Purchasing a quality bow can be a wise investment for your playing and your wallet
by Phillip Kass
The last few years have witnessed a dramatic increase in violins and bows as investments. With traditional investments, like real estate and the stock market, not as strong as they once were and interest rates at historic lows, many are scrambling to find investments that pay a better return. As a result, the market for collectible violins and violin bows has been vigorous.
Violins and bows fit into the category of “usable collectibles”—that is, they pay musical and financial dividends. Indeed, the value of fine stringed instruments and bows increases over time, but one must use them to treasure them. And, while the market in both violins and bows continues to grow, bows are especially enjoying some advantages over violins in the current collector market. Bows generally cost less (so they are more accessible) and take less storage room, and while musicians may have one or two instruments, they likely own numerous bows, and so the demand is much higher. And bows offer more bang for your buck—while $10,000 can buy a nice violin, it will buy a first-class French bow from the early 20th century. Furthermore, the number of well-preserved classic bows declines at a faster rate than it does for instruments, adding to bows’ increasing rarity—and value.
This already hints at one of the key rules for investing in bows: the bows that appreciate are those in fine condition, all original in their parts, and with good supporting documentation.
Even so, the wise investor needs to follow some basic rules of self-protection. Here are some of the important guidelines I keep in mind when investing in a fine bow:
Collectors of fine bows—and just about everything else—insist on pristine condition. They won’t pay a premium for something worn or with mismatched or otherwise non-original parts. The depreciation on bows from missing parts or even minor damage can be enormous—a classic bow without its original mounts can be worth half the value of one with all its original parts. Of course, these less-than-pristine bows can still be good buys and can offer years of service, at the right price. I often counsel players to get a nice, old broken stick for orchestra pits or other tight spaces. If you run a fine bow into a wall and break it, you’ve lost most of its value, however, if you do it with a previously repaired stick, you’ve lost the cost of repairs.
I often recommend against purchasing bows with cracks or significant flaws on the sticks, like scorch marks, which suggests that the bow has had straightness or camber problems. Also, be watchful for serious damage or alterations to the fittings and to the heels where the octagon’s facets may have worn off. Wear on the heel can be particularly problematic because the wear can break through the stick and into the mortise, which is not only bad for the bow’s playability, it seriously depreciates the bow’s value.
At the right price, bows with these qualities can be fine to use, but they won’t gain value the way a clean example will.
2. Weight and length
Player’s preferences have changed since many collectible bows were made. For example, during the 19th century, the weight and stick length of bows were more variable— generally lighter and more flexible—than string players are accustomed to today. Early 19th-century bows, especially English ones, are much shorter than our modern standard. There are thousands of beautiful 55-gram violin bows and 75-gram cello bows loved by their owners in the 1880s, but modern pedagogy leans toward heavier and stiffer bows. It takes a skillful and sensitive player to handle these lighter bows without crushing the stick into the strings, so these otherwise lovely bows are often difficult to resell to players who have a modern playing style. So, for investment purposes, many buyers avoid anything too far outside of their own playing style.
3. Originality and documentation
The pleasure of a fine bow purchase can turn sour if the bow turns out to be a fake. Unfortunately, this discovery usually happens when the bow’s value is being assessed, like when it goes up for sale or during an insurance update, and usually long after the seller can be held accountable. Make sure you deal with responsible and respected parties when purchasing, and make sure you get documentation as some proof of provenance for further protection. If worse comes to worst, a shop will likely be more responsive to the situation than your stand partner because the shop’s business is based on maintaining its reputation and credibility. As a result, you’ll pay more for a bow from a good dealer, affecting your short-term investment return, but the shop’s vetting and reputation should help secure your investment in the long haul.
Auctions have become a popular way of buying bows at less-than-retail prices. If you choose that path, do your homework, because you’ll want a nice bow and not someone else’s headache. Get a condition report from an auction house and check the bow’s authenticity, originality, and documentation. If you don’t trust your judgment, get professional assistance. If you plan to play it, give yourself enough time to judge the bow from a playing standpoint. The reason for these warnings is that shops have long used auctions as a way to dispose of “problem” bows.
4. Time frame
Sellers these days would have you think that you can buy something and turn it over in no time for a handsome profit. That might be true for an astute stock purchase, but is rarely the case for violins and bows. Their appreciation can be considerable, but past growth does not guarantee future growth, nor is there certainty that another buyer will be waiting in the wings at any moment. Plus, you might pay your broker one percent or less for a stock sale, but instrument sales often involve selling commissions of 20 to 30 percent, which means that you might not even break even in the short term. Buy for the long haul, with the expectation of having the bow for years of pleasurable service.
5. National Origin
The French have dominated bow making just as much as the Italians have dominated instrument making, and the prices of French bows will probably always lead the market. The best bargains—those with the most potential—are often those from other schools, such as the Germans (Bausch, Knopf, Nürnberger, and Pfretzschner families) and English (especially those makers who came out of the Hill shop: Samuel Allen, Arthur Bultitude, or William Watson). However, you should still buy what you like and enjoy using. Having said that, certain bow investments have produced much stronger returns than others. For example, in the late ’70s you could buy a fleur-de-lis Hill, or bows from Lamy, Tubbs, or Sartory with $1,000. In today’s marketplace, the Sartory would sell for more than $25,000, while the Hill might sell for $15,000–$18,000. Still, it’s important to understand that while these numbers show steady upward movement, there is no crystal ball to tell us the future values.
Once you have a fine bow, use it. Being able to make music with it is a major part of the pleasure of owning a bow and the reason why they are valuable. An added benefit of using this piece of art is that playing music presents an opportunity to keep an eye on the bow’s condition. By playing with the bow, you can catch issues before they become problems, such as short hair that can tighten in dry weather, potentially breaking the head, or discovering mites that can eat the bow hair, tortoiseshell frogs and buttons, and whalebone wrappings.
Use, though, is not the same as overuse. Be careful when handling the bow to avoid eroding the heel and fittings. Don’t bang it against your stand and please use your spare bow for such extended techniques as col legno. If a problem develops, address it immediately. Many professionals have excellent bows that they’ve cared for over the years and that look little different from when they acquired them, just by treating them with care.
One of the downsides to bows is that they have a nasty habit of disappearing. I’ve seen more than a few instances of good bows disappearing from untended cases during rehearsals, so I never carry more than one good bow if I can’t keep an eye on the case the entire time. And, I recommend against loaning bows unless you’re confident that your friend won’t let the bow out of her sight. An unfortunate amount of damage can occur due to ill-advised repairs. If you have a fine bow, entrust it only to a highly skilled and competent repair person. Finally, be sure your insurance is up-to-date—no one can guarantee that you’ll never have an accident or a theft.