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A note on currency

South Africa's currency is the Rand (ZAR), expressed as "R" (as in R10 000). During February 2016 US$1.00 is worth about R15.50.

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About Trade and Fine Instruments

To understand price structures better it's important to understand the difference between "Trade" instruments and "Fine" instruments.

For practical purposes we divide instruments into two categories – TRADE (or factory) instruments and FINE instruments (made in its entirety by one master violinmaker) – each category has it’s own price structure.

Trade instruments
This is a euphemism for factory instruments. “Trade” is the word commonly used by violin dealers for factory instruments. These are made in studios which may vary from small, to big, to very large, to huge, to factory-size, where instruments are made by a few, to several, to very many different craftsmen (a euphemism for trainee, apprentice, technician or worker), in an assembly line method, in which traditional tools and machines and methods are used to varying degrees. The instrument receives a label which either says when and in which factory it was made, or which simply is a reproduction of a label by Stradivari or Guarneri or some other high profile maker, which purpose is either to confuse or mislead the buyer, or to indicate simply that the instrument was based on that maker’s model or style.

Trade instruments are usually made with a strong commercial imperative in which financial gain supersedes tonal properties, and quantity supersedes quality.

Such “studios” were already a well-established practice in the mid-19th century. For example, by 1890 the weekly target of the studio of Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy in France (employing very many craftsmen) was 400 instruments ! Well before 1900 the Germans followed suit with large quantities of instruments being produced for the amateur and student market – the majority of them bearing fake high-profile labels.

Some trade violins are good. The further back you go, the better the selection of materials that were used and the general craftsmanship. There was a time during the first half of the 20th century when standards fell very low and poor wood, poor workmanship (particularly on the inside) and horrible quality of varnish were a certain give-away to the instrument's origin. In recent decades and praticularly in recent years there seems to be a return to higher standards and quality in trade instruments, particularly in those being made in some Chinese and other Eastern studios often for, and under the auspices of Western companies. It appears that China is largely dominating the trade instrument market today with some good affordable instruments, well made of good materials, nicely crafted and often sounding truly good, provided they are set up well.

The world is literally flooded with trade instruments, varying in quality from horrible, to not bad, to nice, to quite good.  But never very very good, or excellent. They account for the overwhelming majority of instruments lying in people's cupboards and for almost all the stock in the larger retail outlets, even when these are called "hand-made".

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Fine instruments
These are instruments in which all the components are crafted and assembled by one person, without the use of assistants, usually an acknowledged master craftsman who uses traditional methods, tools and varnish, and who is either established as a maker of fine instruments, or is working to establish his reputation. Selection of wood is critical and such instruments have to conform to the very precise norms that an expert would expect and would know to look for and find. Such a maker usually takes pride in his work will put his own label and/or branding in the instrument, date it, usually sign it and sometimes give it a unique serial reference number. The instrument stands as testimony to his personal work and often bears the identifiable characteristics of his personal technique and style, almost as a fingerprint, or an artist’s signature.

Great attention is given to tonal properties and the plates are individually “tuned” in finest detail. The quality of varnish is critical, the general finish of the violin has to conform to practices and standards usually expected of fine instruments and which make up the norms by which such a maker and his instruments are assessed.

Some makers do at times use the help of an apprentice, but this is generally frowned upon and if made known, it could seriously affect the value of the instrument.

A Fine instrument is expected to be the work of one master maker.

How could you tell the difference between a trade violin and a fine violin?  The details are too many and subtle to enumerate here. Consult a reputable and experienced maker or another dealer to assess an instrument.

However, not all Fine instruments are good. Many makers, although technically producing fine instruments, are guilty of poor workmanship and being more concerned out output targets than the quality of their work. For example, George Craske (1795 - 1888) mostly produced good instruments, but at times dropped standards and sacrificed accuracy for turnover, resulting in a few horrible violins - the direct consequence of producing over 2 500 in his lifetime of 93 years. Thomas Kennedy (1784 - 1870), another Englishman, in later years succumbed to a drinking problem which seriously affected the quality of his work. The list is long of violinmakers whose work correctly can be called "Fine", but whose standards were not high.

