News stories about jaw-dropping prices of old Cremonese violins are nothing new. But despite their regular appearance in the press, few people really understand just what causes the existence and support of these prices in the violin marketplace. The answers are found in fields quite different from music: the liberal arts, and particularly, economics.
First, let me be clear about the disciplines I draw upon to approach this issue: the nature of the market and the true and diverse nature of the violin. Study after study shows that most “economic” decisions are made based on scads of factors including emotions, psychology, politics, and social pressure—or, in other words, the other disciplines that make up what used to be called liberal arts and sciences. A little understanding of all of these fields gives an informed picture of the world around us, in all its complexity. So, most of the factors I will identify herein come from this broader picture of the violin market.
Then, there is the question of what market one actually uses. This can be retail, wholesale, auction, colleague to colleague; each is a different market with different pricing structures for buying and selling.
Then there is the nature of the violin itself. The market for violins breaks down into several very different classes. Old violins are essentially those made by makers who are deceased. On the other hand, new violins are made by living-and-breathing violin makers. Thus, the choice for old violins in the market is “old” versus “older,” while choices in the new violin market are new versus used. Each has a distinct sale and resale procedure.
Let’s start with the old violin market. Here the focus is on the key factors that influence prices: authenticity, provenance, and condition.
Authenticity will always be a difficult factor, because so much of past knowledge has been based on traditional lore, word of mouth, and paper labels. Ongoing research into these older makers has increasingly taught us that many of our presumptions were based on faulty information, and this will continue to affect that market for years. At the same time, the thrill of owning one of the fine works of past masters establishes an emotional connection between the player and the maker, as well as to our musical ancestry that we otherwise get only in history books and the music.
Provenance is the issue of past ownership, past documentation, and such. An instrument that is documented as having belonged to a great player will inherently be more desirable. It bears the performer’s endorsement, or was used in the great music that all of us learn in our studies, or it belonged to some other figure whose life influenced today’s world. Many musicians opt for a classical Cremonese violin not so much for its sound, but for the sense of being one with generations of earlier musicians whose activities form our musical origins. Past documents simply confirm this information, or at least prove that the instrument wasn’t made yesterday.
Condition is, in some ways, the most critical element. Violins live a dual existence, as tools for musical performance and as works of art, reflecting the craft, skill, and aesthetic ideas of its maker. I have no tolerance for the old saw “it was meant to be played.” Compare any Stradivari against the 19th-century reproductions made of them, and it’s instantly clear that excessive use over the past century has taken a serious toll on their condition. The Stradivaris’ varnishes were always delicate—this is known from early accounts—while the varnishes used later were always harder and more resistant. The Stradivari instruments that reflect the best and most careful use look very different from the run-of-the-mill: their varnish shows a natural patina with minimal wear, they still have sharp details of carving, and they have few if any crack repairs. There are a smaller and smaller number of these still in existence. If makers only cared about violins for use, they would have just made wooden boxes and not have wasted so much of their time painstakingly creating objects of sculptural beauty.
Supply & Demand
The center of any market is the interplay between supply and demand. The supply of old violins has been augmented by generations of violin makers creating instruments to order for generations of musicians, but by its very nature the numbers are constantly diminishing as time, wear, and loss perpetually reduce their numbers. Demand is the world’s supply of string players, collectors, or investors who draw pleasure and employment from their use. Over the past centuries, and especially over the past 20 to 30 years, the world has seen a large increase in demand for old stringed instruments as countries that had no history of violin use have enthusiastically adopted Western classical music, but at the same time draw from a stable or diminishing number of old instruments. The musicians of these nations have experienced economic growth unparalleled in human history, and they are willing to spend it to get the icons of this newly discovered musical world. Under these circumstances, prices can only increase.
