Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Value of Violins, Violas, and Cellos

Written By: Andy Fein

A question I'm often asked is "Why is that violin $400 and that other one $40,000? They look the same to me."

While many violins can look very similar, to a player there can be tremendous differences in sound. To my way of thinking, that should be a reflection of the price difference - the $40,000 violin sounds and feels far better to a player than the $400 violin. And if it doesn't, it's not really worth $40,000!

With violins, violas and cellos, how the instrument plays and sounds to you, the player, should be the paramount consideration in valuing an instrument. If a $2,000 instrument sounds
better to you than a $10,000 instrument, let it. No one hears with your ears except yourself. Play an instrument you love. Forget about the price tag.

Given that, here are some general conventions in the way that instruments are valued.

For new instruments, it should be all about the quality of the wood and the sound. Better quality Spruce for the top will give you a better sound. Generally, a tight and even grain and wood that has been air dried is best. If the grain is uneven, very wide or seems "green", that usually is going to give a very poor sound. Better quality Maple for the back, sides and neck will have tight and even grain. Like the Spruce, air dried is good. The longer the better. And looks count. Pretty Maple has beautiful flame running from side to side on the back. If looks didn't count, we could paint all violins black and use a square block for the scroll. The sound should be open, clear, loud and responsive. You should also be able to play very softly and still get a clear tone. As you go up in value, all these factors should become better. But most importantly, the instrument should sound and look better to you. Simply put, as you go up in value, the instruments should sound better and look better. Play an instrument you love!

For older instruments, values get a bit tricky. The first thing to consider is what exactly is a "value"? Is it how much you can sell it for? Trade-in value? Auction value?  For the purposes of this blog, let's assume "value" is the amount a player could sell an instrument to another player. So not at an auction, not a trade-in value, not what a shop would pay you for it.

A short word about instruments as investments. I'd probably be a much richer guy if I said they make excellent investments! But, I haven't seen many people make much money on their instruments. Especially if you consider maintenance and insurance costs. I'm particularly suspicious of "experts" that claim they are safe and good investments. Let's just say that dealers are not banks and instruments are not certificates of deposit. On the other hand, a well documented Stradivarius in excellent condition will hold it's value quite well. Other instruments, not so much. I've been in the business long enough to see many "expert's" certifications questioned and challenged. Even some held in very high regard. Without the right certification, your $100,000 Guidantus can become a $10,000 Whoknowsit. And a very hard instrument to sell.

If you play a new instrument, it should open up and get more responsive over the first ten years. Generally, a hand made instrument will stay the same or go up in value about the same as the inflation rate. BUT, to retain that value, the instrument needs to stay well maintained, adjusted, and in near perfect condition. Any cracks, large chips or dings, and structural damage will devalue your instrument. Keeping the bridge, soundpost and pegs in good order will help retain value as well.

Buying an older instrument, you should look for condition and sound first. Ignore the price tag, the name of the maker or the country of origin. If you see any large cracks, especially near the soundpost (top or back) I would stay away from it. Or ask for a very long warranty.  Cracks on the back are very problematic.

Play the instrument. Do you like it? Do you love it? Only then ask and think about price. If you like it better than an instrument that is less expensive, then the value is about right for you. If not, keep going. If you find an instrument that looks great, is in good condition, and sounds great, then perfect! You have a match made in heaven. Make sure you love the sound. I can't emphasize enough how important playing an instrument that you love the sound of will help you in your musical career!

Some other guidelines for establishing the value of an instrument are age, maker, and country of origin.
Generally, older instruments sound better. But the older the instrument, the greater the chance there is serious damage and deterioration. That's why an old instrument in good condition is of great value. 

The name of the maker matters, but I would caution about being too influenced by the maker's name attached to an old instrument. None of us alive today were alive when Stradivarius' or Vuillaume's instruments were new, so no one alive now saw that instrument being carried from the workshop. All the experts are making good, educated guesses, but, as I said above, from generation to generation there's a lot of questioning of "experts".

Country of origin has the same problem as ascribing a maker. If it's old, we were not there to see it being made. Generally, Italian instruments are valued the highest, followed ( in order) by French, English, German and the rest of the world. That's a broad generalization and there are many other factors involved.

In general, an instrument that looks good, sounds good and is in good condition will be valued more highly than one that is not. And given that violins are selling anywhere from a low of $50 to almost $16,000,000, there's a lot of room for variations in looks, sound and condition.

Do you think you have a valuable violin, viola, or cello? Many shops (ours as well) offer instrument appraisal services. Simply calling up a shop and telling them what the label inside says is not enough information for a luthier to give you an educated appraisal. They must see the instrument, either in person, or through a series of photographs and measurements if communicating via the internet. 

Happy playing!

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