Why a violin’s auction price is always much lower than shop price?

June 9, 2021, 1:09 PM · I have been observing Tariso and T2 auction price for violins in the past half year and I checked historical auction price for certain maker and it is so obvious that the auction price is usually much cheaper than price listed in a violin shop. Does it mean that it is more cost effective to buy from auctions? Apart from having no after-sale service, what are other main risks that come along with buy from auction?

Appreciate views from experts who have experiences in the field. Thanks!

Replies (25)

June 9, 2021, 1:27 PM · I’m no expert other than being a professional violinist, but it is the difference between wholesale and retail.

The other issue is that buying from an auction is usually buying blind. You don’t have a chance to try the instrument out on approval, you may or may not be able to inspect it for condition and authenticity, and at any rate you really need to know what you’re doing for that. I would never try to buy anything at auction because I am in no way qualified to evaluate the condition or worth of such an instrument.

June 9, 2021, 1:37 PM · I was on the other side of that, wondering if there are any people that buy directly from auctions, since there is no way to put one's hands on the instrument.
Edited: June 9, 2021, 2:32 PM · I bought an instrument from Tarisio and had a very positive experience. So I can speak about their particular auction format. It is a very transparent process. You can try the instruments in the auction at their gallery in NYC or London. They issue full condition reports on their website for each instrument and bow by request. In addition, in the regular Tarisio auctions, all instruments come with certificates and appraisals. T2 auctions are for instruments lacking documentation and clear attribution, hence the lower estimates and reserves. Tarisio is very honest about this and everything is out in the open.

I actually liked this experience I had at Tarisio more than going to some dealers who’ve tried to use aggressive push selling tactics on me. At Tarisio, you are left alone with 50 or so instruments to try back to back and you can make your own decisions without someone holding your hand.

Some teachers in NYC or Chicago tell their students not to go to auctions because they have agreements with violin dealers where they are getting large commissions from the dealer after the sale to a student of theirs. This is a very unethical and dishonest practice in my opinion.

The reason auction prices tend to be lower than buying from a dealer is because you’re not paying the exorbitant dealer commission and overhead fees. I recall Tarisio takes a small cut added onto the final bid price from the buyer, which they call the ‘buyer’s premium.’ I would certainly review the fine print before bidding. If you live in NY State and choose to pick up your instrument or bow in person at their NYC office, after the sale, you will have to pay an additional NYC and NY State sales tax which adds up to 8.875%. If the instrument/bow is shipped to you out of state you can avoid the tax. I do not know what the taxes are for the London auction.

The auction format insures that the instrument has more visibility than some dealers. Most of the instruments are sold within a month rather than sitting in a dealer’s vault for years. Some of the sellers prefer to part with an instrument more quickly and a auction can provide that opportunity.

June 9, 2021, 2:38 PM · There is often a lot of work that goes into a fiddle, between the time a dealer buys it at auction, and the time they offer it for sale.

I spent about two years working on a Strad which was purchased at auction, before it was considered ready for sale.

Edited: June 9, 2021, 5:32 PM · I bought my main violin and several bows through auction at Tarisio, Bromptons and Amati. All my purchases were in the sub-$10,000 range. I should say, I am an amateur musician and don't have the most discerning requirements in my instrument purchases.

The reason auction prices are lower than shop prices is imperfect information. When buying at an auction, you know very little information about the quality of the instrument (even if there are certificates to show their provenance). If you live near London or New York you can attend viewings, but even then your interaction with the instruments is very limited.

Whereas when buying from a shop, you are buying peace of mind. You can trial violins for extended periods and return them if they have any issues. The shop has selected instruments that exceed a certain standard and they are vouching for the violins they sell. You are able to get a lot more information about the quality of the violins at a shop than at auctions.

That being said, my experience has been generally positive from buying from fine instrument auctions. As I live near London, I have the ability to attend pre-auction viewings and pick up purchases in person. I had a great find with my violin and my viola bow. However, I bought a violin bow by a well-known french workshop that was a bit of a dud. 

