What to look for (and look out for) when purchasing a violin.
Violins start around $29.95 (including a case and a bow) and go well into the millions.
Here are few suggestions that will help you “get what you pay for.”
First and foremost: Many violins are not what they say they are.
Never blindly accept that a label is genuine. The number of copies, fakes and forgeries far outnumber originals and rare is the violin maker who has not put a Stradivari or Guarneri label in their instrument, and even rarer is the dealer who has not added or altered labels to increase their sales margin. (Yes, it's dishonest and illegal, yet it's almost never prosecuted because the practice has been so commonplace. Especially from 1850 to 1960.)
Tip: Most forgeries were made after 1850 and the quickest way to “weed out” forged labels is to look at the paper they were printed on. Original paper from the 1600-1700's was coarsely pressed and will have darkened with age. It's never smooth and white. Also, the printing will be hand-cut (or cast) and uneven. If you are unfamiliar with the look of old paper and typeset, visit the archives of any large library. Once you've seen old paper from the proper time period first-hand it's easy to eliminate most forged labels. But still watch out, old paper and type, and even original labels have been used to make “serious” forgeries.
Please realize that prices vary from area to area and they're going up all the time. These are only approximations, yet the world seems to be getting smaller each day (especially with the Internet) and I believe this to be a good general guideline for spring of 2005.
For $29.95-$150 don't expect much: Green wood, plastic fittings, cardboard cases, etc., and consider yourself lucky if you're able to play on all four strings. It usually costs many times the original purchase price to have these instruments “set up” properly and once they are, they're miserable to listen to, and expect constant problems. (If you want to see if “Little Johnny” or “Sweet Suzie” will like playing the violin, don't do it with one of these.)
So, here we go... (Each price increase will only mention additional or more costly features.)
For around $250 (including case and bow) expect an instrument made to proper dimensions that plays good basic notes, is easy to tune, and has the following features:
Solid ebony fingerboard.
Solid ebony nut.
Solid ebony, boxwood or rosewood pegs that turn smoothly. (Choice of woods is a matter of taste.)
Solid wood tailpiece and chinrest. (Plastic and bakelite do not “breathe” or absorb moisture, and are famous for creating sores on the neck and chin.)
Varnish will usually be polyurethane (thick, smooth and shiny; almost plastic looking).
“Reasonable” student strings (such as Red Labels), not thin, cheap “factory” strings.
The bridge will be cut to the proper thickness, height, and string spacing, but don't expect too much refinement. (More on this later.)
A bow with real horsehair. Never accept a bow with synthetic hair.
Additional note: A name-brand fiberglass bow is preferable to a warped or weak wood stick.
A basic (but not cardboard) case with music pocket and carrying strap.
Watch out for:
Instruments with fat necks and/or not made to the proper length. (Where the nut meets the fingerboard to the edge of the belly should measure approximately 129.5-130.5mm or 5.10-5.14”. Also, from the edge of belly by the neck to the tip of the right ff hole notch should be approximately 193.5-195mm or 7.62-7.68 when measured with a flexible tape.)
Instruments with no linings and/or no upper or lower corner blocks inside.
Plastic 4 tuner tailpieces that are thin and flimsy. (They usually start stripping and falling apart after only a month or two.)
Painted pegs or plastic coated pegs that only look like they're ebony. Look in the drilled holes to make sure they're black inside.
Harsh nasal tones and uneven volume across the strings. (While the sound won't be “wonderful” from this range of instruments it should never be “terrible.”)
A nice set of strings. (This is fifty dollars well spent, but make sure the grooves in the nut are smooth and burnished with graphite so you don't break your nicer strings.)
For beginners (especially young children): a name brand 4 tuner tailpiece.
A shoulder rest. (These come in all shapes and sizes: so be choosy.)
A low-priced suspension case. Especially if “Little Johnny” is prone to accidents.
Between $250-$500 expect nicer features, nicer wood, a better “feel,” and a better tone (quality goes up very quickly in the lower price ranges):
A well-finished, burnished nut that is flush with the edges of the fingerboard and with lower string heights (made possible because of a properly “scooped” fingerboard.
Special note about fingerboards: A proper fingerboard is never “humped” or even flat; it is scooped. If a straight edge (ruler) is placed between the strings there will be a gap under the middle of it: approx .5 mm (.020 inches) under the E string and approximately 1mm (.039 inches) under the G string. Customized professional setups may vary these dimensions based upon the strings and the aggressiveness of the player, yet they are never very far off. Measuring tools, while nice, are not necessary; simply look down a few professional fingerboards and you will quickly notice that they are not flat or humped, they are “scooped” to allow the strings to vibrate freely in any position without “buzzing” against the fingerboard.
