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Essential Guide to Buying a Fine Violin, Viola or Cello
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Author: Phyllis Freeman
Let a "Buyer-Broker" be your guide

For musicians, purchasing a fine instrument or bow is a very personal quest.  There are so many choices and at times the process can feel overwhelming and often confusing.  Questions like ‘how much should I pay, is the instrument authentic, how do I know this is the one” abound.  In this article, I would like to de-mystify the process and suggest that you explore the option of utilizing a “buyer-broker” to guide you to the instrument or bow that will allow you to achieve your highest level of musical artistry.

First, let’s define what is meant by “fine.”  That word is tossed about so frequently in the industry, that it has basically lost its meaning.   In my mind, the word “fine” reflects a level of craftsmanship, which usually corresponds to a price threshold.  Contemporary luthiers (makers who are living) can fall under this label in that they personally hand carved all components of the instruments.  Of course, not all contemporary luthiers exhibit a level of craftsmanship that reaches the level of “fine.”  It takes many years of training and lots of trial and error to attain a level of work that is worthy of the label of “fine.” As of the date of this writing, one could expect to pay $10,000 and up for a fine violin or viola or $20,000 and up for a fine cello made by a contemporary luthier.

Sometimes the word “fine” is paired with the word “rare.”  Again, “fine” is a reflection of a level of craftsmanship, but “rare” is basically code for “deceased.”  This is where the market becomes much more complicated.  With a contemporary, living luthier, it is fairly easy to establish provenance.  However, with “rare” instruments the task of establishing provenance becomes much more difficult since the luthier is no longer around to verify the instrument and because records were often lost or forged.  In terms of price, “fine and rare” violins can cost anywhere from $10,000 to millions.  Cellos can also range from $20,000 to millions.

Bows also follow the same designation as instruments when it comes to “fine” and “rare.”  Since bow making is also such a complex skill, luthiers usually specialize in one or the other.

Because there is so much money involved in buying and selling “fine and rare” instruments and bows, fraud and forgery are not uncommon.  After the golden age of violin making from the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s, many unscrupulous luthiers copied and forged the instruments and labels of the great Cremonese makers like Guarneri, Stradivari and Amati.  Even lesser known masters were subject to forgery.  Often master makers were also running shops with many apprentices working for them.  Some instruments will be designated “from the workshop of” or “attributed to” and this can mean a huge difference in price.  After 400 years, it is difficult, if not almost impossible to always fully authenticate an instrument or bow.   

This issue of authenticity and verification is one of the many reasons that I advocate using a “buyer-broker” when making a major purchase of any instrument or bow in the “fine and rare” market.  As in real-estate, a buyer-broker is someone who is hired to look out for the best interests of the buyer.  I personally prefer a buyer-broker who is affiliated with an established shop because of the extra layer of protection.  A buyer-broker from an established shop not only has their own reputation to protect, they also have the reputation (and financial bottom line) of a shop to consider.  An established shop has a huge economic stake in making sure the authenticity of any instrument or bow is verified to the highest level possible.  They will often take instruments and bows to multiple third parties to in order to build consensus regarding provenance. 

Establishing authenticity and provenance is only one of the tasks of a superior buyer-broker.  After authenticity is established, the next step is to know what price should be paid for any instrument or bow.  Again, there is an advantage to using a buyer-broker who is connected to a shop because there will be resident luthiers who can also look at an instrument and confer regarding the “condition” of the instrument and bow.  Is the varnish original?  Which cracks cause devaluation?  Have parts of the instrument been replaced?  What type of repairs have been done over time?  An instrument or bow may be “authentic” but there are condition issues that could cause a significant loss of value.  Often, issues regarding condition can only be discovered by an experienced luthier.  There is even a whole sub-speciality of dendrologists who examine the wood of an instrument to determine, based on growth patterns, when and instrument was probably made.

Good buyer-brokers are not mere dilettantes in the world of fine instruments and bows.  They have seen 1,000’s of instruments, read trade and market reports and most importantly are very well connected to luthiers, other shops and individuals in the industry worldwide.  They can quote the latest auction statistics, they know who owns which instruments and most importantly, they have inside knowledge about instruments and bows that are about to come on the market.  People who want to sell instruments seek out highly regarded buyer-brokers because of their connections to buyers.

All this speaks to the “science” of the fine instrument market, but equally important is the “artistic” skills a good buyer-broker must possess.  If there were not an art to this job, any fine instrument would work well with any good player, but that is definitely not the case.  A musician might have to try a 100 instruments or 200 bows in order to find “the one.”  Just like a “dog whisperer”, a good buyer-broker has a sixth sense about what instrument will speak to their client and help them blossom artistically.

The best buyer-brokers therefore, are also well trained players themselves.  This not only allows them to test the instruments and bows they are selling, it also gives them insight into the artistic needs of their clients.  A buyer-broker needs to understand the playing style of their client and help their client articulate what they need from their instrument and bow in order to broaden their artistic horizons.  It could be things like projection, a greater variety of colors, greater facility, a different size instrument (cellos and violas) and more.  A good buyer-broker needs to be part musician, part psychologist and part mind reader to effectively help a client. 

Finally, given the level of experience and knowledge required to effectively serve a client, one should not expect this level of service for free.  It can either be paid for by the hour or it is included as a commission in the price of the instrument.  Again, a buyer-broker with an established shop can cost less because it is quite possible that an instrument or bow can be found in their current inventory.  However, even if a shop must go outside its current inventory, once a buyer-broker has a sense of what is needed, they can call their connections (including other shops) and quickly have instruments shipped to them.  A good buyer-broker also usually travels to Europe once or twice a year and can search with you in mind.  Since they are usually shopping with multiple clients in mind, their European excursions are not usually charged to the client. 

At any rate, paying a fee to a buyer-broker is usually much less expensive than multiple trips across the country or the world looking for instruments yourself.  In my experience, the ability of the buyer-broker to negotiate the best price for a fine instrument or bow, more than pays for itself. Commissions generally end up being less expensive than per hour fees.  However, some buyer-brokers do request exclusivity agreements if the fees are to be part of the cost of the instrument.  It is similar to a contract with a real estate agent and is done for the same reason.

A buyer-broker is absolutely the way to go when undertaking such an important journey.  Not only are they a trusted 2nd opinion, they are also the best protection in an ever changing marketplace.


Want to procure the services of a buyer-broker?  Contact the Potter Violin Company at 301 652-7070 and inquire about their "Concierge" services.  www.PottersViolins.com

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