Tips of the Trade
Violins: Buy American
Kerry Keane says violins are not just for deep-pocketed collectors.
Different styles of violins evolved in different American towns.
Look closely to see the craftsmanship of American violins.
Inspect the instrument's woodwork, varnish, joints and lines.
Those who have dreamed of collecting violins, long the star of the classical string orchestra, usually assume that such purchases are only for deep-pocketed collectors. And traditionally, they are right. To purchase a 17th- or 18th-century Italian violin in pristine condition crafted by one of the Cremonese masters, a buyer would have to put down anywhere from $300,000 to $6 million dollars—hardly affordable to most collectors.
The 19th-century American violin is a more affordable alternative for violin collectors. Learn how to start your own collection
But there is a new and very exciting option for violin lovers: the more affordable 19th-century American violin. "Collectors are beginning to recognize the quality of the work done on American violins, which has all too often been overlooked," says Kerry Keane, of Christie's in New York City. "Whenever it comes to the value and price of instruments, you will always get the best deal when you start collecting in a new field. And American violins are just that."
As in any new market, American violin prices are very fluid, lacking the stabilizing influence of numerous comparable sales. A record price for an American violin at auction is $15,000 for one of the finest examples made by American craftsmen in the field, Kerry explains. Yet a violin enthusiast might get lucky and find one of these virtuosos for under $200.
Kerry provides these how-to guidelines for buying American violins.
Made in America Virtuosos
The history of the American violin is not quite as long as that of its European stringed cousins. Master violin-making in Europe goes back at least four centuries, Kerry notes, while in this country the first examples we see of quality violins were made in the early 1800s. Skilled craftsmen, many of them from Boston, such as the well-known violin maker Ira J. White, didn't take up the trade until the early part of the 19th century.
Different styles of violins—with different shapes, woods and construction techniques—evolved in different towns, which is how the different schools earned their names. The Boston School, The New York School, The Chicago School and The Philadelphia School were the largest centers of violin making during the 19th and 20th centuries.
"It's not surprising that each of these cities had vibrant music communities," Kerry says. "The musicians in these places supported violin makers." Collectors often focus on one school, or even a particular period within a school. Some eschew highly crafted violins altogether, instead seeking out more naive folk violins.
Train Your Eyes
"The first piece of advice I would give to someone who is thinking about violins is to look, look and look some more," Kerry says. "And I don't mean look at books." Even before asking a question, Kerry says you can get the feel for the craftsmanship of American violins by inspecting them and even touching.
Violin hunters can literally get their hands on old violins at the major auction houses. Christie's in New York City and Skinner in Boston both have full-time classical instrument departments and regularly scheduled sales. Says Kerry: "These are places you can literally get the feel for a multitude of different violins."
Look for Fine Woodworking
Many of the features of craftsmanship in other woodworking trades, such as fine furniture making, carries over into the art of violin making.
"It's all about good woodworking," Kerry says, urging violin lovers to look at the joints in a particular violin, the quality of the varnish finish, and the lines of the instrument. Some violins are designed to look plump; others have a sleeker look.
"You have to see these things to understand them," Kerry says, adding that the collector should also keep his eye on how the violin has stood the test of time, for their value is often largely related to "condition, condition, condition." To avoid fakes (they are ever-present), never rely on labels, as Kerry says they are as "interchangeable as a pair of shoes." He says to get a guarantee from the seller that you are getting what you paid for, and don't be afraid to get a second opinion.
"There are thirty thousand listed violin makers," Kerry says. "It's impossible for anyone to know everything about each one."
The Unsung Bow
"Bows are the unsung and often overlooked collectible in the violin world," Kerry says. "They are great pieces of art that are often hiding in the cases of musical instruments." People, including collectors, too often view them as an accessory to the violin, Kerry says.
"Any violinist will tell you that the art is in the right hand," he says. "Bows are very simple, though extremely elegant pieces of work." Just as for violins, the prices for bows is widely variable. A collector could spend as little as $100 or as much as $150,000.
Since most of you who have come this far are violin players, it's good to know that you can play the instruments you are considering to buy.
"Tone is the ultimate reason why these are made, although tone is very subjective. We can certainly separate a rich-sounding violin from a poor-sounding one, but the finer distinctions are personal and have to do with the player. You can't place a dollar value on the tone. It's like a kiss: some people like the way one person kisses, some another."
For more on violins, Kerry Keane recommends:
The Violin Makers of the United States, by Thomas James Wenberg, 1986.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts
The Shrine to Music at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota
The Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Yale Museum at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Musical Instruments category:
Breaking Down Your Fender (Don't Try This at Home) (Bismarck, 2006)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.