The Morning After (How to Buy a Violin: Part 2)

We live in a culture which expects glistening perfection from its professionals. Never has the public’s sense of entitlement been so high. Concerts must be note perfect or the artist may not be re-engaged, politicians must never have transgressed or they may not be electable, and medical professionals are expected to make no errors lest they be faced with a messy malpractice lawsuit.

So it is also with the public and fine string instrument expertise. Musicians, collectors, institutions and amateurs must pay ever higher prices for fine string instruments and bows. And in return they want absolute assurance as to the authenticity and condition of their purchase. While this is understandable enough, it is not realistic. In fact, expertise is an imperfect science. Relatively few antiquities are completely beyond reproach from the standpoint of authenticity or condition. Expertise is an evolving blend of judgments, many of them subjective. Research uncovers revelations, and previously unknown instruments come to light. Experts continually work to hone their skills, and new information about the historical landscape reshapes the experts views of of their own opinions. In the absence of absolute yardsticks, it is inevitable that even the best experts will make mistakes from time to time. It is what happens in the aftermath of such a mistake that is the truest measure of a dealer’s integrity.

The consumer is largely protected, under laws contained in the Uniform Commercial Code, from problems with authenticity and hidden flaws. The details of the law, and the legal precedent around these issues are discussed in detail in Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft, and Lawsuits in England and America, by Brian Harvey and Karla Shapreau, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1998. But invoking the law is nearly always emotionally consuming and prohibitively expensive. Because of the complexity of the issues, the outcomes of legal proceedings are never a certainty. Fortunately, many of the most respected dealers have long since learned to handle such problems with expedience. The remedies most often involve rescinding the transaction or, if inflation has impacted the presumed value of the item in question, exchange for comparable value.

For the dealers who take long-term customer care seriously, a consignment sale is more than merely executing the sale of an instrument on behalf of a customer, and taking a percentage of that sale. Rather, the ethical dealer has made a genuine commitment to every violin sold through the dealership. The quality, condition, and authenticity of consignment items is of the same concern to the shop as is that of its purchased inventory. Consignors should remember that this may be among the reasons why, if they sometimes find the big retail firms reluctant to take on consignments. Where the dealer works hard to develop the expertise required to protect the business, the patron of that business is protected, as well.

When controversy does arise, the smart dealers move with efficiency to put out the fire, no matter what they may think themselves about the genuineness or quality of the piece in question. While this is not always required under the law, it just makes good business sense. But not all dealers are smart. The presence of a large shop with all of the trappings of a full-service retail establishment, and the high-end pricing one expects there, does not alone guarantee that the dealer will truly take responsibility for a problem when it occurs. The long-term attitude referred to previously is not universal among the major houses.

Many retailers resent being beholden to authenticity opinions in the trade which may be contrary to their own. Some dealers see their own opinions as gospel, and differing ones as mistaken, or even conspiratorial. For the consumer the attempt to rectify a problem sale with a recalcitrant dealer can be a painful process which can just as easily fail. If you suspect that you have a problem with your purchase, you need to move delicately, and give the dealer in question every possible opportunity to set matters right. Often the mistakes are honest ones. Patience and sensitivity are worthwhile in these instances, but document your interaction, and consider using an intermediary such as a lawyer to handle the situation.

The best way to minimize the risk of a bad purchase is to do business with trusted firms, with a substantial inventory of their own, a track record of clean business, and a willingness to settle problems reasonably, out of court. Smaller dealers and private individuals have infinitely less to protect, and usually far fewer resources to deal with problems. The vigilant consumer will carefully review the trade-in policy of any dealers, large or small, with whom they hope to do business, both as represented by the dealer in writing, and as put into practice, to the extent one can find such information.

The extra effort a scrupulous dealer puts into building a good business, undertaking substantial liability, maintaining a large and expensive inventory, and ensuring customer satisfaction and protection earns such a dealer his profit. The wise consumer cheerfully pays it, for it is money well spent.

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