I recently joined the ranks of the innocent who have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous seller on eBay. Regrettably, I decided to purchase a violin sight unseen over the Internet in a quest for my “sound.” I will try to detail my thoughts behind this, and some of what I have learned.
As a professional musician, I felt the need to finally find out if there was any correlation between price and sound quality. I set out on my fact-finding mission at a well regarded violin shop in the San Francisco Bay Area. To eliminate any preconceptions that there could be a link between price and sound, I requested to try violins in a price range of $20,000 to over $100,000, without having knowledge of the sales price until after I had determined the quality. Generally, I discovered that a more expensive instrument did not necessarily outperform one of a lower price. That is, until I tried a Niccolo Gagliano that had a price tag that would have necessitated selling our home and living in a tent. While this may seem like a slight exaggeration, the price was prohibitive. The Gagliano was the best sound I had ever tried, and yet it was highly unlikely for me to ever be able to afford it. This discovery was the beginning of a quest to find a way to own such a magnificent instrument.
A total novice to auctions, I stumbled onto eBay when my daughter declared that she wanted to learn to play the flute. Since I had heard of eBay, I decided to try bidding on a flute and won my first auction. It was a good experience with an honest seller. My daughter and I were thrilled.
With great curiosity I looked at the numerous violins for sale. I sat back and watched the various listings, and their outcomes, for a couple of weeks. Then it dawned on me that perhaps this could be the tool to enable me to have the violin of my dreams. My logic followed that if I purchased a quality violin at a good price, even with the potential that the sound would not suit my tastes, I could hang on to it as an investment and, eventually trade it, along with my own two violins, toward the Gagliano that I was so smitten with.
I started a file to save my research of violin pictures and listings I studied and copied from eBay. The next logical step was to acquire a good reference, so I purchased the Henley Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers to facilitate my studying. I used “Maestronet” as a source for current prices, along with auction catalogs and the Internet. I was prepared!
An interesting violin showed up on eBay last August with a heading that read, “Turn of the Century G. Degani Italian Violin.” This listing caught my eye because the violin was beautifully photographed, and had an extensive description of the origin, label, dimensions, appearance, tonal qualities and repairs. The description stated, “This violin is a one-of-a-kind. Italian quality and unbelievable sound make it a treasure to both collectors and soloists. This violin is believed to have come from the workshop of the Deganis. Origin–Early 20th Century, Modern Italian.” I decided to send an inquiry by e-mail to the seller, X (“V” on eBay) of Y to find out how he came to the conclusion that his violin was from the Degani workshop, and whether he had shown it to an expert.
I received a very authoritative sounding, lengthy reply to my question. X claimed to have shown the violin to two violin shop owners, one of whom thought the violin could be by a student of G. Degani’s, and one who thought it could be a Degani. He stated that a local violin shop verified the violin to be, “definitely around 100 years old, that the varnish is original (verified with a black light,) and that it is a handmade violin, based on the graduations.” He went on to describe the sound as, “superb, surpassing some very expensive Italian instruments.” It seemed that, in the worst case I would have a great-sounding modern Italian violin with some trade-in value, if I did not care for it for my own use. X closed his e-mail by mentioning that “there are numerous other factors in this instrument which point to either G. Degani or a student of his, which I can pass on to you if you’re seriously interested. I am only selling this, and two other family heirloom violins, because of need, otherwise they wouldn’t be gracing eBay.”
My interest had been piqued, and I inquired further. Again came another lengthy, detailed e-mail that specifically listed “points of similarity to Deganis.” He claimed that he could not afford to have the violin certified, but that if the violin were “verified as a Degani, the price could be as high as $70,000.” Right then and there I should have paid attention to the gut feeling and the red flags. Why would someone want to sell such a valuable instrument for so little? I had done my research and knew that a genuine G. Degani from his best period might sell for $20,000-$59,000 with proper certification. Why did X mention up to $70,000 and why was he so comfortable with letting it go for so little? After all, a reputable dealer would sell it on consignment, with the certification taken from the proceeds. I decided it must be due to the “need” he spoke of, and to some sort of emergency to quickly liquidate.
I placed my bid and won, or lost, depending on how one looks at it, for $3,550. Shipping arrangements were made and at my request: FedEx would have it on my doorstep by next-day delivery. This was a transaction fraught with difficulties from the beginning. The violin was seized by customs because the required information of my phone number and social security number had not been provided by the seller. After a week of phone calls and faxes to customs, I finally received the violin. Naturally I was very excited when it arrived. When I unpacked it my first reaction was shock at the appearance. This was not the beautiful reddish-gold varnish I had seen on the eBay picture. The violin was a dark, chocolate brown and resembled a German violin. X was selling a German violin at the same time as the Degani. I thought there must have been a mix-up. After closer inspection of the label and markings, I decided this was indeed the Degani. When I drew the bow across the strings for the first time, I knew immediately that it was not anything I would ever perform on. The sound was uneven, with two wolfs, and rather coarse. Definitely not “surpassing the sound of some very expensive Italian instruments.”