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Careful !
Note that I didn’t use the word “handmade” in the above, but the word “Fine”. It is important to realize that ALL VIOLINS ARE HANDMADE, including trade (factory) instruments.

Handmade (or "hand-crafted" as some manufacturers and dealers often refer to) does NOT mean Fine!  It is erroneous to think that all handmade or hand-crafted instruments are fine instruments and that if it is not obviously a  factory instrument, it is "handmade". Although machines may be involved to some extent in making factory instruments, they are in reality still hand-crafted, hand-finished and hand-assembled in varying degrees.

So, all violins are handmade, including trade (factory) instruments, but not all handmade violins are fine violins.

Be aware that some manufacturers of trade instruments have (notably in recent times) begun calling their instruments “handmade” or "hand-finished" as if to say that these are actually Fine instruments. This is not an untrue statement, but it could be misleading when a buyer is ignorant and is led to believe that he is buying a Fine instrument. Furthermore, this is often used as an effective sales promotion device, exploiting public ignorance and gullibility. Often such instruments carry obscene price tags, whereas in fact they are factory instruments by definition. Some of them have impressive labels, complete with genuine signatures, dates, etc. But the truth is that such instruments are still being made in what could only be termed as factories - assembly line production units where several workers contribute to the production of one instrument. Calling such instruments "handmade" is technically correct, but they are NOT Fine instruments and should not be sold at prices normally associated with Fine violins.

How can they be identified? For one thing, such instruments are normally sold in larger retail outlets with many in stock and with a fairly wide distribution, which clearly demonstrate the fact that they cannot possibly all be made by one single master craftsman. (A master violinmaker could hardly produce 20 violins in a year alone!) Such instruments are usually offered with emphasis on the fact that they are “handmade”or "hand-crafted", as if to imply that they are in fact Fine instruments. In reality, true Fine violins are almost always dealt with by dealerships specializing in Fine instruments, who are known known for handling fine violins and which a reputation for such.

Furthermore, there have been makers – highly trained master craftsmen (e.g. the Voller Brothers in Victorian London), and at least one small German studio in the 1920s – that specialized in faking old instruments to the extent that even the world’s leading experts have been fooled. The German studio in particular produced very old-looking violins, all of them with precisely the same features - worn scrolls and rebushed peg-holes, brilliant neck-grafts with stunning necks, ebony crowns on the buttons, extremely worn varnish, repaired cracks, and a host of other things, like worn and faded labels and generally good tone. I have come across three of these violins in South Africa. I learnt a very dear lesson by loosing a lot of money on one of them. An expert in Cremona eventually showed me how to identify them. Today I know what to look for and how to spot such instruments. They are technically considered as good trade, and once identified as such, they are priced as such. I have one such violin here that was originally acquired for R80 000, but which in fact is not worth much more than R15 000.

Always seek expert opinion, particularly if you are not sure whether your instruments is a fine or a factory instrument. In some cases it takes a lot of experience to tell the difference and even some established dealers can falter in this.

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Price structure
What follows is a big simplification of a huge complexity with many variables and dynamics that influence the results. It should be seen as a rough guide only.

Furthermore, these prices below are given if good faith and must not be seen as definitive. They are based on norms that apply throughout the world and any attempt by anyone to sell an instrument outside of these patterns should be suspect.

The prices mentioned below assume that the instrument is in good condition, free from repairs and cracks, and has all its original parts (other than the fittings), that it bears the original varnish and shows no signs of varnish tampering. (Further down I will give a list of defects and the percentages with which they impact on the prices).

The prices mentioned are for violins. (For violas multiply by 140%. For cellos multiply by 160% to 180%.)

