By James N. McKean

The search for the right instrument can be exhilarating, both for you and for the dealer you’re working with (there really is nothing quite as satisfying as helping a musician find his or her voice). When the magic happens, it’s wonderful. You draw the bow, and within minutes, you know: This is it. But your heart can lead you astray, which is why knowing the risks and the costs—some hidden—can help you make a good choice.

First, you have to accept the essential paradox in the world of violins. These are musical instruments, the sole purpose of which is to make sound. And yet, as hard as it is to believe, sound plays no part in valuing them on an individual basis. A violin attributed to Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, one of the most celebrated makers, can sell for over $15 million. But if that same violin is discovered to be a forgery, the price can plummet to under $100,000. And yet it’s the same violin; nothing has changed but the attribution.

Why? Because violins are a part of the art and antiques market, and the same rules apply. Sometimes in the other direction: This June, in France, a drawing of St. Sebastian that a doctor liked and bought for next to nothing is scheduled [at press time] to be auctioned as the genuine work of Leonardo da Vinci—fetching, it’s hoped, over $15 million.

And while you might think that the sound should be all that counts, that on its own is not immutable. Violins are amplifiers; they are designed and crafted to amplify the soul of the musician. If ten different players pick up that Guarneri, you’ll hear ten different violins—and while one player might swoon, another might be left cold. When it comes to finding your voice, you’re buying for sound. But that’s not how instruments are valued. And this really doesn’t matter—unless what you’re doing is making an investment. Then it is all that matters.

Establish Parameters—and Stick to Them

I’ll never forget the day that the eminent dealer Jacques Francais handed me a gorgeous Carlo Bergonzi violin. “So how does it sound?” I asked, while looking at it. There was no answer, so I glanced up. He shrugged. “Doesn’t that affect the price?” I asked. “Not at all,” he replied. “Condition and provenance are all that matter. Someone will fall in love with it. The sound only determines how long it will take to sell.”

So here’s the essential rule to keep in mind when you start your search: Your goal is to fall in love. But first, establish the parameters. And, no matter what, don’t look at anything that falls outside them. Then you can allow yourself to fall in love.

The first parameter is the most obvious: money. Figure out exactly how much you want, or can afford, to spend (and keep in mind that you play with two hands—you’re going to want a bow to go with the instrument). Under no circumstances consider anything priced out of your range.

The most common technique in sales is upselling. Go into a wine store, and tell the sales staff you want something at $12 dollars. Odds are, you’ll walk out with a $15 bottle. And the thing is, you’ll feel like you’ve done well—after all, you’ve gotten something that you think is much better for only slightly more. But ending up with a $70,000 cello when all you can really afford is $50,000 for both the cello and a bow can leave you with a hangover that will last for decades. Compound interest only works in your favor when you’re saving. When you’re paying, it can be devastating.

The second and third parameters: Provenance and condition. An investment is only realized when you sell, not when you buy. Where you put your money is just laying the groundwork: You want to invest in whatever will appreciate the most. It sounds totally counterintuitive, but from an investment point of view, when you’re searching for an instrument, you need to think like a seller—not a buyer.

Right now you’re concentrating on finding your new love and taking it home. But someday either you or your heirs will be looking to sell. And this will be just as true then as it is now: Instruments and bows of the best quality will appeal to the widest market and thus fetch the best price and sell the fastest.

So make it clear that, in addition to being within your budget and not a dollar over, you will also only look at things that are in top condition and have an impeccable attribution. If all of this puts some things out of reach—that wonderful old Italian cello, for example, or a French bow—well, that’s an essential part of a prudent investment. You need to choose something you can afford while keeping a clear eye on what is and isn’t going to appreciate.

Trust Issues

Fine. You go into a shop and tell them what you’re looking for, and they bring out a number of possible candidates. You choose the one you like. But how can you be sure that it fits the criteria—that it’s priced right, is in good condition, and is what they say it is? The intuitive answer is to get a second opinion. Forget it: That’s off the table.

I’m not sure these days you could even find someone to do it—someone whose opinion is worth having, at any rate. It’s just not worth the risk. One of my colleagues once gave a second opinion on a viola as a favor, and then months later, was faced with the prospect of a lawsuit for professional negligence because he had failed to see a very artfully done patch in the back. He ended up buying it from the new owner for what she had paid—well over $100,000.

Also, product denigration is a very serious matter. The dealer offering the instrument could haul the person you’re consulting into court and make him defend anything he might say. These days, lawsuits over product denigration in the art world are brought on a regular basis—it’s the brave dealer who questions an attribution.

Most of all, though, you shouldn’t be working with a dealer if you don’t trust him. Yes, you need assurances. But the place to get them is from the shop offering the merchandise. But how do you find a reputable shop? As in the fine art business, or stamps or coins, most dealers take a great deal of pride in what they do; they go to great lengths to ensure that what they are offering has a secure attribution and no hidden damage. But how do you know which ones?

