By Philip J. Kass
The most lasting influence of Vincenzo Panormo on the violin world was in his introduction of the Stradivari model into French and English violin making. In this matter he was hardly unique, for there were other makers in both cities who also had recognized the distinct advantages of the Stradivari form. Indeed, one can say that the timing of his arrivals, the return to Paris in 1779 and to London in 1790, directly corresponded with the growing appeal of these ideas in craft. However, during his residences he was and remained the foremost exponent and most accomplished practitioner of this model in both cities. As such, he repeatedly changed the landscape for everyone else, and in the process he left a body of lovely Italianate instruments that possessed the most progressive ideas of sound then available.
I would be amiss to neglect the double bass in these discussions, for it was as a maker of these instruments that the family first achieved success. Early on, Vincenzo had become a friend of the noted bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti. Dragonetti was hugely influential in London both as a performer and as a merchant, for he was also a conduit for Italian violins finding their way to London. Vincenzo and his son Joseph both made outstanding basses on the model of Dragonetti’s Gasparo da Salò. These remain among the most sought-after English basses and established the look of an English bass for years to come.
However, the legacy of Vincenzo was more than just the sum total of his work. His three violin-making sons—Joseph, George, and Louis—each continued their own workshops. While the career of Joseph was erratic, he too made a number of fine instruments until his death in 1839. George also continued the craft, although his works are far rarer. The most successful of Vincenzo’s sons was Louis, who took an early interest in the guitar and became a noted maker and seller of Spanish guitars from about 1816 until he emigrated to New Zealand in 1859. Many of these guitars were in fact made by his two brothers. Children of these three sons remained active in the trade, the youngest of them dying in 1891. If Joseph, George, and Louis proved less successful than their father, it is perhaps due to the brilliant example that Vincenzo’s art set for other British craftsmen of the time, who in turn changed their models and styles to match that of their mentor.
“It would be a mistake to say that Vincenzo Panormo violins have been trading well below market, although they sometimes do.”
And what does this mean for the buyer? It would be a mistake to say that Vincenzo Panormo violins have been trading well below market, although they sometimes do. Long ago, the marketplace decided that Panormos were “Italian,” even when made in Paris or London, and regardless of the fact that Vincenzo’s wood and varnish choices always reflected the local options. As a result, prices have mostly kept up, although there is a small discount for their lack of an Italian city on the label. A fine Vincenzo Panormo usually sells for $150,000 or thereabouts, although I’ve also heard of instruments going for as much as $200,000. This is high, but compare this to other Italian makers of the same era, such as Balestrieri and Storioni and G.B. Ceruti and the Gaglianos, and a discount is clearly visible. One can easily spend this on a Giovanni Gagliano; his brothers and the previous generation of Gaglianos often sell for much more. One cannot touch a Balestrieri or Storioni or even a Ceruti in this range unless it has been severely compromised. Even Vuillaumes, several generations newer and French to boot, sell for as much or more. Keep in mind as well that Panormo, as one of the earliest adopters of the Stradivari model, was actually making the instruments of the generations to come, whereas these other makers were still making the instruments of their generation and earlier. An even better value can be found in Joseph Panormo’s work. His instruments, as one would expect of the next generation’s work, sell for less, much closer to $100,000.
While the work of both these makers is tonally very fine, this is where a degree of collector value comes into play. As Italian as they are, they are not quite Italian enough for some buyers. Dealers are often criticized about pricing, but it takes demand as well as supply to make a market, and the pricing generally accepted for all of these instruments reflects closely what players and collectors have been willing to spend, as well as their general preferences of how they rate one maker against another. This force will probably prevent Panormos ever reaching price-parity with, say, Nicolo Gaglianos, but it does not mean that their prices will languish. The forces raising prices today are a rising tide of expanded demand and financial resources, and as we all know, a rising tide raises all boats.
There is another factor that must be considered in the market for all antique violins: authenticity. Vincenzo Panormo’s life story was exciting and dramatic, but nothing like the romantic myths that grew up around him in the last few centuries. Jason Price has said that when he acquired cozio.com there were 219 “Panormos” in the database. Many were there because they had traditionally been regarded as authentic, but more often than not the attribution was based on an uninformed opinion—that it “felt” right. After clearing out the spurious and misattributed ones, the database was left with 61. Part of the purpose for the 2016 exhibition was to bring to the public’s attention the new information that had been learned about the family, and to clarify their role in the trade, but an important part of it was also to clarify what made an authentic Panormo, using some of the finest and most “textbook” examples to do so. This should give more confidence to buyers moving forward, as future sellers will be better informed about the family and their wares will be better vetted.