As the price goes up within this range, expect to see a little “flame” in the maple (those wonderful stripes of color in fine instruments and a fine bridge (such as an Aubert Mirecourt), that is well cut and fitted properly to the instrument.
Notes about bridges: Cutting bridges is an art, in and of itself and can affect the tone of an instrument greatly. Here are the basics (as always each instrument is unique and there are exceptions):
The thicker and heavier the bridge the softer (more muted) the sound. (Think about it. When you put a mute on a violin, you're adding weight to the bridge.)
The thinner the bridge the “brighter” and louder the sound. (Though watch out. Too thin of a bridge will make an instrument shrill; especially many of the lower priced ones.)
The feet should match the belly perfectly; front to back and side to side when the bridge is centered with the fingerboard and the top is tilting back toward the tailpiece slightly. (As strings stretch on a violin (especially new strings) they pull the bridge up straight, then if allowed to go too long, even toward the fingerboard. When this happens, the top of the bridge should be carefully pulled back toward the tailpiece again. (Have a qualified person show you how to do this the first few times, and never move a bridge while grabbing it in the center. You may break it.)
Higher quality strings (such as Dominant).
This is the transition level between polyurethane and spirit varnish. As you get closer to $500 begin “expecting” spirit varnish.
The package will include a “suspension” case (neck strap, cushions under the upper and lower blocks and a chinrest hold down) and a little nicer bow (usually brazilwood).
$500-$1,200 (The “better” factory instruments, usually from China, Bulgaria and Germany.)
Special note: If a violin's label says that it's hand made, it's almost a guarantee that it's not.
Quality spirit varnish (sometimes “toned” to make them look older, yet never drastic or “cheap”).
A better tone with more volume. (This is mainly what you're paying the extra money for, so shop around until you find what you like.)
Moderately flamed maple. (Deeper flames, as a general rule, give a deeper, richer sound.)
Fine-grained spruce (this means that the grains are closer together and the dark winter growth is narrow). This is not a “hard and fast” rule and some of the finest instruments have wide graining, yet unless you know the integrity of the maker and where the wood originally came from, it's a good indicator for this range of instruments.
Special note: This price range is usually where an instrument begins “standing on its own” and many of them will not come with any case or bow. If they do, there are no hard and fast rules.
This price range also includes many of the older factory instruments from Europe (especially from Germany and Czechoslovakia) beginning around 1870. There are no hard and fast rules for these instruments, and they range from the worse of the worse to some charming, intriguing instruments, well worth the price. Always get a second opinion.
Watch out for:
Metallic or muted sounds.
Uneven response or volume across the strings.
On older instruments: shrinkage cracks (especially on the belly by the sides of the neck and saddle) and multiple (and or) bad repairs. (They can plague you for the rest of your life.)
Bad “wolf” notes. When playing in high positions (especially on the G string) some notes can reverberate or “howl”. And while many of the greatest concert instruments have wolf notes, don't put up with them (especially bad ones) unless the payoff is “much more than worth it.”
The best “value for your dollar” in this range of instruments are the better, older “family” instruments from Germany and Mirecourt and the better, truly hand-made instruments with “reasonably-cured” wood from China, Bulgaria, etc. (they are rare).
Watch out for:
New instruments from overseas that aren't really hand made. (The only way to know is to visit the maker's workshop.)
Green wood; on older instruments, this always shows up as cracks in the belly, open/re-glued seams and reset necks. On new instruments, the only thing you can rely upon is the reputation of the maker. If you happen to live in the same country, visit their work shop and ask to see their wood supply and its age. If there are only a few pieces laying around, be careful. There are hundreds of makers who carve instruments only for a few years; until there instruments begin falling apart. (Not all instruments get better with age.)
Again, unless you know instruments fairly well, a second opinion from an uninterested party is a must.
$3,000-$6,000 (the semi-professional instruments)
This is where the prices begin to soar and the water gets muddy, so I'll break the instruments up separately. (Pun intended)
In older instruments, this price range begins purchasing “lesser known names” of individual makers from across Europe.
Again, some of them wonderful for the price, some of them terrible. Also, unlabeled, unprovenanced (documented) instruments that excel in tone. Some have spirit varnishes, and most of the best have oil varnishes (difficult to tell on some instruments without a lot of experience).
Watch out for: instruments made from outside molds where the ribs come together to form a sharp point and don't overlap, and lack of (or fake) upper corner blocks. (All fine instruments have full blocks and linings and are built around an inside mold. There are, as always, exceptions; yet they are rare.)