Unfortunately, there is no guide. As with all the other parts of the antique business, there is no licensing authority. But there are ways of finding out which dealers you can trust. How long have they been in business? Who are their clients? What do people say about them? The internet can be a great resource in discovering whether there have been any overt problems.

When it comes to violins, membership in professional organizations is no guarantee of honest dealing or even expertise. Membership in the Appraisers Association of America, however, is a good indicator. Most important, though, is to find out whether the shop will stand behind its goods. Every dealer or maker I know and respect does, without question. It’s a point of honor.

Many musicians these days are turning to auctions. While it might seem that you’re eliminating the dealer, you’re not; the auction house takes substantial commissions, often on both ends. And it’s debatable whether you’re getting a better price, either as a buyer or a seller. As for guarantees, be sure to check the fine print (of which there are pages) to see exactly what the policies are. Do they make full disclosure of the condition and will they stand behind the goods if questions are raised as to provenance? The best auction houses will.

The Pitfalls of Identification

In many regards, the identification of an instrument is like a trial, with the instrument itself in the dock. It’s anonymous until proven otherwise; and the job of the expert is to prove its authorship beyond a reasonable doubt. As with a trial, it’s the accretion of evidence that in the end makes the attribution. Certificates, prior bills of sale, articles, catalogues, reference books: They all add up. But while science and scholarship are providing more of a solid foundation for attribution, it’s still very much an art. A certificate represents the considered judgment of an expert, but it’s still no more than an opinion. The problem for an investor is that opinions can change.

A reputable shop or auction house will provide a detailed condition report, complete with schematic drawings that show every repair, no matter how minor. And that includes how much of the instrument—including the varnish—is original. Ultra-violet light will show original varnish and retouching, as will infrared. If you’re spending serious money, then you should also get a dendrochronology report. Spruce, the wood in the tops, can be very accurately dated using detailed databases of European forests that go back centuries. It’s pretty straightforward. If the results show a tree still growing after 1786, then the violin can’t be a G.B. Guadagnini, since that’s the year he died. And, for the really high-end instruments, a CT scan will show any flaw or repair, no matter how small.

Beware of the label. Though a great many are correct, many antique instruments left the maker’s shop without a label. Labels and brand stamps are quite easy to forge, and it’s not uncommon to find a violin that’s been relabeled as the work of a maker who fetches higher prices. Faking labels has been going on as long as instruments and bows have been made. One of the great things about being a violin maker is that if you’re any good, you keep on making long after you’re dead.

High Finance

When you’re investing, you also have to keep in mind the costs, some hidden, which will reduce your ultimate return. When you sell your instrument or bow, there will be a hefty commission, along with any costs to put them into salable condition. During the time you own them, you will have to pay for insurance and maintenance. Violins and bows are amazingly durable, but they show the signs of wear very quickly, which, depending on the extent, can lessen their value, sometimes significantly. You really have to stay on top of it, and you have to be sure the person doing the maintenance is qualified. Over the years, I’ve seen as many violins damaged by overzealous repairmen as by the negligence of owners.

If you’re going to be financing the purchase, you have to factor in the interest you’ll be paying over the lifetime of the loan to know the true cost. Finally, unlike stocks, bonds, or many other investments, violins are not liquid assets. The finest cello in the world could sell in a day, or sit in the safe for a year. How much you realize could be greatly reduced if you have to sell it fast.

So what about contemporary work? From the perspective of a musician, you can find everything you want in a contemporary instrument or bow just as in an antique. The quality in sound or playability is no longer a distinguishing factor. A violin is a marvel of engineering: a very lightweight, flexible box built to vibrate as much as possible but stand up under the extreme pressure of the strings for centuries. It takes quite a high level of skill to create that. In this regard, makers are the same as dealers and auction houses: experience and a strong track record count. But even with the top makers, is a contemporary instrument a good investment?

Personally, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve never marketed or sold instruments as investments. They hold their value, but that’s beside the point. I’m making a tool to make a living, to provide a lifetime of music. People spend as much on a car as they do on a contemporary instrument, and don’t expect them to last more than a few years. Ten days in Rome costs about the same as a top contemporary bow. Your accountant can put your instrument or bow on a depreciation schedule, which will recoup your outlay by offsetting it against taxable income. In the meantime, the money not spent on an antique represents capital that can be invested elsewhere.

An investment is a return on capital. The return depends on the amount of risk you’re willing to accept. In the violin market, you can’t eliminate the risk. But by understanding what the potential pitfalls are, you can reduce it. If you exercise caution, are realistic about the hidden costs, and are careful to maintain your instrument properly, you’ll vastly increase the odds that when you do finally part with it, it will prove to have been a good investment. Then you’ll have the best of both worlds: a lifetime of love, and money in the bank.

James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977, when he graduated from the Violinmaking School of America. His articles regularly appear in Strings, for which he is a contributing editor. He has served in a number of positions on the board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, including president.