One of the more successful of the dot-com success stories has been the tremendous growth of online auction sites, especially eBay, with every conceivable type of item showing up on any given day. Normally there are hundreds of violins listed. It seems like we are called or visited several times a week by someone who has just purchased a string instrument or bow on eBay or some other auction site. Usually, the purpose of their call is twofold: first, they want to know what they actually got with their “winning” bid and if they paid a fair price. Many of the sellers on eBay try to be honest and represent their consignments to the best of their knowledge, but often, their knowledge is limited. Sometimes the buyer who was looking for a bargain actually paid far too much. We don’t enjoy having to tell the customer that what they thought they were paying for is not what they actually have, or that they simply paid too much. It can be difficult for some to have a positive attitude towards someone who has just told you that you have been cheated. The expression “Kill the messenger” comes to mind.
Secondly, the customer wants to know what repairs are needed. Even if the photos of the instrument on the auction site were of professional quality (they almost never are) with the low resolution of your computer screen, you can’t tell much about condition or authenticity before you buy even if you know what to look for. The seller may not know or won’t tell you about the state of repair. The actual cost of an Internet violin is not only what you initially pay the seller, but also any other costs required to bring it up to proper playing condition. Often, it takes an expert to really see what work is necessary. If the cost of repairs is more than what you initially paid, your bargain may not be a bargain after all.
Most of the violin shops I know of (ours included) have more repair work than they can handle. We often have to set aside our own instruments needing set up and preparation for sale in order to do customer repair work. Hire more luthiers? Try to find them. There aren’t many around, especially the well trained, competent, experienced ones. Because of this, some shops will not even work on instruments that they didn’t sell. When these “Internet violins” come in, shops often have to make a decision about whether or not to even accept them. Do you work on instruments from your regular, loyal customers, and complete the work in a timely fashion, or do you take in anything and everything so that all the work is delayed? A highly skilled violin maker who normally does repairs and restorations on fine, well-made instruments may not be too happy about working on cheaper, poorly-made instruments needing a great deal of work. This kind of work is usually more difficult and often very unrewarding. Even more unrewarding is work on the very cheap, new instruments sold by small Internet dealers. The cost of work just to make them playable usually exceeds the value of the violin. One of the problems with doing this kind of work is that it is often impossible to do it well and that can reflect badly on the reputation of the shop that does the repair. The cheaper the instrument or bow, the more difficult it is to repair well. It is easier to work on a good professionally made instrument. Yet, if you tell this to the customers, they can become very upset. This is a classic no-win situation. After we tell the customer as delicately as we can that we won’t work on their instrument , they often ask us to recommend someone else. We have done this in the past, only to incur the wrath of the other shop, asking us not to send any more customers with cheap violins to be repaired.
Some feel that if you purchase from a violin shop, you will pay top dollar. However, that is often not the case. Violin dealers who want to stay in business must protect their customers. Not only must they sell instruments and bows at a fair price, but should stand behind what they sell. They should maintain a repair shop and should allow a purchaser trade-in privileges. When you buy at auction or privately, you get none of these added values. Once you pay your money, it’s yours, for better or worse. I don’t want you to think that it’s impossible to find something worthwhile on an Internet auction site. For example, a customer recently brought in a violin by George Gemunder that was purchased on the Internet. He wasn’t sure if was really authentic, and we were happy to tell him that it was, even though it needed extensive restoration. This purchase had a happy outcome, but unfortunately, the disappointments far outnumber the cases where a real treasure has been found.
If you plan to buy a violin on an Internet auction site, there are some things you need to do. Look closely at the photos, and ask lots of questions of the seller. Be wary of “as is” and “no return” sales. If you do buy something, you should expect to have at least some repairs done. These comments apply not only to online auctions but also to private sales (want ads, etc.). Remember the old saying, “If it seems too good to be true…” You know the rest.