Fiddle Buying Guide

Basic Principles for Finding a Violin or Fiddle Stephen K Perry, c 2003 - 2014 Buying anything expensive can prove intimidating, especially for a violin or bow whose distinguishing features may be invisible. And even more so via the Internet. What looks like the same instrument may vary in price by a factor of three among shops. Sometimes these are the same models simply priced differently. Sometimes they aren't! Violin shops, dealers, and trades of various levels seem to form a closed society, impenetrable from the outside. Published stories of fraud in the violin trade make a buyer justifiably nervous. Nevertheless, a buyer can navigate the shoals and make truly informed decisions with a little study and the application of common sense whether buying in person or online.


Why Do You Want A New Violin?

Our clients often don't know what they want or why they want it.Examine your reasons for shopping before you start. Maybe you really need a better instrument because the current one isn't performing. Perhaps your current instrument just needs a little setup work, rather than replacing. Perhaps you simply want to own a beautiful thing, a perfectly legitimate goal. Perhaps you like collecting things, a fair end. For whatever reason you start out with, buyers should examine whether the instrument - especially an expensive instrument - will bring them suitable performance and pleasure. A person who constantly worries about their violin cracking may not enjoy an ancient Tyrolean violin with thin and delicate construction, regardless of how it plays or sounds. Sometimes clients contact me seeking ”a $5000 violin because I'm going to college.” We suspect that some dealers have gradually promoted the concept that the most expensive instrument possibly affordable is a requirement for both professional play and truly enjoyable amateur play.The concept that an instrument should be an investment also seems widespread. Let's face it, violins are boxes with strings on them and bows are bent sticks with horse hair strung on them. If a $2500 trade violin gives performance equivalent to a $10,000 violin in a given player's hands, then the extra $7500 doesn't buy anything except perhaps greater room to grow.And unless one is buying in a rarified atmosphere - which no one reading this is likely to be - then the “investment” aspect is a hoax. A good violin will sell at a reasonable price in the future, regardless. Perhaps less or more by a bit, almost certainly less for a new violin (at least in the short term), but it isn't going to out perform regular investments in the long run.Perhaps French violins will triple in price in the next ten years. Perhaps not. We are not going to suggest a gamble on that point.

A Good Player Sounds Good On Junk; A Bad Player Makes A Stradivari Weep

Good players make bad violins sound good, although they may have to work very hard.Weak players sound weak on anything. In fact, they may be able to handle a less responsive violin better than a high-performance model.BUT a fine, high-performance violin greatly assists a performer in shaping tone color, nuance, and volume, in addition to often offering much greater projection.Good instruments in their classes have fundamental sound quality and playing characteristics that help the player perform.At the highest end, the effect is magical.This magical effect in the hands of our greatest artists has inspired players and the public for generations and driven prices to astronomical levels for famous-maker violins.As time goes on, more and more makers fall within this magical envelope, at least as far as price suggests. Virtually no one reading this needs to buy a violin in the magical category. But all buyers need to consider what level violin they need to avoid having the violin or bow limit their ability to learn and enjoy playing.

Violins As Investments

Fine instruments keep appreciating, dragging along all 18th Century violins and various lesser makers' works, presenting the temptation of “investing” in more violin than one needs.Carefully consider that violins are not a liquid commodity, especially in the higher prices [I expect even a $7000 violin to take a year to sell]. Time is money.If you have an expensive violin and need to sell it quickly, you will take a big hit financially to move it fast, perhaps getting only a minor per cent of maximum feasible “retail.” Think of a violin as a real estate equivalent. Also, at the higher levels, the market consists of dealers who collect (justifiably) commissions. These commissions can really add up. The same with auction premiums and fees. Real estate with clouded title isn't worth much.Similarly, the authenticity of a collectable violin greatly impacts its value: “Whoops, that isn't a Rocca after all.” Most players don't need to face this uncertainty. Information bearing on authenticity continues to come to light and market desires change, both greatly impacting price greatly. Specific problems with an instrument (e.g., a suddenly revealed soundpost crack) may devalue it. Our point: even a fine instrument is generally not an investment vehicle.Perhaps one could buy 100 fine instruments to spread the risk, but that's not what players do. On the other hand, the supply is fixed, violins and bows have inherent value that provides a price floor, and the market is small enough that prices are supported by the dealer network, preventing substantial depreciation. If you can wait, then maybe a violin can be considered an illiquid investment. But only as a tiny part of one's portfolio, please! No fast killing can be made, and nobody “needs” an investment instrument.

