Following a few simple steps before you bid can save you a lot of headaches—and hard-earned cash

By Greg Cahill

Long tables fill the preview galleries at Skinner auction house in Boston, crowded with double rows of violins and violas in various states of repair. A few resemble carcasses, with big cracks or missing pieces. Others are in perfect playing condition. Most fall somewhere in between. A couple of ratty old bows serve those who simply must play something in order to make a decision. It’s easy to pick the dealers out from the throng. Moving methodically down the rows, catalogs in hand, they dispassionately examine each lot, making notes on condition and how much they might be willing to spend. No need to play, they know by looking, and there are 400 lots to get through, not to mention another 500 across the street at Tarisio, or the 200 they saw a few days ago at Christie’s in New York . . .

That’s how Strings set the stage for a 2006 article about the auction trade. It can be a daunting task, but there are a few simple steps even a novice can take to turn all of the drama into a successful purchase.

“The public perception of auctions is often of a shady business conducted largely behind closed doors, with secret signals, tricks of the trade, and the chance that if you scratch your nose you might accidentally spend £100,000,” says Tim Ingles, director of Ingles and Hayday auction house in London. “The truth could hardly be more different—over the 23 years that I have been auctioning stringed instruments and bows, the auction houses have worked hard on dragging themselves into the 21st century, with most now providing a transparent service with reliable expertise and accessible viewings.”

So what are the advantages of purchasing at auction? “Auctions are a unique opportunity for buyers to have access to a large selection of instruments and bows from a variety of makers and periods at one time,” says Jason Price, founder of Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows. “As an internet-based bidding platform, all lots in our auctions are posted on our website with high-resolution photos, so anyone can preview the catalog ahead of visiting. This allows the buyer the freedom to take an independent approach in their search by focusing on the items that appeal to them most.”

And there is the possibility of finding a real bargain. “Occasionally instruments at auction will fetch crazy prices, if there is a major bidding war,” Ingles says, “but most of the time they sell below retail prices, often significantly below.”

“We want buyers who come to our auctions to take advantage of the opportunities that this platform offers and to feel empowered and confident in their decision.”

—Jason Price

Where to Begin

In the United States, Skinner Fine Musical Instruments and Tarisio hold viewing days in New York or Boston while London is the site of viewing days by Tarisio and auctions by Bromptons, Ingles and Hayday, and some smaller auction houses. But before you book a flight, learn the lay of the land. Visit local violin shops and familiarize yourself with a wide range of instruments and makers while noting differences in quality, condition, and prices. Don’t hesitate to talk to the resident expert or to ask for a condition report. And if you can, bring dental tools that permit you to peer inside the instrument to look for cracks and examine repairs. Based on your budget, you should be able to develop a sense of what to expect in your price range.

Be open-minded: There are many fine second- and third-tier Italian, French, German, and British instruments on the market, as well as contemporary violins, violas, and cellos. Remember that handmade instruments—and especially antiques—have unique characteristics, so don’t expect every violin made by French luthier Paul Mangenot to sound like the one you played at a local violin shop. After all, the set up, the bow you’re using, humidity, the room’s acoustics, and other conditions can dictate the sound. But with a bit of research you can get a good sense of what you want and what to expect at auction.

And do your homework: The Cozio archive, owned by Tarisio, is an online database with a treasure trove of information about the provenance and pricing of thousands of stringed instruments. It’s a good way to learn the relative value of violins, violas, and cellos by various makers and to gauge the shifting trends in the auction market.

Deciphering the Catalog

The selection at auction is truly overwhelming, so go through the catalog or website ahead of time to get an idea of what is available—old, modern, French, a viola of a certain size, or simply the best violin or cello you can get at the price you can afford. Each auction house website contains information on buying, selling, and getting a copy of the catalog. All sell a printed catalog and offer viewing online. Read the fine print carefully as these details explicitly define the terms of the sale. The precise meaning of words used to describe instruments, how payment is received, and the amount of the auction house commissions vary by company (be on the lookout for hidden costs).

Ingles & Hayday Auction

Ingles & Hayday auction. Photo courtesy Ingles & Hayday


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The catalog lists every lot in the sale, with some sort of description. A “lot” can contain one or several items sold together for one price. The succinct descriptions that accompany each lot are a sort of short-hand that pack much information in a small space. Details such as measurements are fairly straightforward; the following terms require further explanation: The last item listed is an estimated price range. The low estimate is what a dealer would pay and the high estimate is closer to retail. When a dealer shops at auction, he figures what he can sell the instrument for, subtracts the cost of repairs (he probably has violin makers in his employ), and decides how much he can afford to pay. Behind the low estimate is a confidential “reserve,” the price below which the item won’t be sold, to protect the seller. Estimates are on the low side, as buyers love the perception of a bargain and won’t be inclined to consider anything overpriced. Because the buyers at auction are generally well-informed, the closing price tends to be fair-market value.