Buying at auction can be a good deal. But I would only recommend it to musicians if they are open to surprises (positive or negative). It is a bit of a risk but it can be a success if you have an open mind. 

June 9, 2021, 6:00 PM · The dealer bears costs to prepare, risks that they might have got attribution (and condition) wrong, and the cost of capital to hold it in inventory.

In exchange, the customer CAN (doesn't always) get a better chance to try it out, show it to teachers, etc. And think about the problem knowing that the gavel isn't going to fall in 48 hours. They also have someone to come yell at if it proves unsatisfactory for a serious reason.

None of that offers dealers a license to steal, and there is a lot of grime in the trade. But it shifts some of the risks around in ways that might be useful.

June 9, 2021, 7:27 PM · I purchased both a bow and a violin blindly through Tarisio auction both in London and NY. I took big chances but fell in love with both my Mazzotti violin and Morizot pere bow. One of these days I'll attend a NY auction and try things out but I had super positive experiences. I will say the London auction did get me good with exchange rate and overseas taxes.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 1:12 AM · Violin auctions are like betting on the horses. My last little flutter was on a violin that looked superb and came from a highly respected stable. It wasn't possible to take it for a test ride but the odds were very tempting.

Unfortunately its neck, head and front legs turned out to have been transplanted from different animals entirely (struggling a bit with the analogy here) and taken all together it performs like a nag. Never mind, I've had auction successes too.

June 10, 2021, 2:00 AM · This is true of everything at auction, not just violins.
June 10, 2021, 3:03 AM · If I'm not mistaken, you can go and try the violins at auctions before you buy them.

However, most auctions take place in either London or New York, so if you don't live in those areas, you're going to have to pay for the flight out there, not to mention the time spent, so the costs add up quick. You also can't trial an auction instrument for 1-2 weeks like a violin shop would let you do, so that's a pretty big deal.

Another thing to consider is this: why are those particular instruments being sold at auction instead of through a shop? They know that they likely won't get as much, so why? Well, maybe they're crappier instruments. Or beat up. Or maybe they just want to sell them quickly. Either way, this is yet another variable that goes into the cheaper cost.

Edited: June 10, 2021, 4:15 AM · The only person I know who bought at auction was allowed to try out an instrument - but in a darkish room with a dozen other people playing instruments at the same time. He liked the sound of his and got it for a good price but didn't even realise until after the auction that it had a 1mm wide crack the entire length of the top! last time I saw him he was trying to sue the auctioneer, but he still liked the sound of his instrument, and the price was good, so he didn't feel too let down.
June 10, 2021, 5:29 AM · Most of the instruments sold at major London auction houses can be played by appointment. Tarisio have a beautiful establishment with large auditioning rooms. Brompton's and Ingles & Hayday in my experience are much more chaotic and you may have to contend with other players bashing away almost at arm's length. Auctioneers' condition reports are of variable quality and cannot be relied upon as comprehensive. Their attribution, on the other hand, should be legally binding.
June 10, 2021, 6:03 AM · the premise of the OP is not true, auction prices are often just as high, and sometimes even higher than full retail, it all depends on how knowledgeable the bidders are and how badly they want it.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 6:30 AM · OK, that is sometimes true - I remember a few years ago a friend noticed a used Bruko uke selling on EBAY for 140 euros, when new ones were still available for 120. But EBay is often a special kind of stupid.
June 10, 2021, 6:34 AM · I'm not talking about ebay, I'm talking about established auction houses like Tarisio. ebay is almost always priced above retail.
June 10, 2021, 8:12 AM · For higher-end stuff in good condition with decent attributions that might be directly attractive to players, auction prices are going to be much closer to retail. But that's a tiny minority of things at auction, I believe.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 8:45 AM · But lower end stuff - as has probably been said - often needs a lot of work. I knew someone whose extra large viola (18 3/4") had been made by a luthier out of three cellos. Someone else commented that it was a waste of cellos, but if you can get some beaten up stuff for next to nothing, then it's a good use for them.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 10:02 AM · In the UK (and I believe the EU, don't know about US) if you bid online you have rights: 'A consumer buyer normally has the right to cancel the contract and claim a refund without giving any reason at all. The right is provided because, in distance contracts, there is no opportunity to examine goods before they are delivered. The consumer can cancel, at the latest, 14 days after they receive the goods.' Check the Consumer Rights Act 2015
June 10, 2021, 11:20 AM · I bought a violin bow at T2 Auction for $2k and I was very happy with the purchase. It feels like buying blind as I can only see some pictures and specification numbers. Agree there is good chance of having either positive or negative surprises. So I would not place big budget on it. Only the amount that I can afford if fails to meet my expectations.
June 10, 2021, 12:01 PM · I was very happy with my viola purchase from Tarisio (this was from the precursor to the T2 auction, the "trade and speculative auction"). I bought it while I lived in NYC and was able to try it out in the show-room. The premium for the viola's price range was 20%, so with taxes I paid about 30% higher than the hammer price. I bought it purely for the sound, so I wasn't especially concerned about attribution. For context, I paid less than 5k total, so as far as instrument prices go it was "relatively" low.
Edited: June 10, 2021, 3:11 PM · Keep in mind that unlike most players, most dealers who bid at auctions are life-long professionals at assessing things like what will be required to put a violin into really good shape, and potential profit margins.