Basic Principle: Buy Something You Like

Look for something you like, that fits you, that you want, that will give you pleasure in picking it up. It need not be by a famous name. Something that you can make sing is worth much more than a delicate antique or a new famous name fiddle that simply doesn't fit or that you don't dare take with you anywhere. You should run the violin - the violin shouldn't run you.This view is especially applicable to college bound high schoolers who are often told to spend $7000 or more to get a violin, or else they won't be heard, they won't be admitted, their careers will die on the vine. Nonsense! If a $2500 trade violin with a good setup works well, then it works well. Period. Violins tend to look the same to most people. Who knows what any particular one cost?! Teachers pushing prize students towards college are especially likely to push a violin they like onto a student rather than to help the student find the student's voice.

Trial Periods

Players generally know the fiddle they want instantly. They usually take less than 5 days of playing to figure out whether there are problems they don't want to deal with or that they really do like the fiddle. If a violin is taking 2 weeks to try, then it may not be the right violin. Although we have people take months to decide on benchmade violins.

Choosing A Dealer

The ideal dealer may be right near you. Maybe not. For the thin air of violins whose value hangs on a certificate of authenticity, go to the very most well respected, high-end shops.If you need help approaching these shops, we will happily assist you. For utilitarian violins, the kind most of us have, Players will do well looking for a few things: Can you trust the dealer? Someone who has been in business for a while and intends to be in business will want to maintain the very best customer relations. Does the dealer understand business in general? Do they understand consumer rights? Do they seem trustworthy? Trust your gut. Ask for references if they make provide some additional confidence. Do they really have expertise? Frankly, we are biased and have always preferred to buy things from people who could actually make or can make the things we are buying. That gives us some confidence that we can get solid information on the products. The same thing with violins: can the dealer or his staff actually make violins from scratch? Have they handled a wide range of violins? Or do they simply import violins and surround them with hype and advertising? Large v. small? Big time players and dealers always say to deal with big established shops with resources in depth. Perhaps not an unbiased opinion. Others think that the personal attention of a luthier is important. Think about what is important to you.As a low-priced (under $10,000) buyer, one faces the possibility of being ignored or given minimal attention at the big shops, but is likely to be an important client at a small venue. Note that we recommend the big shops for the very big purchases! Small dealers do not have the resources to stock an inventory of $20,000 violins!!

How About Auctions?

Traditional auction houses keep working at attracting consumers rather than only dealers. Auction houses end up with wild and unpredictable bidding for the more attractive pieces, making bidding a risk. Dealers also dump the dogs and pieces that don't sell on the auction circuit, another risk. Auction houses aren't really set up to advise clearly on provenance and authenticity, although the buyer is generally protected. Likewise, auction houses aren't equipped to give estimates of the quality of the items except in general terms. One loses the information on fine distinctions that a relationship with a dealer will bring. Deciding which items to bid on is not a trivial task. And you're competing with dealers for the good stuff. There may be little or no trial time. There are no backup services. If you can evaluate things quickly, can get needed work done, and are willing to finance any losses or bad deals, then go ahead. We have a separate section on eBay. We cannot recommend eBay for novice buyers.Keep in mind that folks are always willing to trumpet their successes, but are unlikely to publicize their follies, thus tales of eBay successes abound. New fiddles aren't generally set up well and are hard to evaluate on eBay. Vintage violins can be a nightmare for the somewhat informed.Certainly be careful paying much or taking a more expensive purchase without a return option. Our clients have had serious problems with “dealers” on eBay who do not know the rules of commercial trading, who have poor ethical standards, or who sometimes seem to hitting on only a few cylinders. On the other hand, Tarisio Auctions backs up their statements.If you want to buy on eBay, use some kind of protection, such as an escrow service, and make sure a process server will be able to find the other party.

