Violins bought at auction - good and (preferably) bad experiences

Edited: October 10, 2017, 2:09 AM · I see online catalogues are now available for the October slew of stringed instrument sales in London (Bromptons, Ingles & Hayday, Tarisio). I'm already starting to salivate. This time last year I visited Bromptons for a "private viewing", expecting to be shunted off to a broom cupboard, and was instead ushered into the director's office with the director enthroned behind his desk. A slightly intimidating experience, but I was willing to be persuaded to audition several instruments that were well outside my budget.

A year on I feel older and wiser but pretty happy with my two purchases. Would others like to share their own experiences?

Replies (32)

October 10, 2017, 7:17 AM · What 2 things did you end up buying? For things outside of violins seems like often there is winner's curse and buyers regret every time I "win."
Edited: October 10, 2017, 7:39 AM · Last Bromptons I did an after sale bid on a Priestley. It had quite the seam coming undone under the fingerboard so I didn't bid that much. The price they came back with was more than I'd pay for one in need of repair. I'm forever buying at Amati's though.
October 10, 2017, 9:09 AM · Looking at how prices have gone over the years I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that English violins are currently very undervalued. My favourite buy is a Charles Harris c.1830 which impressed me in Brompton's alongside a few others including a Banks. I was lucky it didn't have any concealed defects so a little restoration and setting up only added 10% to the hammer price of £2K.

The other may not have been so lucky although it plays well and again was the best of the bunch I auditioned. It's a William Walton of 1924 which turned out to have a slightly scooped neck. The restorer reckons it can probably be clamped straight although that may add a fair slice to my £700 plus commission. The moral from that, I think, is you can't fully rely on Brompton's condition statements.

I also fell victim to a couple of hulks from Gardiner Houlgate, really just for the practice in setting them up. Wonder if I can get my money back from Amati's? I'm trying to enforce a "no play, no bid" policy on myself but I doubt I'll hold out for long.

Edited: October 10, 2017, 9:25 AM · Last year I was under the idea that violins with neck grafts would always be a good buy without thinking how cheap labour was in the 19th century. It was always much cheaper to 'modernize' an instrument than buy new. So a lot of not-so-good instruments survived. Still, real happy with ones I bought and I get to marvel at the luthier's art! Still, paying any more that a couple of hundred is definitely "no play, no bid" for me.
Edited: October 13, 2017, 8:50 PM · If you buy assuming someone else would do the same, then it really is just a gamble to take it home and see what can be done with it. If it’s not to your taste, then just try to get your money back at another auction and if you profit, great, if not, you learned something.
Thinking like this can really open up more possibilities.
Edited: October 13, 2017, 11:48 PM · The great temptation, of course, is to think you may be the only person to spot a violin's investment potential, but that's undoubtedly an illusion since there are a lot of dealers out there who know more than you do. Except at the very low end of the market the auctioneer will produce an estimated range of prices and the seller set a reserve maybe around what a dealer might be expected to pay if they re interested. A player, however, can have a crucial informational advantage over most dealers - they can find out (roughly) what the thing sounds like!
Edited: October 14, 2017, 3:45 AM · Auctions are a great way to buy. You will pay aproximately half the retail price. Sometimes you can spot a sleeper. I bought a Vigneron Pere at a small auction near Bath. Paid almost nothing for the bow although the papers from France were pricey.

Do your homework. Get someone to check over the violin if you are not sure about condition. Don't let emotions get in the way of the top price you are prepared to pay, and if you fail to secure an instrument let it go in your mind.