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Trade instruments
Very generally, older trade instruments sell for between R12 000 and R18 000. In the cases of older good trade instruments, paying up to R35 000 is not unusual and still acceptable. However, in only exceptional situations should a trade instrument’s price exceed R35 000 to R40 000. Yet such instruments are routinely offered (and sold!) at over R70 000 and up to R90 000 – completely out of the norm. Such a practice can only be the result of ignorance on the part of both buyer and seller (which mostly and sadly is the case), or the deliberate exploitation of a sellers ignorance.  For myself an absolute cut-off point is around R50 000, and then it has to be a really good instrument. Some really outstanding older trade violins in good condition and with unusually good sound could fetch over R45 000, but that is really rare and should not be seen as a norm.

  • The norm for older trade instruments (late 19th/early 20th century) is around R22 000 to R28 000, maybe slightly higher if it is a nice violin.

  • The French JTL violins (Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy) are trade instruments although they have reproduced the labels of many others makers under license (example : Charles Buthod, Charles Stephan, Barrel, etc.). Internationally a really good JTL violin could now be sold for between R45 000 and 60 000, but they still average around R35 000.

  • All violins labelled “Made for J.J. van de Geest (etc)” are trade instruments, (as opposed to J.J. van de Geest’s personal fine violins). These instruments are common in South Africa. Such violins generally sell for between R12 000 and R18 000, depending on the quality and appeal of the individual instruments and depending largely on their tone. I have seen some of them sold for R20 000 or more, but they were really good trade violins.

  • The East European output (mostly Czechoslovakian) during the 50s and 60s were horrible. They are almost worthless and if you can get R4 000 for one, consider yourself lucky. Many of them have fake Stradivari labels in them.

  • Trade violins from the first half of the 20th century, which usually have fake Stradivari labels (or that of other high-profile makers), could sell for about R14 000 to R18 000, but generally are sold for less.

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Fine instruments
Page through any Encyclopedia of Violinmakers (I have many) and you will be astounded by the sheer breathtaking quantity of makers who have lived and are listed and whose work is considered as fine instruments. And they are not all – there are many more unlisted, who never made it into the books. Many of them are obscure today and little of their work is ever found. But there were other makers whose work still regularly appear somewhere. All dealers come across new names all the time and have to start all over to learn about them and their instruments.

There are many truly excellent violinmakers today all over the world producing fabulous fine instruments. They are all fighting to make a name and hopefully eventually be taken up by history and not to fade into obscurity.

We are fortunate today to have access to many effective databases that give us the prices that have been obtained by various dealerships and auctioneers for the work of specific makers. These are called Price Histories.

Our main tool in establishing a price for a fine violin is by looking at its price history as a starting point. This can only really be done by an expert in the field, who would know who to contact, where to look and what other factors would affect the value of an instrument.

Furthermore for a fine instrument to realize its full price potential may require a certificate of authenticity by a recognized and respected expert. Unfortunately such paperwork can be costly to obtain, but they can mean the difference between a high or a low price.

To obtain an assessment of the value of a fine instrument (if you believe yours is indeed a fine instrument), contact a reputable dealer or professional violinmaker – with this I mean someone whose main income is either from a respected dealership in violins, or from making and restoring them. Merely being a good musician, even professionally, does not make one a dealer or an expert in instrument prices, and as much as a good musician’s opinion can be invaluable as to the quality of sound, etc., it still is a long way off from knowing an instrument’s market value, or an obscure maker’s price history.

If you attach a lot of value to a certain musician’s opinion about an instrument’s value, ask him how many instruments he has sold internationally over the past year. The answer might be sobering. Talk is cheap in instrument pricing - having an opinion about the value of a certain instrument is entirely different from trying to find a buyer for it at that price.

If you are not a musician, trying to reach your own conclusions from personal research still leaves you without knowing your instrument's origin or what its condition is. Accessing price histories is quite exclusive and international dealers will not easily release information or commit themselves to paper.

