By Cliff Hall
First of all, this almost never happens. Though thousands of vintage violins have been sold on shopgoodwill.com (SGW), most of them are late-19th- or early-20th-century German or French factory copies of Stradivari, del Gesù, Amati, and Stainer instruments worth a couple thousand dollars at most. But when SGW listed this antique 1846 Thibout violin and Victor Fétique bow last Thursday, bidders caught on quickly. Rocketing up to $10,000 within 24 hours, the instrument was sold to the final bidder for $26,259.
High-value instruments like this are more commonly sold on specialist auction websites like Tarisio or Brompton’s Auctioneers, where appraisers will give expert opinions on a violin’s condition and authenticity and often also offer public and private viewings for prospective buyers to evaluate the instruments themselves. The readily available expertise and viewing opportunities, however, come at a price: these types of auction sites can charge a buyer’s premium—about 20 percent above the hammer (final) price, which does not include taxes or shipping fees. Both for the bidder’s profit and peril, SGW usually does not charge a buyer’s premium or authenticate its offerings. But this time was special.
“The amount of attention that has been put on this piece compelled our team to have it authenticated,” says Maureen Ater, vice president of marketing and development for Goodwill Industries of Greater Cleveland and East Central Ohio, in an email. “It’s the real deal! The violin and the bow could be worth upwards of $40k. Condition is significant, though, to value, and this is not premium condition. We do not have the name of the person or persons who donated it, as we do not track that on any of our donations, but we do know that it was donated at our University Heights store, which is located east of Cleveland.”
But was it a real Thibout? This family had been making violins in France since the mid-18th century but didn’t come into real prominence until the third generation, when Jacques-Pierre Thibout moved to Paris in 1794. A highly regarded maker in his time, Thibout worked his way up the ranks to become the official luthier to the king in 1830. Violin making was truly a family affair, and Thibout’s son Gabriel Adolphe took over day-to-day operations of the business in 1838. Whether this violin, which has a “TGA” stamp, was the work of the father or son is a point of debate.
“It looks like the father’s work,” says Philip Kass, a Pennsylvania-based violin expert and author. “The nouveau procédé [newest process or method] was the extra-broad corner joints, with the block exposed and picked out with two black strips instead of one. The photos don’t really show this—just one that hints that it’s the case.
“They worked together. Their lifespans were almost identical. The TGA brand indicates the son, TJP the father, but the work is almost indistinguishable in style if the label’s gone. Key is how the corner joints were done, as that’s the new system they note on the label.”
Another potential question is whether this could be a copy of a Thibout, perhaps from Germany, like this example, or a forgery. “No Markneukirchen makers, or for that matter any other commercial makers, copied anything more recent than a Vuillaume. The whole point of things was to make reasonable copies of the famous names, particularly classic Cremonese, not the later makers. They were sold as such by the workshops that produced them, so the buyers were aware of what they got. And none of these fake labels of later makers were done by the makers themselves—they were done by others with the intent to defraud. The plausibility of an attribution was enough for them,” says Kass. “Original labels were frequently pulled out of original instruments and glued back into fakes just for that purpose.”
Added onto this lot was a valuable violin bow. “The bow with it has what appears to be an authentic Fétique heel and mounts. If not broken or spliced, it would be a good work of Victor,” says Kass.
SGW was established in 1999 by Goodwill of Orange County, California, when staffers noticed several successful sales of their thrift shop items on online auction sites like eBay. The resulting auction site, despite a practically nonexistent marketing budget, recently passed the $1 billion mark from items sold, reaching 21 million unique visitors per week and selling 4.8 million items across the country last year. And though this lot clearly stood out, it isn’t the highest-fetching lot in SGW history.
According to a 2021 article in Forbes, in 2000, a Frank Weston Benson painting fetched a staggering $165,000—this stands as the organization’s most lucrative sale to date. Other noteworthy transactions include a 2006 Dusky boat that sold for $19,500, a four-carat diamond ring that commanded $16,989, a Mario Bros. game that fetched $14,000, and a Picasso etching that went for $1,801. On average, sales amount to $35, with the organization’s top-selling categories being jewelry, clothing and accessories, electronics, collectibles, and toys.