The violins that get all the attention are the multi-million dollar ones that can command the headlines and the fascination of the press. These are the perfect survivors, the ones that tick all the boxes. There also is a lot of cash sloshing around since countries such as Japan, Korea, and China started to grow, and this cash is in search of a return on investment. With so much cash on-hand, money becomes cheap, and so interest rates are low, but many in the Western world have been spoiled by the growth in wealth over these same decades, and thus want to keep receiving those returns. So, the past decades have seen “bubbles,” as those with money pile into one marketplace or another to buy growing assets. The past few decades have seen internet stocks, real estate, precious metals, and particularly fine arts, undergo fabulous (but not always sustainable) growth in value. Violins have joined the fray, in part because of the emotional factors cited above, but also because of the hardheaded calculation that the tiny number of the desirable perfect survivors will always be most in demand. Increasingly, the instruments of the greatest makers of the past are joining the Cremonese classics, provided they share the same perfection.
Art vs. Commerce
This opens the way to a division of the market into those for instruments as works of art, for which perfection is most treasured, and instruments as objects of utility, which is what the musician needs. The difference in pricing that this is creating is unprecedented in a field where damage created a hierarchy of depreciation for damage and desirability. The predictable linkages between the best and worst of any maker are more significant now than in the past, and it is not clear whether this is momentary or part of a long-term trend.
The people who want the best have more resources to spend on them, and they have been the ones bidding up the prices. They don’t necessarily want to share their identities or their possessions with the world, so they tend to make only private purchases. Selling prices soon become known within the trade, but the public usually only hears about it when either the seller publicizes it or it’s a price achieved in auction.
Pricing decisions are based on what the seller will accept and what the buyer will pay. Dealers, owners, and sellers all manage to know pretty well what other sellers are pricing similar instruments at and what the market will bear, and there is a remarkable regularity in pricing around the world, with some localized variations reflecting local sentiments. There is also an established relativity of pricing, in that instruments by Maker A will trade in a given range because historically they have always sold for less than those of Maker B and for more than those of Maker C. This structure has proven surprisingly stable over the decades.
Tracing the Trends
There are trends that develop. The greater our knowledge about makers of the past, the greater you feel connected to their work, and thus the prices paid for them rise, too. Stradivari and Guarneri prices rose significantly in the wake of the 1987 Stradivari and 1994 Guarneri exhibitions and the historical research they stimulated. Guadagnini prices have followed a similar trajectory. The recommendations of teachers can have a similar impact. The late Ukranian concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff thought that Scarampellas represented a good option for his more hard-up students and thus helped to create the American market for his work. Similarly, violinist Ivan Galamian thought of Guadagninis as a good and cheaper substitute for Strads, but he liked the instruments Guadagnini made in Turin much better than the rest, and those made of Parma the least. This shaped the demand for Guadagninis and created a multi-tiered pricing scheme that still exists in Guadagnini values.
Violin auctions have been around for centuries and historically, they always represented the wholesale market. They are the traditional marketplace for times when an immediate sale is essential, or when an instrument has some problems. Auctions were wholesale in that the primary clientele was dealers who sought reduced-price instruments to which they could add value through repairs or documentation and then resell for a profit. They also liked the wrongly or vaguely identified instruments that populate sales, especially those they considered undervalued, knowing that they could potentially make a killing on the resale. Buyers in Europe, where the auctions mostly took place, stayed away, preferring not to take chances in a market they did not fully understand and relying on the honor established between themselves and the best violin dealers from whom they bought their instruments.
Enter the Americans. Always in search of a bargain, it didn’t take long for Americans to spot the differentials between the domestic and European prices and Americans dove in, causing the sensation of retail prices at auction. Auctioneers saw the possibility of competing with dealers and eagerly sought out the American violin buyer.
America has also entered the auction business through firms such as Tarisio and Skinner. Now, instruments that once would have been offered “as-is” now frequently receive a full set-up and the repairs needed to make them desirable to retail buyers. However, today’s auctions still represent a wholesale market, with most items going for wholesale prices, but with a variety of retail items getting top prices. Buyers have the chance to get something at a substantial discount, but they also have a chance to buy someone else’s headaches. To shop this way, you need to do your homework and have a lot of knowledge and experience to draw upon.