There can be some good deals (a person once bought one of my violas at auction for 16K, after checking with me that it was genuine), but I consider it to be risky enough that I have personally never purchased anything at auction, despite having 50 years in the trade.

June 10, 2021, 5:20 PM · I’ve had good luck purchasing from Tarisio and T2. Instruments at the fine auction are set-up and ready to play with no needed repairs. The T2 is for trade professionals so you have to be more knowledgeable and risk-tolerant for that auction. Tarisio works with some of the best luthiers, appraisers, and certification experts. If they give an instrument a certain attribution it is very reliable. Many of the instruments and bows come with certificates from the most noted experts in the world. I’m not sure about the prices being half of retail. I’ve seem many items sell over retail, sometimes vastly over retail.
June 10, 2021, 7:22 PM · Some notable shops have a standard for violins they will sell on commission, and they make sure they are set up properly, one assumes. The good shops I've been to wouldn't accept a crappy violin even in the hopes they can sell it. Not so with an auction house. You have to know what you're doing. And if you're buying blind, you're really taking a chance. Violins and bows can look amazing in pictures, and be extremely disappointing in person...even if the attribution is genuine. That said, you can definitely get a bargain at auction, but at this point that's often the exception. Educating oneself about what a good violin actually is, is the best defense when buying from either a shop or auction...
Edited: June 11, 2021, 2:10 AM · I was very pleased with my first auction purchase from Brompton's that I was able to try out before bidding. The violin was firmly attributed to an early 19th century English maker although the label apparently says "....Cremona..."! I compared it with one by the same maker in the shop of a knowledgeable dealer and the similarities were pretty clear; I didn't inquire his price but I suspect the differential would have been around 4:1.

However the dealer said that although he was in agreement with the attribution, he wouldn't touch my violin with a barge pole, and of course he would have been able bid against me if he thought it worthwhile. Maybe he was just being snooty, but his distain was largely on account of the condition which might be described as "cosmetically challenged" with a few imperfectly mended cracks. He reckoned my violin would need disassembling and a great deal of work to put into "retail" condition. But having had it inspected and set up by an excellent luthier I'm happy playing it and if I should ever need to sell (by auction for sure) I'm confident I won't lose too much money.

June 11, 2021, 2:31 PM · I really think the points Mr. Burgess is making are excellent. Acquiring a violin is a process of getting to know the instrument, but is also a process of establishing a work relationship with the luthier who's been taking care of it. A reputable dealer who is also a luthier or maker will have invested a considerable amount of time into making sure that the instrument changes hands in excellent condition, and will already be familiar with its quirks. Even though I'd feel comfortable taking my violin to other good luthiers, I still bring it back to its "home base" shop given the chance.

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