Cheers Carlo

October 14, 2017, 5:44 AM · Ah, the one that got away! I spare it a thought.
Edited: October 14, 2017, 10:26 AM · Back in the early '50s my cello teacher would go up to London to one of the big auction houses (Phillips?) and select a couple of cellos for his pupils. He had the professional experience to know exactly what he was looking for and invariably returned with something good. He would set them up well when he returned to Bristol and then pass them on to his pupils for no more than what he paid at auction. The cello, mid-19th century French, he got for me cost £15 which was perhaps about twice the weekly wage of an office clerk in those days (my Dad was a clerk), and it has served me, and more recently my daughter, well ever since.
October 14, 2017, 6:47 AM · Carlo - You must mean Gardiner Houlgate. I bought a couple of violin hulks there a few months ago, mainly for the practice of setting them up. The tailpin block of one of them became detached inside so I also discovered how to take a violin apart and put it back together.

It does amaze me, though, what some people will pay for a wreck that you can't imagine anyone ever wanting to play.

Edited: October 20, 2017, 9:52 AM · I bought a beautiful violin at the Tarisio auction once. It had everything going against it: unknown maker although 18th cent.Tyrolean probably, composite most likely, and substantially altered: the top might have been a small viola once! But it sounds amazing, and looks great. It had some fierce bidding from people who loved the sound and went for double the estimate. But I couldn't love it more than I do... it is absolutely perfect for me. Only caveat: Dealers call it a "player's violin" meaning it has little commercial value. They prize authenticity, condition, and name above tone... so if I ever sell it, it will only be to another player.
October 14, 2017, 11:48 PM · "player's violin" - as if there's any other! Sheesh, if that doesn't put the world's problems in a nutshell.
October 15, 2017, 12:16 AM · @Steve. Yes it was. There is not much expertise there so sleepers can occur.
@Bud. That can work in your favour too. My Amati has soundpost crack and patch in the front. It brought the price down but will only ever be worth a fraction of one in perfect condition.

Cheers Carlo

October 15, 2017, 1:10 AM · Hopefully without starting another 'double-blind experiment' length thread, I contend sound, and to some extent handling, is all.
October 15, 2017, 1:29 AM · Now that more players are starting to take risks with auction violins we just might find prices becoming more closely related to the important thing which of course is the sound. Until that time arrives there are surely bargains to be had (to our way of thinking), although if we want to get our money back with interest we may have a long wait
October 18, 2017, 12:48 PM · Sound is its own reward!
October 19, 2017, 3:51 AM · Loved the "player's violin" definition. I make "player's violas", I see instruments as tools for making music.
If you are looking just for sound and playability, you may find some good things in auctions.
Edited: October 22, 2017, 10:04 PM · Guys, have you seen this is article written by violin maker James N. McKean? He wrote:

Many musicians these days are turning to auctions. While it might seem that you’re eliminating the dealer, you’re not; the auction house takes substantial commissions, often on both ends. And it’s debatable whether you’re getting a better price, either as a buyer or a seller.

October 23, 2017, 12:30 AM · You pay 20% commission instead of 100% markup and there's far more choice. I've bought bows from dealers because I felt they were underpriced.
October 23, 2017, 12:35 AM · That article: "James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977"

A dealer telling us that you should trust the dealer, not ask for second opinions, and not buy in an auction. Well, well.

Edited: October 23, 2017, 1:14 AM · Yes, I also got the feeling the article was slightly tilted. It seems most unlikely that you'll get a better price on a given violin buying from a dealer, although at auction you might end up paying heftily for a violin that a dealer wouldn't touch. The great hope of course is that you can be the bidder who just goes one bid higher than the dealers.

Violin-buying is an angsty experience no matter how you do it, but age brings serenity plus the knowledge that it's your heirs who are most likely to reap the rewards of your "investment".