Again, get second opinions! Yet, if you're an experienced player with developed tastes and fall in love with a particular sound, and you can afford it. Why not?
New instruments and “kits”: Most living makers, after struggling for a few years carving their own violins, begin purchasing “white” or partially finished violins from overseas, then regraduate the plates (carve the belly and back thinner based upon their experiences), and finish them up (sometimes applying their own varnish and putting in their own labels). Some are honest and forthcoming about what they'e doing, while others are not. Some of these instruments sound good. Some of them do not. Some are made out of cured wood and will stand the test of time, while most will not.
The only way to get your money's worth from these instruments (and it is possible to do so in this price range) is to find out who originally made the instrument, where the wood came from, and how old it is. (You are now paying for an instrument that will stand the test of time. Do everything you can to make sure it will!) Additional “insurance” comes from seeing and hearing instruments from the same supplier and the same “maker” five years later.
Watch out for belly shrinkage cracks, seam separations, and a “pinched” or nasal tone with age (signs that green wood was used).
This price range also includes truly hand made instruments made from fine, well-cured materials, oil varnishes and the finest setups by “undiscovered” and struggling violin makers from around the world. But also by dishonest makers and dealers who will look you in the eye and tell you exactly what you want to hear.
THESE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THE VERY BEST, AND THE VERY WORST VALUES FOR YOUR MONEY,
and the only way to reduce your risk of being taken, is to do your homework. (You should also read the qualifications of “master” instruments before making your decision to purchase from an unknown maker.)
Special Note: Joseph Guarneri fell into this category. And though he died in poverty, his violins are now worth more than any other (including Stradivari).
$6,000-$50,000 The beginning of professional instruments. (Yes, the price goes up exponentially from here)
Old instruments: The names now become more familiar (yet still don't expect a master instrument even if it's been run over by a Mac truck). But if you really shop around, there's wide array of wonderful tones available for the professional player.
Note: There are many symphonies that will not accept your application unless you are playing upon a violin worth at least $15,000, many much higher, no matter how good you or your instrument may sound.
What to expect from new handmade instruments by a reputable maker:
The highest quality spruce and maple; properly cured and properly provenanced from the finest forests around the world. (The single most important ingredient in a fine violin.) In this business, take nothing for granted. Ask to see the maker's wood collection and how it has been stored. Some violins sound quite nice until the wood finishes drying a few years later. If you're seriously considering a new instrument in this price range, after finishing here, go to: “Questions to ask before purchasing a new master instrument.”
Expect a fine oil varnish (Though not a “hard and fast” rule in the lower end of this price range). This doesn't necessarily mean a smooth and shiny varnish. In fact, some of the finest instruments have a slightly matte-finish over a textured surface. Once the quality ingredients are boiled, mixed and applied properly, it's all a matter of taste.)
The finest fittings, strings and setup that allow a professional level of performance on all four strings and in all the positions.
Most new instruments are made as copies of old masters, yet I suggest going with an original maker who has their own “refined” style(s) (yet nothing ridiculous or appalling). For those romantics still out there who believe that music is more than just playing notes, “A copy will never have a soul of its own.” (Yet, don't shy away from a new instrument just because it may resemble a Stradivari or Guarneri, etc.).
Special note: If you have the means, buy the finest violin you can, regardless of your current performing level. It's so much easier playing on a fine violin, and you'll enjoy the experience that much better right from the beginning. But when you purchase your instrument, make sure it's a good investment, and always take a professional player or players (as unbiased as you can find, still realizing that everyone has their own particular tastes) with you so you can hear it played and so they can tell you how well the violin responds to the demands of the highest levels of performance.
Make sure the sound will fill the largest concert hall you will perform in. (There are trade offs between volume and response, but even if you choose the freest responding, sweetest voice, the notes will still “float” to the back of the hall, not “die out” after the first few rows.)
With any professional instrument, always get the audiences opinion. (Many professionals consider their audience's opinion more important than their own.) Then add all the factors together to make your final decision.
Watch out for:
Fake labels and fake claims. Very, very few instruments in this price range have original labels that tell the truth.
On old instruments be careful of the number, level, and stability of repairs. While many of the instruments in this price range will last another 500 years if cared for properly, there are others on the verge of falling apart. (Always have an independent authority go over older instruments in this price range, inside and out. You won't be sorry.)