Not every seller, though, wants to take the chance that his or her retail sale will end up a wholesale lot, or even worse, not sell at all, giving it the onus of a undesirable or even suspect instrument. The auctioneers have responded with their own private sales departments, which I can assure you handle all the best or most desirable instruments. I always visited the leading auctioneers in their private offices in London. One, in particular, would often have a wall full of great Cremonese violins, all of which they sold privately, and not one of them ever seeing the auction block. The great ones that do are rare and often the result of extraneous factors, such as with the 1721 “Lady Blunt” Stradivari, whose sale at public auction for $15.9 million was both desired by the seller and used as a way of raising money for disaster relief in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
The Modern Maker Market
I shouldn’t minimize the concerns of dealers, auctions, and other sellers in an instrument having a good tone. They all worry about it. They also have the experience to know that tone is personal and not quantifiable, and that everyone has their own ideas of good tone. Factors that go into one’s tonal tastes include many factors: performing skill, what you’ve been taught to like, familiarity with the type of instrument, musical education, your favored repertoire and your own personality. And, it also includes factors outside of the instrument being scrutinized, like your bow and bow arm, the type of strings you’re used to, how similar the instrument you’re trying is to the one you already play, what you had for breakfast, whether you fought with your partner that morning, and what your stand partner and/or quartet partners think. In short, there is something for everyone in violins, and dealers keep a variety on hand so as best to have available whatever that buyer wants. More often than not, everything will sell.
Modern makers are concerned about these same things, and more, though their pricing is based on criteria that are more straightforward. Essentially, it’s based on the cost of their woods and materials, maintaining the workshop, how much time they need to make an instrument, and for how much they value their time. They also consider what they think someone will pay for it, based on their own judgments of tone and desirability, and by comparing themselves and their works to those of their colleagues. If this sounds as though pricing would be fairly equal among makers, you’d be wrong, because is as much variety in pricing in the new market as there is in the old.
The factors that go into this pricing structure are varied and go to the emotions behind most violin purchases made for utility. A famous player who uses a new maker’s instruments can make a huge difference in the popular desirability of the maker’s work, enabling them to have a backlog of orders and thus sustain a higher price. An aggressive marketing campaign can raise a maker’s profile in the music world and thus give them more name recognition. Sales trips are common, as are makers get involved with music schools and summer music workshops. The Violin Society of America, whose instrument-making competitions began as a way of raising the profile and respect for modern makers’ works, now has a devoted following of makers who enter competitions in hopes of winning medals and certificates, to better give their instruments the seal of popular approval and desirability.
Historically, new instruments resold become used instruments, and thus resell at a discount. For the most famous modern makers, this trap is often avoidable. Some years back, I recall one modern maker with a very real concern that one of his instruments, placed in a London auction, would sell for a fraction of his current asking price and thus damage his market. He did not need to worry. The seller had shown the violin to many colleagues, two of whom really liked and wanted it. Both knew the price of a new one; they bid against one another until they reached a price above retail at which one chose to drop out and instead buy a new one.
Where does it go from here? No one knows what the future will bring. Old instruments in a healthy and well-documented state will at least hold their value and probably rise. The rest will probably fall into a procession reflecting the tastes, depreciations, and relative desirability of all the rest. In the past, new makers’ prices tended to equalize, with a few whose works are considered better. Prices often fell after a maker died because he was no longer around to promote them. This is not always the case—witness J. B. Vuillaume, who priced his instruments in parity to Gaglianos, and they still are valued so. These decisions will be made by future generations.
Maybe it’s better not to worry about it and just buy what you like and can afford.
Philip J. Kass is a respected independent violin expert, appraiser, and author who combs through archives in Italy to uncover new information about the great makers of the past. philipjkass.com