for inflation? If so, whose inflation? In 1960 the average weekly wage in the UK was about £20 (the maximum wage for professional footballers!). By 1996 it was more like £400. Counting on my fingers I reckon that's not far off 7% pa and the Price of Beer Index was in close step. Of course inflation was probably much lower in the US.

Also I suspect that the finer the violin, the greater the appreciation.

Edited: June 11, 2021, 4:47 AM · @Steve, I don't think the numbers were corrected for inflation. But you do have a point, because the prices were in USD, or corrected to that currency.

Inflation in the '70s in the States was a big issue. The U.S. had in fact been forced to abbandon the so-called Gold Standard, where 1 oz. Troy of gold was by law worth $35. Although for a while it was illegal for Amercans to buy gold (and thus boost its value), the cat got out of the bag and it didn't take long for gold to hit $800/ oz. T. As I write now, 1 oz. Troy of gold is worth $1,893.05.

The dollar suffered massively through inflation (anyone remember W.I.N. - Whip Inflation Now? Gerald Ford) but in the end it was just for a decade or so.

June 11, 2021, 7:26 AM · My plastic oboe cost £99 in 1973. By 1978 I was insuring it for £300.
June 11, 2021, 7:58 AM · Even when violin price data is reliable and relevant (i.e., accurately reported private retail transactions-- hah!), there isn't all that much of it compared to what is routine in financial or real estate markets. Also, that period from 1928-1960 was not a great time to be selling an instrument that had been bought back in the 20s. While the numbers after that did catch a nice wave, as Asian markets exploded and the wealthier end of the spectrum caught a larger share of global prosperity, there was nevertheless a lot of catching up to do.
June 11, 2021, 4:27 PM · I more than doubled my money on the 19th century violin that I bought in 2000 and sold in 2015. Took a year to sell, though.

Then again, I've got a contemporary (made in the 1980s) American instrument that's been sitting on consignment for years and years.

June 11, 2021, 5:39 PM · And even doubling in 15 years is less than 5% per year. Not at all bad, but (as you say) with imperfect liquidity and much uncertainty.
June 11, 2021, 7:32 PM · You can play your violin, its not much fun to try to play with your stock market holdings.
June 12, 2021, 2:32 PM · Indeed. During those years, I had use of a fine violin essentially for the cost of capital. The bow that I purchased at the time has quadrupled in value, though. (I've been contemplating selling it, but recently I've found that I actually like it a lot for fiddling.)

June 12, 2021, 2:52 PM · Untaxed dividends. Those won't go to a financial buyer.
Edited: June 12, 2021, 3:21 PM · Whether or not the cost of a violin is recoverable, or turns a profit, even the worst scenarios can look a heck-of-a-lot better than trying to recover the cost of a fifteen-year-old computer, or automobile, which most of us buy without any thought to depreciation or "investment" value.

June 12, 2021, 3:20 PM · Sure. But you don't have entrepreneurs raising money from pension funds to troll around used car lots. Yet.
Edited: June 12, 2021, 3:43 PM · In my opinion, ethically-questionable people have managed to be so pervasive in every sort of business, that it's all a minefield.
June 12, 2021, 6:24 PM · If you think of individual makers as artists who happen to produce objects that also have utility, it might reframe your thinking a bit. When we buy hand-crafted stuff from artisans, we're supporting a creative lifestyle that we should, in my opinion, try to keep in the world.

I buy "real art" from galleries. But I also sometimes buy handcrafted stuff from folks on Etsy, or cheap but unique prints from people who are on DeviantArt.

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