If it's a new violin (especially in the upper end of this scale), make it a point to visit the maker and their shop (many times if possible). Realize, you're buying weeks, if not months of this person's life, and if everything's legitimate, they won't mind a few more hours; or, if they do, offer to pay for their extra time. While you're there, look around and make sure that they are actually the one making your instrument. This price range is well beyond the level of “kits” and green wood and at the upper end of this scale you are paying the price of a new “master instrument” (compare with instruments listed below) made by a “Master Luthier.” Ask for previous “independent” appraisals, and have them sign a statement of everyone involved in the making of the instrument (even Stradivari had Omobono and Franceso help in the construction of many of his instruments). An honest maker will be pleased that you appreciate the fact that “their work” is all theirs, a dishonest maker will act offended that you question their integrity.
When it comes to fine violins: A “work of art” is a wise investment, everything else isn't.
$50,000-$800,000 Fine old instruments, the early Masters, and what's left of (or pieces of) later Masters.
Though difficult to imagine, the number of old violins entering the lower and mid-range of this price category is astounding, and no one knows where it will end. They include (but are not limited to) fine old (usually Italian, sometimes French, German, English, etc.) violins made by names that have at least been heard of by most professional musicians.
As the price increases, the names (and usually the quality) improves until true master instruments are reached (though by todays standards, the ones in this price range are not up to the challenge of solo performances in large concert halls with large symphonies. Yet, as always, there are exceptions and many professionals have found their “companions for life” within this price range).
What to watch out for:
Forgeries, forgeries, forgeries. Do not purchase an instrument in this price range or higher without two, I repeat TWO INDEPENDANT WRITTEN APPRAISALS (preferably with provenance) including condition (with a comprehensive listing of all repairs and alterations) from qualified, reputable dealers (only those who deal constantly within these price ranges). Added note: There are very few dealers of this caliber around the world, but well worth the trip.
Before proceeding, another important note:
There are always TWO values for any violin. First: It's beauty, quality of construction, and the music it will play, and Second: What the market will bear based upon its maker, its provenance and all the previous three attributes combined.
To simplify: How well will the instrument perform in a blindfold test, verses how much money will it bring at the auction block?
After playing upon thousands of instruments (hundreds made by Gaspar DaSalo, Paolo Maggini, Jacob Stainer, the Amatis, Antonio Stradivari, and the Guarneri family) I am confident that: The ratio of these two values can be a thousand to one. In other words, I have played upon an $800 “unknown” violin that performed better than most Stradivari's, also upon a Stradivari (one of the finest condition, most original examples of his work) that sounded “awful” no matter how many times it was adjusted or what strings were placed on it.
Yet, as it was explained to me by a connoisseur early in my career, “And what will happen if you sell that $800 violin for a million dollars and it loses its voice? What's it worth then? And what will become of your reputation?
But a Stradivari is always a Stradivari.
To reiterate: There are two values, and if you're a professional musician, separate the two in your mind before you put your money on the table.
$800,000-$8,000,000 (Master instruments for the “sophisticated palette” and the modern soloist)
This range of investment will purchase almost anything you desire; from the original creations of Jacob Stainer and Nicolo Amati with their “voices of angels” to the “sophistication” and “dominating forces” of Antonio Stradivari and Joseph Guarneri. Or for serious collectors and connoisseurs, the finest representation of music and artistic achievement ever formed by the hands of mankind, from the legends and fantasy of the earliest Masters to the greatest performances in the finest concert halls throughout history.
It's amazing, the amount of prestige and respect gained when you play upon a “Master instrument.” You will always be given the “benefit of the doubt” before your performances, and even after a poor audition, it never hurts.
Reminder: Provenance, provenance, provenance. (Certificates of authenticity and a complete list of known owners is a must).
$8,000,000-$100,000,000 The finest master instruments, with even more.
(Regardless of what the record books say, the prices keep going.)
These are the master instruments that have never seen an auction block. The ones rarely viewed (if ever) by the public, and some of them are not supposed to exist. These instruments usually have standing offers (sometimes for decades and centuries) for amounts many times what might be considered their “market value.” Yet, when they become available (usually because of the death of the owner) the prices are always paid.
Among these instruments (approximately a dozen) are:
Extremely original, legendary instruments (some still retaining their original necks, cases and bows).
The finest of the inlaid Stradivaris, as well as two of his cellos.
The “Messiah” (as described by Tarisio).
And of course, Paganini's “Cannon” or “Il Cannone” made by Joseph Guarneri, Del Jesu.
What to watch out for: When you have this much money to spend on a fine violin and you're buying it for the right reasons, nothing anyone could ever say would matter anyway. Just enjoy it.
Copyright Lee Instruments 2005
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