By Inge Kjemtrup | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
I bought my first viola at a school auction many years ago. I’d just made the switch from violin, and the viola I had been borrowing had to be returned. When a friend asked if I wanted to go to the auction, I agreed immediately. We arrived at a barn-like building and I had a few minutes to examine several violas, hastily settling on one. I earnestly hoped the scratches on the top weren’t signs of something serious underneath.
The bidding began, the auctioneer working at top speed: “Do I hear $50? $50 … $55! $70 from the young lady in the front…” That “young lady”—me—felt her heart beating at a terrifying speed. I desperately shouted my final bid: $85. The German factory-made viola was mine.
When I later attended instrument auctions in London, the sale prices were much higher, but the anxiety levels were the same. Buying a stringed instrument at auction can be exciting, confusing, and stressful. If it goes very well, you’ll have an excellent instrument bought at a bargain price. From that perspective, the stress, and a little research to help you understand the process, may be well worth the effort.
Eric Benning, a luthier based in Studio City, California, attended many London auctions and he agrees they were intimidating. “But now you can buy in your underwear,” he jokes. Whether that is progress or not, the rise of the online auction has been an undeniable game changer in the market. And while online auctions have taken some stress out of the experience, the odds of finding an unexpected gem may have diminished, too.
Does all the openness and transparency of the online auction mean the chance of finding a bargain is vanishingly small? Not necessarily…
Jason Price, director of the online auction house Tarisio, tells me he believes that the online environment favors the advanced amateur, “the person who isn’t doing it for their job.” It’s also good for “people who like to do things for themselves.”
Does all the openness and transparency of the online auction mean the chance of finding a bargain is vanishingly small? Not necessarily, but, as I learned in talking with some experts, there are some key tips that can help.
Be Clear on Specifics
The number one tip is to be clear on your budget and decide how much risk you are willing to take. Become familiar with prices for the type of instrument or bow you are after. Acquaint yourself with the industry jargon, both in terms of the instrument’s condition and its attribution.
It’s also useful to remember that dealers come to auctions with a different motivation. “I look at an auction sort of like a house flipper would look at a house,” says Benning. “I’m looking for the worst house in the best neighborhood. I’m looking for these hidden gems and I know how to fix them. But most musicians aren’t looking for a flip home—they’re looking for their home.”
The language of attribution can seem absurdly hair-splitting (see sidebar “Who Made It?”). For example, it’s important to know that saying an instrument is “by” a certain maker is a very strong statement. “It takes a lot for us to say that something is ‘by,’ because we’re going to guarantee it,” says Price. “And I think people take that guarantee as adding a lot of value to the prospect of buying at auction.
“Frankly I think the bar is higher for getting things right at auction than it is in a lot of retail contexts,” he adds, “simply because we are public in our attribution and when we get things wrong, people talk.”
Once you have zeroed in on an instrument, request its condition report. “From the condition report you can identify the big things that are going on,” says Price. “Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. Some people want no cracks. Some people are fine as long as there isn’t a crack in the wrong place, and some people are fine with a total basket case.”
I ask Benning what makes him reject a potential fixer-upper. “Well, soundpost cracks in the back are usually a bridge too far . . . and the varnish being not original. Those are usually deal breakers because even if you were to do a restoration, what will the end product be?”
London dealer Ben Hebbert, who was formerly European Specialist Head of Sale for Christie’s, cautions, “Beware that even an instrument that is presented in playing condition with the strings in tune could have underlying issues. I know of instances of instruments bought as playable at auction where the neck has come out or the back fallen off because sudden string tension has stressed the instrument after decades spent in an attic in a detrimental climate.”
Before an auction, instruments will be looked over carefully by the auction house and glaring issues repaired or noted in a condition report. While my scruffy $85 viola only needed a new set of strings and a quick tune-up by a luthier, other instruments will need more work post-purchase. If you are concerned, check with the auction house or bring along a luthier to examine the instrument.
Recently, one of Benning’s customers showed him a bow purchased at auction. As Benning examined it carefully, he discovered a crack. The auction house verified the break, acknowledged it had been missed on the condition report, and refunded the customer’s money.
Try It Out
“The old model of throwing things out on a table for two days in a blaringly loud auction room, those days are gone,” Price assures me when we speak on the phone. But when I come by one of Tarisio’s viewing days for its October 2019 auction, it is a lot like the noisy room he described—and I can’t help but tease him a bit. He laughs and points out that these instruments have been available to try for some weeks before.
Hebbert underscores the importance of allowing enough time to test the instrument and evaluate its sound. “Go to the viewings early, or arrange for an appointment in the weeks before the sale. People who buy in a panic can only hold themselves to blame if things go south.”
Benning has encountered many auction buyers disappointed by an instrument’s sound. “They are chasing the sound that they were hoping to get and it’s possible that the instrument may not have that.” He says that in a retail store, “you really are allowed to put an instrument through the paces. Take it on trial, play in a large hall, get people’s opinions.”
Make a Smart Investment
How, then, to know what to start looking for? “It’s really important that you figure out the market for the instrument and don’t let the auctioneer’s estimate be your only guide,” says Hebbert. Bargains may be found with instruments “that the trade has always called ‘player’s instruments’—the incredibly battered things that sound great, or the violins that sound amazing but just can’t be attributed with any certainty. As a dealer it’s difficult to sell an instrument with more than three major problems with it, but that doesn’t mean that these don’t find a ready market in the auction world,” he says.
“Generally speaking, if you don’t go wild on your bidding, you should make all or most of your money back if you have to sell the instrument by auction in the future,” he continues. “You may even make a profit. Remember that the person you are bidding against may be a musician with the same strategy as yours, and bidding wars tend to attract a higher price.”
At the Tarisio October auction, a cello by Vuillaume fetched the highest price, at £300,000, nearly doubling the estimated price. Many lots went for less, however. “Buying at auction is not for the fainthearted,” says Hebbert. “It takes a lot of experience and a shrewd eye to do really well. My best advice is not to make buying your violin your first experience of buying at auction.”
Benning marvels at how auctions have changed in just a few decades. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t ask for a condition report or have 30 days to ask questions online. These days, somebody will run to the back, get the instrument for you, and answer your question in a day. That’s incredible.”
‘Who Made It?’ Tarisio’s guide to attribution
- By Antonio Stradivari: The authors of this catalog believe in their best judgment that this work was made by this maker and guarantee it to be so.
- Attributed to Antonio Stradivari: A work believed to be by this maker by popular consensus or past opinion, but not by the authors of this catalog.
- Ascribed to Antonio Stradivari: A work believed to be by this maker in the opinion of the authors of the accompanying certificates or letters, but not by the authors of this catalog.
- Probably (or possibly) by Antonio Stradivari: A work about which there is divided opinion.
- Under the direction of Antonio Stradivari: A work executed under the guidance of and with the direct involvement of this maker.
- Workshop of Antonio Stradivari: A work executed in the style of this maker, most probably under his supervision and with his involvement.
- Circle of Antonio Stradivari: A work believed to be by someone associated with the maker, working under his direct or indirect influence.
- School of Antonio Stradivari: The
work of a follower of the maker or region stated.
- Labeled (or stamped, branded) Antonio Stradivari: An instrument not necessarily the work of the maker stated but labeled or branded as such.