October 23, 2017, 3:03 AM · Some great demonstrations of sub-Strad level (pricewise) Italian violins currently up for auction at Bromptons can be heard here:

Better be quick because they may take the clips down when the sale ends later today

Edited: October 23, 2017, 3:52 AM · I just dropped my latest auction purchase in to a luthier. He sighed a little and said the repair would likely cost more than I paid, at which point I started trembling and was about to grab it back! Oh, about £60 he said. Someone please tell me there can be the odd factory made 1880ish German violin worth far more than that?!
October 23, 2017, 4:56 AM · nope, your luthier was probably spot on ;)
October 23, 2017, 5:48 AM · At least it was a repair he was willing and able to tackle. I have two c.1900 factory fiddles staring at me from the wall, both bought undamaged from Amati when nobody else seemed to want to offer them a home. What I failed to notice from the spinning 3D images was that one has an absurdly thin neck (about 8mm) while the other has a neck that scarcely departs from the horizontal and a stumpy bridge to match. And neither of them sounds very pleasant.
Edited: October 23, 2017, 7:24 AM · This one is the best sounding violin (out of about 10) that I own. Also, it sounded better than just about every other violin in the preview. Surely something good must have occasionally come out of the factory (even the luthier admitted that!)?
Edited: October 26, 2017, 3:47 AM · Ooops I did it again. A while ago at Bromptons I tried a violin by Emanuel Whitmarsh and liked it (he gets a favourable mention in at least 2 dictionaries of British violin makers) but spent my money before its number came up. Yesterday another one appeared in Amati's online sale and although I hadn't seen or played it, it seemed strangely neglected and I couldn't resist. Its varnish is reported as somewhat scratched and chipped but that was the only adverse comment on its condition. What can be wrong with it? I wait to find out.

Whitmarsh was very prolific and I found 92 records of past auction sales of his violins on Tarisio and Bromptons. When plotted on a graph they look rather curious

Back in the 1980's the prices were consistently around £500 but in 1993 and 1994 a couple of bidders must have got over-excited. Since then the prices have been crazily scattered suggesting the market is very confused. It'll be interesting to do the same exercise on some other prolific makers

October 26, 2017, 2:55 AM · Bought a 1936 Oskar C Meinel ( brand name for EH Roth) got it confirmed by the Roth firm as genuine model 63 (8 levels above the cheapest) Nice condition, no cracks, not antiqued but some natural wear, Ive been told the antiqued ones are more in demand, the new one sells for 4800EU, about what I want to sell this one for.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 6:08 AM · I picked up my late 19th factory made, the cost-more-than-it's-worth-to-repair one. I asked to try one of the luthier's stock with a comparable tone. That one, at 2K and worth every penny, did not have as good a tone - to my ears anyway. Presumably mine's a player not a looker!
November 5, 2017, 12:11 PM · I buy violin bows at auction for my own use.
I have been very lucky to have won a J.J.Martin bow in excellent condition which I use above all my other bows and I do have a good Sartory.
Only once dd I buy a bow that I didn;t like, but sold it on for twice the price I paid for it.
I feel if one asks the right questions, one can get a bargain at the auctions even if it's an internet affair without seeing the thing in person. I wouldn't buy a violin at the auctions sight unseen though, as there are so many variables to consider. I would though if I had the chance to be there and handle and play the instrument.
Edited: November 6, 2017, 2:21 AM · Congratulations kypros! I think you've proved that the utility of a bow is only very loosely related to its price. At Brompton's last auction sale a fortnight ago I witnessed (online) a gold-mounted, ivory frogged Sartory violin bow sell for I think £46K. Presumably the buyer auditioned it for several weeks prior to the sale, as you would if you were buying from a dealer, or did they just take the Sartory name on trust? Back in the real world, my Sartory copy from Yitamusic works pretty well.

Yesterday I collected a pretty decent-looking 1889 violin made by Emanuel Whitmarsh from a charming lady representing (she was actually one of the founders) at a filling station in Wales. We happened to be passing close by, knew that Amati were based in the area and she couldn't have been more obliging. Today I have the exciting prospect of replacing the 50-year-old strings and other attachments, making a few adjsutments and finding out how it sounds. It didn't cost much (about what Whitmarshes were raising at auction in the 1980's) and if it turns out to be a shrieker, I know of another auction house...

November 7, 2017, 3:16 AM · It doesn't shriek, it sounds pretty darn good! Definitely a "player's violin".

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