I decided to take the violin to San Francisco and Berkeley to get some expert opinions so that I could insure the violin for what it was worth. I heard the same news three times: that I had a commercial German or Bohemian violin worth considerably less that the $3,000 reserve. The top had some sort of wood filler under the bridge and had been partially revarnished. The most logical course of action was to e-mail the seller, telling him of these findings. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he had no knowledge of this and would be as disappointed as I was. I politely requested a refund in exchange for the return of the violin. I was willing to chalk up the shipping and duty to a loss and settle for a refund of only my winning bid.
I received the first of many long, irate and offensive e-mails. X stated that auctions are “caveat emptor,” and that I should have shown the pictures to experts before bidding. He ranted on and on about how he could have sold the violin to another bidder, who wanted it, no questions asked. The fact that I overpaid was no concern of his, although he set the reserve approximately twice as high as the violin was worth. Implicit in all of our correspondences and his listing was that at the very least, I was purchasing a 20th century modern Italian violin, not a German violin, which I pointed out. I suggested that he contact the person to whom he could have sold the violin previously, inform them of the origin and inquire if they were still interested. X refused to do this. He claimed not to have the money to issue a refund, so I offered to wait four months and accept installments. This also was refused.
A month went by and hearing nothing, I decided to find out what his intentions were about this situation. Again, he replied with another offensive e-mail accusing me of “testing” him and paragraph upon paragraph extolling his honesty. I maintained then, as I do now, that while anyone can make a mistake, an honest person would make this right. A person with integrity would probably express something along the lines of, “I am so sorry that this happened. I did not realize…let me refund your money even if it takes a while until I can manage.” Nothing remotely close to this ever happened. X told me to sell the violin on eBay. I must add that this was a violin that he claimed to dearly love as “part of his family” and now he did not want it back. It was becoming clearer that X was a novice seller, and that I had financed his career with my purchase. I was saddled with a problem that I could not, in good conscience, pass on to another buyer. The problem needed to be solved between the two of us.
I decided that perhaps e-mail was not the most direct method of communication, and called X. Again, I suggested a refund by installments, and again, he would not go for the idea. However, he explored the idea of the possibility of a trade for a, “certified by Phillips Auction Paul Bailly” violin that he claimed to be worth $10,000, for an additional sum of money that was never determined. He clearly let me know that he was guilty of no wrongdoing and had no obligation whatsoever to help me. I had been burned once, and did not feel comfortable with the offer. We were at a stalemate for awhile, exchanging e-mails intermittently over the next few months, until I decided to inform him that it had now been four months, and I needed a response as to how he planned to deal with this situation. I had until this point withheld my feedback from eBay and decided to submit it pending his response. Another nasty e-mail came taunting that I had missed out on the Bailly, “a truly fantastic violin, as loud as a Stradivarius with pure ringing clarity,” as he had now sold it on eBay. He felt my motives were ”irrational and one-sided.” How strange. I simply wanted my money back. How rational could I get?
I submitted my negative feedback on eBay stating only the facts. The violin was not Italian as represented and worth half the reserve. X sent in negative, retaliatory feedback stating, “You’ll be sorry if you deal with her…” because there was not anything negative and factual that he could say. I had paid promptly and communicated fairly. I breathed a sigh of relief that at least this ugly ordeal was over and I could rest.
The next day came a surprise e-mail from the buyer who purchased the “certified Paul Bailly” on eBay, the same violin X had offered in exchange for the Degani. The buyer saw the negative feedback I had posted as he was posting his negative feedback for X. Apparently, his experience was very similar to mine. The Bailly was fake, the certificate had so many sections crossed out, that it was useless. The condition was very bad (which had not been mentioned,) the sound was like a student instrument, the violin was worth only a fraction of what he paid, and there was difficulty getting his violin through customs due to incomplete shipping information. As in my case, there was no refund, and the other buyer endured numerous offensive e-mails. I now speculate that the problems with customs were created deliberately, to allow time for our checks to be cashed before we had discovered the lack of authenticity.
The other buyer e-mailed to warn me that X had threatened to sue me because of the negative feedback I had submitted. X was probably trying to scare this man into keeping quiet. Two negatives side by side would not look too good. There have been other violins sold by X, and no feedback has been posted on these transactions. Perhaps there are still people hoping against hope, as I did, to recover their money. Maybe in time they will come forward, as I did, to warn other buyers.
This situation is still not at a conclusion as of this writing. I filed with Lloyd’s of London, who handles eBay claims, and they have found in my favor. The check, which I have not received yet, is a drop in the bucket…$175.00, the maximum claim allowed. Chances of recovering my money are slim, but I may still have some recourse through a legal avenue. I have notified several fraud agencies in the hope that I can prevent someone from dealing with the headaches I have gone through. The principle of the situation bothers me, and it offends my sense of justice to see someone get away with such dishonesty. Therefore, I am willing to stick my neck out.
All in all, this has been an education about exercising appropriate caution with people and business. I still believe there are more good people than bad, and my contact with the other buyer, who was willing to help despite his own weariness of the situation, reinforced this. I have learned that you “Get what you pay for,” so to speak. (If these are the only dues I have to pay in life, I will consider myself lucky.) I hope that anyone considering eBay for their next instrument purchase will think long and hard. A small-time seller does not have very high stakes in protecting his/her reputation by selling only quality products and standing by them. Probably the most important lesson is the old cliche, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”