Where Do I Shop for a Violin, Anyway?

There are various places to buy a violin and a myriad of issues to consider. Stefan Hersh walks the prospective buyer through those considerations…

So, where does one shop for an instrument or bow?

  1. Buying from a Dealer

    It may come as a surprise to many, but some of the best help in the string instrument business comes from the major dealers who carry inventory and have ongoing enterprises and reputations to protect. A major dealer takes on the expense, risk and hassle associated with administration, publicity and financing inventory as well as maintaining and funding a skilled repair shop. Under the law a dealer must protect you from problems with authenticity and hidden flaws. The best dealers know that they have their name on the line every time they make a claim to you about something they have for sale. The best dealers have trade-in policies which allow the consumer some degree of mobility in upgrading their instruments. The best dealers will allow you a reasonable amount of time to be sure that the instrument in question really is for you. The same dealer will help bolster your confidence when it comes time to make a financial commitment to that instrument. In return for all of this the dealer expects to make a substantial profit. And you need the dealers to make this profit so that they will be in business when you need help with repairs, appraisals or future purchases and sales. The best dealers reward customer loyalty by treating their valued return customers with great care. A tried and true purchase strategy is to develop a trusting relationship with a major dealer and stick with that relationship. Which dealers are to be trusted is a matter of opinion. In the end it comes down to a relationship between you and that dealer. Ask around, but take all opinions, good and bad, with a grain of salt. Then decide who you will trust based on your sense of the integrity of that dealer and your relationship with the dealer and the staff with whom you will be working. Ask to try the finest merchandise in your price category. When it comes time to negotiate a sales price simply ask for the best price the dealer can give you. Avoid letting the relationship with the dealer degenerate into an adversarial situation. Even if you win the battle, you may still lose the war, as the dealer will be disinclined to be cooperative in future dealings. Attention to the long term health of your relationship with the best dealers will pay off in the long run.

  2. Buying at Auction

    In recent years auction houses have increasingly tailored their sales to cater to retail consumers. Some very attractive instruments can be bought at auction, sometimes for advantageous prices. But the most desirable examples generally fetch high prices at auction. And auctions often have many less desirable pieces, i.e., those that have been difficult for dealers to sell. The consumer is fairly well-protected against authenticity and inherent vice problems at major auction houses. But the auction house is not set up to inform the consumer of the relative quality of the pieces offered. Figuring out which instruments are worthy of consideration is no small task! Don’t expect help in this regard from the dealers you see at the auction. As a buyer at the auction you are in competition with the dealers. The dealers usually win this contest by virtue of their well-developed knowledge and communication network. Auction houses typically offer less trial time than retail shops, and virtually no backup service such as repairs, adjustments and trade-in policies to prospective buyers. If you can make a good decision for yourself quickly, if you will not need backup services, and if you don’t plan to trade in your purchases, auction may be a viable purchase strategy to consider. If you do not meet those criteria, then buying at auction is probably not for you.

    I don’t recommend eBay, or other online auctioneers who are not specialists in string instruments or other fine arts, as a source. A wise retail purchase of a fine instrument or bow can usually only be made with the object in hand. Digital photos over the internet just don’t provide enough information in my opinion. And an auction such as eBay is a risky way to purchase, as the auctioneer is merely a facilitator, and does not necessarily offer any substantial measure of protection from vendors’ misrepresentations. The major auction houses, which are increasingly expanding their business to the Internet, as well as Tarisio Auctions, which are exclusively on the Internet, schedule live viewings of the items, and stand behind their cataloguing principles. An eBay purchase, on the other hand, is essentially a private transaction. Should you still find yourself tempted by an offering on eBay, at least protect yourself by setting up an escrow account for payment.

  3. Private Transactions

    Some private transactions work well for consumers, but generally speaking this is not the best way for a consumer to purchase a fine instrument or bow. The private seller is usually trying to avoid paying a dealer a commission. The private seller often hopes to achieve a retail price without providing any of the service which a major dealer provides. If this suits everybody concerned, no problem, but generally the retail consumer will need the services offered by a retail shop. Some of those services can be paid for at a shop but for most repair shops bench time is at a premium and dealers give priority to their loyal customers.

    Beware of special “deals” offered privately. Most of the time those “deals” are not what they purport to be, and when things go wrong in a private transaction, recourse is usually limited and expensive. Still, it is possible to find a great deal privately. The risks are higher and the success rate is low, but if you are lucky you may be able to buy a fine instrument at a true wholesale price from a private party.

I know where to go—now what do I look for?

If you have gotten this far and still want to buy a fine string instrument, you should now develop a specific strategy for identifying the right piece for you.

I always start by recommending the most broadly desirable pieces within the buyer’s price range. This is because the resale and trade-in possibilities and long-term growth in equity are so much more favorable with pieces that are in great demand. The most desirable items exclude inventory with major conditional flaws. Yet for some consumers, the choice to buy a flawed piece that is discounted for its flaws is a workable strategy for buying into what would otherwise be an inaccessible level of instrument or bow.

Make sure that you try the instrument or bow in question in the broadest possible variety of playing conditions, in order to understand its strengths and limitations. But be realistic about where and how you will eventually use it. It makes little sense to reject an instrument as not being a soloist’s tool if you are an ensemble player.

What about marketability versus tone?

Players are forever mystified by dealer appraisals of instruments which do not involve the tone of the instruments. And dealers are forever mystified by the subjective nature of the retail public’s assessment of tone. Since many aspects of tone production can be addressed in the workshop, and still others can be addressed in the practice studio, tone should be only one of many properties considered in the purchase.

How much can I afford?

It is important to know how much you can spend before you start shopping. Decide on your price range and more-or-less stick to it. Dealers will often show you examples which reach above your stated price range. This is sometimes because the inventory in a given price range is limited or because the dealer believes that you may actually be willing to spend more. In either case don’t let that strategy catch you off guard. From the perspective of less expensive inventory which you might have been auditioning, a substantial jump upward in level can seem revelatory. But try at least a couple of instruments or bows of comparable value before buying in any price range.

Make sure that you know how quickly you can access your funds. Once you have identified the piece to buy, the speed with which you can pay may be a point of negotiation with a dealer. In any case you cannot finalize a deal until this information is known.

How much should I pay?

The consumer will do well to understand that the prices for instruments have evolved and continue to evolve based on long-term observations about desirability and marketability. It has been observed, for instance, that over many years Stradivari violins have been in demand. The setup of a particular Stradivari violin may be such that one or another retail consumer would not favor that violin over some less expensive instruments. The retail consumer might interpret from that sample that Stradivari violins are relatively overvalued in the market. But the dealer and expert has a broader view possibly having seen the same violin draw great favor with the last illustrious soloist who visited his or her shop. Examples of this sort of situation exist at all ranges of the market. The consumer should assess value and tone as more or less separate issues; both of them are somewhat subjective, but in different ways. The consumer will do well to accept his or her relative ignorance about value, as well as the subjective nature of the assessment and production of tone.

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