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By Clark Miller | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine

For first-timers, an online auction for an instrument or bow in the violin family can be daunting. Under the pressure of the clock, you ask yourself, “Do I know enough about this alluring object? Have I heard it? Have I played it?” As you decide whether to raise a bid, you face two risks—that you will lose and that you will win.

For if you win, there is no backing out. You are committed to a legally binding contract. So, why go through the stress?

Because auctions are fun, exciting, suspenseful—and occasionally play host to Lady Luck. With the advent of online auctions, they are also more private, making the surroundings a bit less intimidating. Gone are the days of the somber auctioneer whose hawklike eyes sweep a crowded room. Now, it’s just you and your screen.

“There has been a big change in the clientele,” says Carlos Tome, director and head of sales at Tarisio, a leading online auction house for stringed instruments. “This is thanks to more information, more transparency, and a greater market reach.”

With innovations fostered by the internet, auctions have become convenient, open, and, in a word, more democratic. Everyone is invited to play. “Those new to the world of auctions for musical instruments need to understand the evolution that has taken place in that world,” Tome says. It was once the domain primarily of wholesalers. Christie’s and Sotheby’s were the major auction houses for musical instruments; they are no longer in the game. Thanks to innovations of Tarisio and other auction houses, buying stringed instruments through auction has become a retail enterprise for consumers at all levels.

Will Horner, cataloguer at Brompton’s Auctioneers-photo-Eleanor Broughton,-courtesy of Brompton’s auctioneers
Will Horner, cataloguer at Brompton’s Auctioneers. Photo by Eleanor Broughton/Courtesy of Brompton’s Auctioneers

Tome plays the violin himself. From Spain originally, he has been employed in music administration in New York since 2005 and joined Tarisio in 2010, becoming a partner in 2015. “It takes a long time to build trust in a new venue,” Tome says, “but over time this has been achieved. With every auction we hold, retail participation increases. There is much more comfort with the platform.”

Peter Horner would agree. A veteran of 40 years in music-instrument auctions and founder of Brompton’s Fine & Rare Instruments in London, he took his business online four years ago, just in time to avoid a clobbering by Covid. (“Thank God,” he says.) “The fact is, I’ve always felt very strongly that an online auction is better for musicians,” Horner says. He recalls that in the past, the main bidders, often dealers, would sometimes stare at musicians as if they were intruding. “It could be awkward for musicians,” he says. 

Evaluating the Instruments

Now that musicians and other non-dealers have embraced online auctions, the major houses have found ways to allow them to see, hear, and play the instruments before the bidding begins.


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Prior to a sale, Brompton’s holds a public viewing at the historic Royal Over-Seas League, a private club founded in 1910 and located in London’s St. James’s district. “Now musicians can come in and look at the instruments,” Horner says. “They can take one home for a few days, and play it with their chamber quartet or show it to their teacher.”

If unable to attend a preview, a potential buyer may be able to at least hear the instruments. Brompton’s was the first house to provide online videos of the best instruments being played. “It’s the videos that have made people jump on planes,” Horner says.

Online bidding starts with the catalog, which appears online a few days before the auction begins. Each “lot,” or item for sale, will have a photograph and brief copy. The copy includes a “description”—merely a tag to get you started. They include fine, important, rare, interesting, and contemporary.

“Attributions and Authorship” comes next, information that should be read carefully. There is a big difference between “by Antonio Stradivari” and “school of Antonio Stradivari.” In fact, between these two extremes, Tarisio lists six other levels of “Stradivariness,” not to mention the bottom of the chain, “labeled (or stamped or branded) Antonio Stradivari.”

A potential buyer samples instruments at Tarisio-Photo-Robert Bailey, courtesy of Tarisio
A potential buyer samples instruments at Tarisio. Photo by Robert Bailey/Courtesy of Tarisio

Horner notes that when a house asserts that an instrument is “by” so-and-so, it is a legally binding statement.

The catalog copy also includes an estimated price range. This is important information because the low end of the range will never be higher than the reserve, the confidential amount below which the seller will not sell.

Before you decide that the estimated cost of the lot that has caught your eye and ear is within your budget, you need add the buyer’s premium—20 percent of the hammer price. And don’t forget such pesky issues as shipping costs, insurance, and taxes. Horner notes that many Americans may enjoy an economic advantage over British buyers, as they don’t face Britain’s VAT, or value-added tax, of 20 percent.

Checking the Condition

The catalog copy on a specific lot does not include a condition report. This you must request, the sooner the better, because the report presupposes some knowledge of the anatomy of the instrument. You may need help deciphering it. The many and varied patches, cracks, and grafts that can turn up in a condition report attest to the hard life some instruments have lived.


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Such help is readily available from established auctions. A luthier on staff can talk you through such technical terms as “craquelure” and “grain reversal.” “We encourage calls regarding the condition of the instrument,” Tome says. “We get hundreds of emails on the condition reports. We have a team of experts to answer your questions. We encourage you to meet with our luthiers.”

A final word about condition—it is sometimes overruled by the heart. Philip J. Kass, a stringed-instrument expert, appraiser, consultant, and writer, often goes to an auction preview with a list in hand of instruments his clients want evaluated. When he reports back on which ones look good, it is not uncommon for the client to argue for an excluded instrument because of that uncanny element—the sound.

“If you buy by sound [alone], you’re on your own,” Kass says. While obviously important, beware of letting sound override condition. Repairs will add to your instrument’s costs, and an instrument in poor condition could prove much harder to sell later on.

Bidding

Once you have selected a lot to bid on, carefully note its ending time and date as listed in the catalog, because each lot may have its own schedule. If there is active bidding within the last few minutes of a lot’s ending time, it is often extended as a courtesy to outbid. This may continue for as long as there is active bidding.

To place a bid, you simply select your lot and click Place a Bid. By default, the amount of the bid will be the current bid plus the appropriate auction increment. Be aware that increments increase as the price rises. At Tarisio, for example, when bidding reaches $5,000 the increment doubles from $250 to $500.

When you make a bid, you are asked to enter your Bidder ID and password. You receive an email confirming the bid. If another bidder places a higher bid, you receive an outbid notice by email. And so it goes. As an alternative to regular bidding, you can place a proxy bid, in which you set the maximum amount that you are willing to spend. Auction software then executes bids as necessary on your behalf.

Kass has a word of caution for those who bid to score a bargain. “The way you can maximize your investment is by bidding on and winning an instrument with the same condition and documentation you would get from a good shop,” he says. “The real question is not whether you are getting a ‘good deal’ but whether you are getting a good instrument: authentic, healthy, and well-documented. You may pay too much or you may get a good deal, but either way you’ll come out fine in the long run because it won’t lose value.”