Consumers want answers. They want them fast and they want the answers to be clear and simple. The string instrument business, and particularly the authentication and inextricably linked appraisal process are often difficult to understand. Many would-be retail buyers and sellers of fine string instruments find the issues around the appraisal process opaque and frustrating. Nonetheless, there is no shortcut through many of the ambiguities of the string instrument trade. With reliable information so scarce and the potential value of objects subject to such wide swings, it is easy to empathize with consumer frustration. The wide range of opinions among trade insiders regarding authenticity and valuation do nothing to enhance consumer confidence. All of this creates an understandable obstacle for some would-be buyers.
Fine string instrument authentication and appraisal does follow a certain amount of rhyme and reason once one understands the established patterns in the industry. In order to begin to understand the processes one must first accept a few underlying truths:
- There are many more people conducting business in fine string instruments than actually have serious aptitude in terms of identifying and valuing these objects.
- Expertise and consequent appraisal is largely a matter of informed opinion. Only a tiny percentage of the available world inventory can be considered to be utterly unimpeachable with regard to authenticity, condition, and consequent value.
- Authenticity and value cannot be separated but each must be regarded together and independent of one another.
- Appraisal is subject to conditions of sale (as detailed in the Winter 2002 Soundpost Online article on appraisal terminology).
- All of the people worldwide capable of authenticating and appraising string instruments have a potential conflict of interest with any opinion that they offer by virtue of their involvement in the trade.
The picture of the current landscape for fine string instrument authentication and the various appraisal methodologies that one is likely to encounter could be classified as follows:
- “Double blind” appraisal:
- Appraiser looks at the piece in question with no notion of previous attribution and no knowledge of other current trade opinions regarding the piece. This type of appraisal will involve no pre-appraisal exchange of information, and no attempt to look at labels or brands. The appraisal will flow solely from an analysis of the form that the object follows, and technical working methods of the maker, combined with known price histories for the maker in question and/or for comparable or related makers. As with subjective connoisseurship in other areas, the “double blind” method is the most reliable assuming it produces a result at all. There are only a few people in the world with the credibility to assert attributions that will be recognized in the marketplace.
- “Single blind” appraisal:
- Previous attribution is known to the appraiser and is either verified or rejected.
- Consensus appraisal:
- Attribution and valuation is made in view other trade opinions. A consensus is sometimes necessary but is obviously less compelling than single or double blind appraisals.
- “Double-double blind” appraisal:
- Multiple double blind appraisals by different appraisers.
- The violin is first studied looking at the back. Observing the outline the experienced expert can usually determine what general concept the maker has aimed for in building the instrument (Stradivari model, Guarneri model Amati model etc.) and what method was used in the construction of the instrument (inside mold, outside mold etc.). By the time the appraiser moves to other parts of the instrument an idea should be forming about likely age and nationality of the instrument along with observations of any conditional flaws in the back and a general impression of age based on wear and construction and varnishing issues.
- From here the appraiser will move either to the front or to the scroll of the instrument. By now there will be some expectation of what one will likely see as the appraiser looks at the other parts of the violin. For instance the perception that the violin is built on the stiffly on the del Gesu pattern will generate the expectation of del Gesu style f holes and a del Gesu pattern scroll.
- Inconsistencies will cause the appraiser to double back and identify the source of such inconsistencies, be it replaced parts, mistaken first impression, etc.
- If the instrument is the work of an important maker, by now the appraiser should be developing a very clear view of who made the instrument, where and when and the quality of the instrument as measured against the general level of the maker’s output. The instrument is now subjected to intense scrutiny for any and all conditional flaws. These include cracks, both disguised and obvious, and varnish restoration as well as replaced principal parts.
- In the case of fairly obvious instruments by important and prolific makers, valuation can be derived based on known sales of other similar instruments. With works of more obscure makers value must be arrived at by comparison of sales of instruments from the same school. Comparing the quality and condition of the example in hand to other comparable instruments for which a sales price is known the appraiser arrives at an actual value.
Serious experts endeavor to identify and value instruments using the “double blind” methodology. “Double-double blind” appraisals are generally conclusive when generated by the best experts, but even “double-double blind” appraisals from credible experts are not necessarily infallible as there is always the possibility that both experts have learned the characteristics of a particular maker’s work from the same mistakenly attributed piece(s).
The actual appraisal process with a violin for instance, goes like this:
A whole host of judgment calls are made in this process. For instance, it is always a question whether to appraise from the highest known price down, discounting for quality, condition and overall desirability, or to appraise from the midpoint and add premiums for desirability due to quality and condition, along with perceived current demand. All of these questions test the objectivity of the appraiser who will very often have a direct or indirect financial interest in the outcome of the appraisal.
J.B. Vuillaume is an example of a relatively easy maker to appraise as his extensive output means that there is normally a stream of sales by which to compare prices, and Vuillaume instruments are relatively available to see and easy to identify. The same can be said of the bow maker Eugene Sartory. It is not that controversy never arises for examples of these makers works, but just that controversy is far less common and often easier to settle by comparison with makers for other known examples are more difficult to access for comparison. More difficult is the appraisal of instruments from the early Brescian school. Instruments by makers like Peregrino, Zanetto, and Gaspar da Salo are exceedingly important and exceedingly rare. Instruments by these makers are extremely tricky to appraise as, due to their age and the delicacy with which they are constructed they are normally full of conditional flaws. But their relative importance and desirability from a collector’s standpoint and utility value to musicians create the situation where great Brescian instruments carry the possibility of redefining the market every time they change hands.