Differences between auction houses and buyers blur as auctions gain popularity
For many watchers of the world of violin dealing, the October 28 inaugural auction of Beares Auctions, a spin-off of high-end violin dealer John & Arthur Beare Ltd. marked a turning point in the development of the market. With auction houses now offering “boutique” private sales and dealers now offering “boutique” auctions, buyers have many new options as several significant players in the strings trade cross the lines from their traditional roles.

From a superficial perspective, the entrance of the world’s most famous dealership into the auction market seems to be an indication that the balance of power is shifting from the violin shop to the auction saleroom. However, the reality may be fundamentally different from first appearances. The auction profession has gained capital from the James Bond–like glitz and glamour of its high-end sales of fine paintings and objects d’art, where billionaires bid things up to unprecedented levels in order to outdo each other. This market is very much alive in the highest echelons of the art world, but the truth of the matter is very few artworks garner that kind of attention, including  exceptionally few musical instruments. Although auction houses boast world-record auction prices at the end of virtually every sale, most lots sold at auction (instruments or otherwise) are incapable of making the kind of prices found among the finest examples circulating on the private market. Even the world-record price for a violin at auction—Tarisio’s 2011 sale of the 1721 “Lady Blunt” for $15.9 million—was overshadowed by the 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù, which had been put on the market in Chicago a year before at $18 million and finally found a buyer in 2012 when it was sold through J & A Beare Ltd.

However, with auction houses and dealers taking advantage of emerging technology and developing an online market for the strings trade a change in roles was inevitable.

Steven Smith, director of J & A Beare explained: “[starting auctions] was something we have been talking about for years, and if we didn’t do it now, we knew we would regret it in ten years time.” He is probably right. The success of Beare’s Auctions will not be measured by the 30-or-so instruments and bows that come onto the market each time they announce their sale, but in the hundreds of new connections with ambitious musicians that they can expect to make on the back of each view.

Beare’s offered an enviable lineup for its first sale. It included the ca. 1698 “Cabriac” Stradivari violin—the only Stradivari in November sales. No less significant were a pair of Guadagnini violins—one made in Milan and the other from Turin—and four instruments by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The auction may not have had the largest number of instruments for sale that week, but with these seven instruments alone, it was a star lot.

The fall sales came as Tarisio—the auction house that arguably has done more than any other company to change perceptions about auction as a place for musicians to buy musical instruments—celebrated its 15th birthday. The last decade-or-so has seen enormous change in the auction market for rare violins as Christie’s and Sotheby’s exited the market in order to concentrate on higher value works of art. This change spawned Brompton’s (originally comprising former Bonham’s and Christie’s specialists) and the more recent transition of Tim Ingles and Paul Hayday from their role in Sotheby’s to launching their own brand, Ingles & Hayday, which maintains close ties with the former employer.

Free of the restrictive corporate governance that plagued the old auction houses, these new, smaller companies have been able to take a more entrepreneurial approach to the market.

This freedom has allowed them to become an increasingly powerful competitor to the old, established dealers, with regular cash flow from sales that leave them better equipped to plan marketing campaigns and attract consumer attention with public viewings that have become social gatherings where people can freely try out great instruments without the pressure of having to buy. Tarisio, in particular, has been able to engage with upcoming generations of musicians in a way that the intimidating closed doors of conservative fusty old-world violin dealer were not.

And, everyone has taken note.

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