If London is still the center of the international string instrument auction world, it is certainly much less so than it once was. A decade ago London was the only serious hub for musical instrument auctions. At that time Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips’, and Bonham’s all staged major auction events, usually coordinating dates with one another. It was sometimes possible for prospective clientele to participate four different auctions in a single week in London. The buyer’s premiums were largely consistent from house to house and were lower than they are today. The auctions drew a large international audience. Regular New York auctions had been abandoned by the major houses in favor of the London venues which tended to draw higher prices and a greater percentage of sold lots. The lone auction in the United States of fine string instruments, Skinner’s of Boston was more or less a regional auction, which did little to cater to the international market.
In more recent years the London houses have seemed less well organized, and less focused on their instrument auctions. They have suffered through personnel changes and disappointing results. Attempts by Sotheby’s and Christie’s to bring their auctions to a point of greater profitability have included significant hikes in the buyer’s premiums and this in turn has contributed to an often tepid climate in the sales rooms.
Meanwhile, Skinner’s has been built into a very respectable operation, first by Kerry Keane who has since moved to Christie’s in London, and most recently by David Bonsey. The Skinner’s auction along with the firm of Reuning and Sons in Boston, a serious player in the retail string instrument business, has transformed Boston from a provincial outpost into a serious string instrument center.
Skinner’s, the upstart of a decade ago has emerged with the highest average percentage of lots sold of any of the auction houses. While Sotheby’s in London has typically produced sales results of 70%-75% of lots sold, Skinner’s has frequently finished their sales with an astonishing 90% or more lots sold. This is due in part to Skinner’s focus, economically speaking on their market niche, and to a realistic and conservative approach to cataloging the sales by Keane in the past, and by Bonsey today.
The newest and most modern player in the string instrument auction scene has been Tarisio Auctions organized by Dmitry Gindin, Christopher Reuning and Jason Price. Employing the Internet auction model, Tarisio, in just two sales has managed to gain a respectable foothold in the auction business. Tarisio Auctions have been distinguished by several factors. The sale is managed by veteran violin dealers with well respected expertise. The seller’s and buyer’s premiums are the lowest in the industry. The express warranty of authenticity on the part of Tarisio auctions is unique in the industry. This warranty in fact, only states what is required by law, but the presence of this language in the catalogue suggests that the organizers have confidence in their own expertise, and that they intend to settle any problems that may occur with expedience. Added to this is the fact that Internet bidding is far less intimidating for some auction newcomers. These factors have attracted a larger retail clientele than is usually in evidence at public auctions. The retail sector has long been coveted by all of the auction houses, but none have consistently broken into the retail business. Whether or not Tarisio Auctions will be able to sustain and build upon its retail business remains to be seen, but in any case Tarisio Auctions is already a force to be reckoned with.
Against this backdrop, Sotheby’s held its first musical instrument auction in the United States in 15 years, on October 6 , in Chicago. Charles Rudig, well known to long time auction attendees, organized the sale for Sotheby’s. It was attended by a surprisingly large number of foreign dealers. The results were mixed. The sizable buyer’s premium of 20% on the first $15,000.00 didn’t help matters. The auction moved slowly as Sotheby’s auctioneer seemed to be trying to squeeze every possible bid out of the full sales room, and the bank of Sotheby’s personnel handling telephone bids. The two high flying lots in the sale, the Ex Parrera, Stradivari violin of 1679 and the Pietro Guarneri of Venice both went unsold. It did seem as though the estimates for those two lots had been ambitious. A number of other pieces went unsold as well, including a number of books which have seen relatively less demand in the last couple of years. But there were some notable bargains achieved by the audience made up mostly of trade buyers and onlookers. A good looking and good sounding Guadagnini of the Milan period was a excellent buy at $140,000 hammer price. A beautiful Pajeot violin bow in ivory and silver made $16,000.00 hammer price. An interesting 18th century viola catalogued as the work of Sebastian Wagner was also a good buy at $10,000.00 hammer price. Hill bows were strong, bringing as much as $5000.00 hammer price for a silver and tortoise shell mounted example and $7,000.00 for a gold and tortoise shell Fleur-de-lys cello bow. With the buyer’s premium this brings the prices to $6000.00 and $8400 respectively, suggesting that retail prices for Hill bows may be on the move.
It remains to be seen whether or not Sotheby’s will deem this event worth the trouble, and elect to stage future U. S. sales. U. S. consumers can only hope that Sotheby’s will continue to be a presence in this country, helping to maintain sharp competition in the industry in the U. S.