Buying From Individuals

Buying from an individual can work well, but one really needs an advisor for an expensive purchase from an individual. One should expect to pay for the advisor. Thus some of the commission costs avoided through private purchase are balanced in arranging independent support for the purchase. If you can evaluate a violin or have it evaluated and don't mind paying for service, then a private purchase can work.At the higher price levels, the risks rise.Many apparent bargains on quality violins and bows are highly suspicious. Be aware.

Develop a strategy

This is the answer to question 2.

Question 3

Just like with fine violins, figure out an upper price for a step up or college violin, but don't limit yourself to violins near that price. Sometimes a more expensive violin can be brought within reach by a loan or a trade in. No one can see the label when you're playing, so if a $1500 violin really does work for you, go for it! There are a few things to watch out for. First, condition: serious repairs devalue violins and may present risk of future failure. For example, a back soundpost crack will likely decrease the value by 50%, even if well repaired. On the other hand, a repaired violin may be much more affordable than a mint example. Think about these tradeoffs before you shop. If you're a beginner or step up player, you may not be able to evaluate a violin very well. In that circumstance, consider finding a seller or advisor that is very sensitive to your needs and having them select you an instrument. More-advanced players can successfully shop online when an experienced seller is on the other end of the line. We regularly talk about the sound and response of violins all the time with other dealers, so we have the vocabulary to determine what character a buyer is looking for. This is an attractive option where local shops are high priced or have determined not to serve low- and mid-level buyers. Be sure to consider the range of circumstances you'll use the instrument in. If buying on line, explain these circumstances. The differences between a big-orchestra violin, a small-orchestra violin, a fiddle, and a soloist instrument are pretty clear. Most top dealers will be able to suggest several matches based on a short interview. If buying at a distance, get the seller to play the violin over the phone for you. The differences among the choices become surprisingly clear with careful telephone comparison. If you can actually borrow or buy the violin, try it out in a wide range of circumstances. Be realistic! If you're not a soloist, then you don't need a soloist's projection. Keep in mind that the market is about the violins, not what they play or sound like. Appraisals don't consider tone. Pricing and marketing involve the sound and tone as just one factor. Some inexpensive fiddles sound surprisingly good and some expensive violins are dogs. On the other hand, dealers (including us) are sometimes startled by buyer's tone requirements and evaluations. Tone can also be modified by work on the violin, the bridge, and soundpost, and so on, aspects considered setup and also post-setup adjustment. So something you consider a “flaw” in tone might be fixed in a matter of minutes for you, if you ask. Other aspects of tone can be changed by changing one's playing to match the violin, or using a different bow. Most players seem to want a violin that essentially plays and sounds like the one they have, just “better.” This is an illogical and bizarre place to shop from. For an advancing student, a better violin may well be a challenge because of increased responsiveness. Indeed, we have had beginners reject violins that were too responsive. Buyers need to think of quality and value as distinct from tone. One person’s favorite violin may drive another person nuts, but a different setup might make it their favorite! Tone and value to a particular buyer are subjective. A final point: the very best players seem to screen quickly for uncorrectable flaws in response or tone. Past that, they look for a violin that behaves well, that responds to their playing in an intuitive manner, and that projects sufficiently. Specific tone doesn’t seem to figure into the decision as much. The best players and most dealers think beginning and advancing players concentrate too much on violins’ tone and not enough on the other factors. We can tweek tone and a good player gets the tone they want out of many different violins. Listen to your instincts and your heart first, then be guided by practicalities. And get competent advice if you’re unsure of your ability to evaluate.