Be careful who you consult. Most international violin dealers are also excellent musicians, knowing how to assess an instrument’s response and tone. One would expect the same from makers and restorers, but unfortunately this is not always the case, and one cannot help wondering how a maker or dealer can evaluate an instrument’s tonal properties or response without actually being able to play on it.

Again, to reach an assessment of your fine instrument’s value, consult a professional dealership in fine violins. Price structures and price histories for fine violins, and the dynamics that influence prices, are very precise and reliable.

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Defects impacting on prices
Below is a list of the most important standard defects (assuming they have been repaired) and their percentage impact on the value of an instrument:

  • Removal of the original varnish and revarnishing the instrument: If the new varnish is a traditional varnish, made and applied by a qualified violinmaker: - (minus) 50%. If it has been revarnished by an amateur using polyurethane window frame varnish, or some such product: - 80%.

  • Sanding before revarnishing: If the instrument shows signs of being sanded down before revarnishing it, add -20% to the percentages mentioned above. (Which means a violin which has been sanded down and revarnished with polyurethane, has no further commercial value – it has actually been destroyed.)

  • Bore worm damage. This is very serious! Assuming the boreworm infestation has been stopped, damage could be slight (one or two small and shallow holes) or severe, where pieces or chunks of wood had to replaced. Any sign of such bore worm damage has immediate negative impact on the sellability of an instrument. Damage could range from low (-10%) to over – 50% of the value, or even more. This must be assessed by an expert.

  • Minor short cracks (less than 4 or 5 cm) in the top or back, mainly extending from the edges inward, but not reaching the central section:  - 4% per crack.

  • Bass bar crack in the top. This is a crack that runs along the edge of the bass bar - if it doesn’t reach the bridge: -  20%. If it reaches the bridge and passes underneath: - 30%.

  • Soundpost crack in the top. This is any crack in the top anywhere in the immediate area of the soundpost. (It is assumed that such a crack is correctly repaired with a patch on the inside where the soundpost stands. If it doesn’t actually pass directly over the soundpost: - 20%. If it passes directly over the soundpost: - 30%. If the crack was repaired without a patch: - 50%.

  • Soundpost crack in the back. This is very serious. This is a crack in the back where the soundpost stands. (It is assumed that such a crack is correctly repaired with a patch on the inside). Generally: - 40%. If the crack was repaired without a patch, simply glued: - 50%. If no repair was carried out: - 60%.

  • Minor crack in the ribs (the sides). Per crack: -5%.

  • Major cracks in the ribs, or wooden inserts in the ribs: Per crack or insert: - 10% to – 15%, depending on the size of the repair.

  • Cracks in the pegbox. If correctly repaired with reinforcing inlays on the inside of the pegbox: - 5% per crack. If the reinforcement was laid into the outer wall of the pegbox: - 8% per crack.

  • Rebushed pegholes. This is a standard procedure. No loss in value.

  • A wedge under the fingerboard. This is usually done to increase the fingerboard's height and correct its angle without having to reset the neck (a lazy and cheap option): - 15%.

  • A replaced button in the back. This is the small round protrution of the back that joins the neck. They often break loose and there is a very specific and complex repair used that prescibes the grafting of a reinforcement into the back. This is the equivalent of open heart surgery on a violin, but if well-done it is virtually invisible and should hold forever: -15%.

Note that there is a trend to brace cracks with small poly-cotton, cotton and even parchment “cleats” glued over cracks on the inside, instead of using the traditional wooden cleats across the crack. The jury is out on this practice, but I am in fact in favor of it, because it is in fact extremely secure whilst lightening the mass glued into the instrument. I consider such repairs as valid. However, such procedures cannot replace proper wooden patches for soundpost cracks.

The above percentages are cumulative – if the instrument has a lot of serious repairs, it could be virtually worthless.

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