So You Think You Found a Stradivarius?
When you see an antique violin the first thing you think of is how do I get a violin appraisal? You have either been shopping for a violin for you or your child or you just inherited a violin or 2. We got started in the violin community 8 years ago because we inherited 53 antique violins in need of appraisal. So we will try to share with you some of the things we have learned about violin appraisal.
The first thing is to ask just what have you got? I mean there are violins worth dirt and there are the ones worth 3 to 5 million dollars. Let’s dispel the legends and let you know that your chances of finding an original from the 16th or 17th century is as close to 0% that you might as well just realize it is 0%. Don’t even hurt yourself by dreaming that this is not the case. If it had value of over $100,000 some one would have figured it out by now. Under this value we are getting into the law of supply and demand. There are lots of the violins for sale in the $1000 or less range. The higher the price it fetches means there has to be a limited supply of what violinists and collectors want from a violin.
What gives a violin value? The one thing I was trained was that it is first about the sound. A violin can be beautiful and it can be in fantastic condition but if there is something wrong and it is offensive to listen to, it will have no value except to sit in a collector’s cabinet. Thus there will be limited demand and a lower price. Second it must look good. This means that it is made from nice looking and nicely grained spruce and maple. It must be crafted to show off the grains and yet be functional in delivering the right amount of reverberation to give the violin the desired sound. The third priority is that it is in good condition. With lower valued violins in the first 2 categories, it can be cost prohibitive to try to bring them back to nice condition. The more valuable a violin is in the first 2 categories the less it matters what it costs to return the violin to “like new” condition. If you spend $2000 to sell a violin for $2000 you are just spinning your wheels. If you spend $15,000 bringing back a $100,000 violin…I think you can figure it out.
Here I feel we must back track a little and address the look of the violin some more. Look is just not the wood but how the violin was made and by whom. By nice wood I do not mean that just the look of the grain is important but that the grain of the spruce shows whether the resonance of the violin will be good and therefore the sound will be good. Experts in violins can look at the grain of the wood and it has been documented what was grown where and when. It is like grapes for the wine. Some orchards produce a distinctive taste that makes good wine. Well for violins some forests produce wood that made better violins. Germany was a hotbed of violin building at the turn of the 20th century because of the closeness of the factories to forests of nice maple and spruce trees that made for very nice violins.
At that point it is how the violin was made. Antique violins were made in 3 ways. They were hand made like Stradivarius violins . In some cases they were made in cottage factories where several people worked to build the violins. Each would have a job and someone would assemble all of the parts. As the industrial revolution progressed, the factories got bigger and moved out of cottages and into the cities. Even then it was how it was made. Cheaper violins may not even have blocks in the body of the violin. They used cheaper wood and left out steps for making better violins.
For most of these violins the maker is anonymous. It may have a stamp that says Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 17-- (Latin for This was made by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona, in the year...) or some version of this. It may say copy of one of the Amatis or of Jacobus Stainer. Yeah, they made knock offs even in olden times. The most valuable violins are the hand made violins of the masters. The same is true for violins being made in modern times. There are all the levels of competence now and there was then. So there are bad violins, nice violins, and quality keeps getting better and better until you reach the apex which is the violins of the masters. There are all levels of hand made violins as there are all levels of factory made violins. The nicest violin in our collection is the Wolff Bros which was factory made but very well made with very nice wood and a very nice sound.
Once you get past about $5000 for a violin, documentation really starts to matter. It is helpful below that point but after that it truly has a strong influence on value. People spending that amount want to know where the violin was made and by whom. Then they can make sure that it is authentic and then one can judge whether it is a good version of the Luthiery’s work or one of the lesser ones. Even Stradavari did his best work in his “golden age” of violin making from 1700 – 1720ish.
There is one final facet of condition to address and that is the kind of luthiery work was done on it since it was first made. Any violin that is over 100 years old has been to the luthiery shop at least once. I stated earlier that all luthiers on not created equal and therefore a nice violin that has been badly repaired by a less than fully competent luthier will lose value if he has permanently damaged the violin. Amateur luthiers can perform horrors on nice violins that reduce their value to a fraction of their potential. Any violin over 150 years old probably had to be modernized from a Baroque set up. This is a challenging job and many old violins were probably lost because this was not done properly. So any violin over 150 years old will be in limited supply. That is one way that the price goes up.
Now that you have the basics you can now do an approximate assessment of your violin. You have to understand that there are 3 parts to the valuation of the violin under 15,000. First part is the value of the violin for what it is. Call it the finder’s fee. The second part is the cost to hire a good luthiery to fix the violin and bring it back to perfect playing condition. The third part is the marketing. Each part is 1/3 of the value. So if you have a nice violin that does not need much fixing up there is more potential. Also you can possibly save the 20% commission that it will take to have a luthiery or a retail outlet sell your violin on consignment.
So you get 1/3 of the best price for finding it. The second third goes to you or the luthier depending on how much work you have to hire him to do. The final third is split between you and whoever sells it. It is like real estate. You get the listing commission and the shop gets the sellers commission.
What you have to do is find websites that will show you violins in “like when they were made” condition and compare yours to them. You are on one of those sites right now and the Mario Cesare Collection has violins that cover the price demographic from under $1000 to over $10,000. They have all been to the luthiery and he has fixed them and done the violin appraisal. There is a comment on each one to help you understand how it compares to the analysis in the first half of this article. For the most part they have been brought back to as good as or better than when they were new. This is especially true for those valued at over $2000.
Then go to eBay. This is where apprentice luthiers shop to find bargains that they can learn their trade on. Under the supervision of a master luthier they can do the work and improve violins enough to help offset the cost of their training. There are those who buy violins on eBay and fix them up and sell them for profit. By doing this they get part of the finders 1/3 because eBay is the clearance house for items that are hard to sell. They get the 1/3 for fixing them up and the 1/3 for marketing. But then that is how they make a living. For someone appraising their instrument it is where you find out the bargain basement value of your instrument.
From here there are many on line retailers and there are several on line sites for buying and selling musical instruments. You can take time and surf through them and get a little better feeling for what value you may have in your violin. This page is a guide on how to use this site and other sites to research the approximate value for your violin. You should be able to find something on this site or others that is similar to your violin. Once you have checked out potential matches on this site, check for potential matches on other sites as you may find more violins similar to yours. Then you should be able to get an intuition of what the violin you are interested in is really worth.
If you have a violin with the potential of being worth $2500 to $3000 or more, it is best to take it to a qualified luthiery to have it properly appraised. A proper written appraisal will cost $200 plus or minus a few dollars. Work is on the order of $80 to $100 per hour plus parts. To fix a violin properly takes time so do not expect this to be fast as good luthieries are also very busy. We had lots of time and the economy of scale working for us as we had so many violins that we could make a special arrangement in regards to the repair of the collection. If you have just one or two violins it would be much harder to make this work. In most cases violins are a passion and the investment has emotional rewards as well. If you are lucky enough to purchase a nice violin and can get it fixed up cheaper than buying one fixed and you love playing it, then you have the added joy of finding a bargain.
If you just want to sell it and put it in the hands of someone who will love the violin, then marketing is a whole other topic. As far as we can tell it is a lot like fishing. It takes a long time to get a strike and then it is even harder to land a sale. But with patience sales do happen as you can see by our limited success of 14 sales.