“The majority of information needed will be listed for each lot in our catalog, but we encourage buyers to request condition reports or ask for any additional information they might like to have,” Price says. “We want buyers who come to our auctions to take advantage of the opportunities that this platform offers and to feel empowered and confident in their decision.”

Viewing Day Shuffle

Seeing and trying an instrument are vitally important to a player. If possible, preview an instrument before the official viewing day. If that’s not possible there are things you can do to enhance your experience. Jason Price of Tarisio suggests that you “try as many things as possible, even if they aren’t the maker you had your sights set on or are in a lower or higher estimate range than what you are looking for. Try to go into it without any preconceived notions and form your own opinion.”

Viewings allow ample time to make multiple visits for trying lots and comparing items. The goal is to be prepared for the hectic circumstances that accompany an auction. On his shop website, British violin dealer Martin Swan compares viewing day to speed-dating. “There’s plenty of choice, but in some ways it’s the worst possible situation in which to make an important decision,” he notes. “Our hot tip is to take your own bow with you to try out the violins at the viewing day, but even an experienced dealer has little hope of getting a complete understanding of how a violin sounds when trying it at an auction viewing.”

And don’t go it alone. “Bring your trusted colleagues, friends, or teachers with you,” Price says. “Since items cannot go out on approval during an auction, we encourage buyers to visit as often as they like, and to bring along any trusted parties who can listen and offer feedback. If the information isn’t listed in the catalog, or you want to know more, ask! Our entire staff is available to provide support during auction viewings and we encourage prospective buyers to ask us as many questions as possible.”

Be sure to take notes, he adds. “Going back and forth between several different lots can get confusing with the subtle differences between each getting blurred,” Price says. “Grab a copy of the catalog when you arrive and write down your thoughts after trying a lot. This will help you keep track of what qualities you did or didn’t like and why, and will make it easier to come back to things when comparing options.

“If you visit on a busier day and there are several people playing in the public gallery, don’t hesitate to ask for a private-trial room. It is important to be relaxed and comfortable when trying instruments or bows so that you can focus on the process.”

If you happen to fall in love with something that needs work, keep in mind the cost of repairs and the difficulty of finding someone to do the work in some parts of the country. Ask around—musicians will know if this is a problem in your area.

The Bidding Process

Before the auction, call the specialist in charge to discuss authenticity, if attribution is an important factor in the price. Read the fine print as that overrides the specialist’s word in case of dispute. Tarisio offers a 20-day guarantee of authenticity on instruments it definitively identifies as by the maker named.

Once you’ve chosen a fiddle or two, or three, there are several ways to bid. Regardless of the method, online or in person, all bidders register with the auction house, which will require some form of identification and possibly financial information to ensure ability to pay. If you are placing a bid online, through Tarisio, for example, after clicking Submit Bid, the bidder receives an email confirming the amount of the bid. If another bidder should bid higher than this amount, the first bidder will receive an outbid notice by email. By placing a bid on a lot, the bidder is committed to a legally binding and irrevocable offer to purchase the lot at any price up to and including his or her highest bid amount.

In the case of a live sale, if you can’t or would prefer not to attend, you can leave an absentee bid with the auction house. You can do this in person, by phone, fax, mail, or email, depending on the house. When your item comes up, the auctioneer will “execute” your bid incrementally, as you would in person, up to your maximum. You may get it for less, but you won’t be tempted to go higher. You can also call in to cancel
a bid.

If you cannot attend but wish to bid “live,” arrange for a phone line. Someone from the auction house will call you a few minutes before your lot comes up, preferably on a land line rather than a cellphone, and will bid for you from the side of the sales room. Skinner offers yet another option: an online link to Live Auctioneers enables bidding in real time at live auctions around the world via the internet.

The auctioneer doesn’t use the lightning-fast patter of the old-time auctioneer, but lots do move by quickly. The bidding starts low and moves up by pre-determined increments. For lots in the $500 to $1,000 range, the increment might be $50, while lots in the millions may move at $100,000 per bid. If the bidding pauses, but there is still interest, the auctioneer may cut the increment, prolonging the final sale.

The atmosphere can be dramatic, as prices spiral upward and hopeful bidders are forced to let go of a desired instrument. As musical-instruments consultant Kerry Keane told Strings, “Auction is good theater and good theater is drama. And we create that from the podium.”

Erin Shrader contributed to this article.


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This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Strings magazine.

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