Demystifying Violin Pricing and Selection

Demystifying Violin Pricing and Selection

Posted in [Violins] By James Robinson

Now living in southern Australia, Jim Robinson has been a maker and restorer of bowed instruments for four decades. In this article he shares his knowledge about the violin market, and his expertise, hopefully demystifying the purchase process for other players. His violin-related insights will interest players of all stringed instruments.
Many people, whether they are looking to purchase their first violin or to upgrade to a better one, find the issues surrounding bowed-instrument pricing and selection somewhat confusing.

  • After all, newer is better, right?  So, why are 'second hand' violins often more expensive?

  • The purpose of the violin is to sound beautiful, isn’t it?  So, the more expensive the violin, the more lovely it will sound, correct?

The purpose of this article is to examine the above questions, to separate myth from reality, and to take a look at today's violin market. Hopefully this will help readers gain a clearer understanding of the main principles of how bowed string instruments are priced, and what choices are available. It should be understood, in any case, that the pricing of violins – and thus their selection – is not always as straightforward as one may think.

Let's address the second question first, "The more I pay for an instrument the better it should sound, right?"

It is important for players to understand that particularly within the violin family, instrument prices are often set using one of the methods that are outlined in this article (see below). This being the case, an instrument's price will be based primarily upon who made the instrument, where it was made, how it was made, and when. The price will not be based on the instrument's innate qualities, including how it sounds.

How an instrument sounds is not only related to its inherent acoustical qualities, but is also determined by who is playing it, what strings are used, how well it is set up, and what condition it is in. To complicate matters even more, this is not to say that the sound of an instrument will never have any bearing on its price, but it does so only to a degree. For example, it should be noted that even the finest instrument will not sound very good in the hands of an inexperienced or unskilled player.  It is also noteworthy that even a low quality factory made instrument could sound pretty good, especially to an untrained ear, when played by a highly skilled and experienced player. This is precisely why many music shops employ sales people who are skilled musicians.

In addition, the sound of a violin family instrument can be altered in many ways, far more so than with a fretted instrument like an acoustic guitar – because by design the violin and its siblings are made to facilitate their being taken apart, modified in some way, and then put back together. Almost anything that is done to an instrument will have an acoustical effect, and much can be done with a violin.

It is also very important to keep in mind that selling an instrument to a player is a matching process. This process involves matching the skill, experience, and needs of the player to the sound and quality level of the instrument. The same instrument and bow, in the hands of 10 skilled and experienced players, all performing the same music, will have 10 different sounds. The less the quality of the instrument, the more similar it will sound in the hands of different musicians. The higher the instrument's quality, the more distinct its sound in the hands of different players. Also, the sound of the instrument-and-bow combination might match the needs and preferences of some of these 10 players, but it is improbable that it will match the individual requirements of all 10.

As with all markets, sellers of bowed instruments adopt one or several of a number of distinct pricing strategies. At times several strategies are combined.  Typical approaches to pricing include:

  • Cost-plus pricing —The cost of making, marketing, and selling the instrument is augmented to provide the maker with a profit.

  • Cost-plus pricing taking market demand into account —Here, current market demand is taken into account, so as to raise or lower the basic cost-plus price.
    Individual instrument makers, as well as instrument manufacturers, often adopt one of these cost-plus approaches to pricing.

  • Competition-based pricing —This basically amounts to setting the price based upon the established prices of other of the maker's instruments and/or on the established prices of similar instruments from other makers.
    For the buyer, when this mode of pricing is at play the availability and quality of comparative information is very important, just as historic and comparable prices play a key role in the selling-and-buying of real estate.  Often, however, the instrument buyer has little or no access to this information, making it hard to assess the 'fairness' of the price being proposed.  Another key factor here is the instrument's true identity, and the availability and quality of information enabling the buyer to be confident of this.  For example, by virtue of the specific language they use in describing an instrument, an auction house will provide the buyer with some information to indicate the auctioneer's degree of certainty as to the instrument's origins and provenance.  Having said that, in the end the value of an instrument is what someone is willing to pay for it at any given time and place.
    Apart from its common use by auction houses, the method of competition-based is at times used by contemporary makers as well as by individuals selling an older instrument.

  • Penetration pricing —Here a low price is offered by the seller, usually in order to acquire new customers.
    For example, many manufacturers use this method in the pricing of their entry-level student instruments.  Also, this method is sometimes used when the traditional supply chain of manufacturer to distributer to wholesaler to retailer to end-customer is short-circuited, to either manufacturer to retailer, or manufacturer to musician.

  • Premium pricing —This is the practice of making the price of an instrument high in order to encourage favorable perceptions among buyers.
    This practice is intended to exploit the tendency for buyers to assume that the expensive instrument’s maker enjoys an exceptional reputation and/or that the instrument's quality is exceptional. The psychological impact of this may be to persuade the buyer that the instrument's value and quality are indeed high, and commensurate with its price.  This unconscious influence can be so strong that some dealers even raise the price of an instrument in an attempt to attract more buyers, and to sell it more quickly.

However, the especially high quality that this price signals may or may not be matched by reality. The common belief that higher cost equates to higher quality is most often apparent with complex products, such as string instruments, that are hard for most buyers to objectively evaluate.

Keeping this in mind, it is helpful for the player to remember that the quality of sound in an instrument is largely subjective. In addition, it is always dependent upon its condition, how it is set up, and on the strings used – and most of all on the player.

Some instruments made by contemporary makers, as well as older instruments where there is no auction price history, are priced by this method. Also, contemporary makers will sometimes enter into competitions with their peers. These competitions are judged by their peers, who have been successful in similar competitions, and always include musicians who play the instruments anonymously to form an opinion about their acoustical qualities. Instruments are entered into these competitions in an attempt, if successful, to justify a maker’s premium-pricing practices.

On the other hand, when the price that a maker is asking for an instrument seems high, yet the maker has a documented history of selling many instruments at similar prices – so as to establish a certain price level – is is fair to say that it is not premium pricing, but rather competition-based pricing, that is being used by the maker.

"Newer is better, right?" That was the first question posed above. While newer may be better for many products, it is not necessarily better where violins are concerned. Allow me to explain.Top-level manufactured Chinese violin Top-level manufactured Chinese violin.

Today, the new violins most people will come across – either in retail music shops, in catalogues, or elsewhere – are mass produced. These violins are produced in factories – most probably factories located somewhere in China, although many are made in Sri Lanka, Romania, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. These instruments are often identified as being 'hand made', even by a master craftsman. This assertion appears either on the label inside the instrument, or in the sales literature provided by the seller. They often have a label inside bearing an Italian-sounding name. By law in some countries, such as Australia, the label is required to state – albeit in very small print – the country of origin, for example 'Made in China'. Even so, this required label it is too commonly left off.

The violins from these manufacturers are produced using some combination of machining and assembly-line work. On the assembly line, most workers are highly specialized in one small operation, repeating their part of the overall violin production process on each instrument that passes through their station. This is also known as 'Fordism', in homage to the style of automobile assembly line that Henry Ford introduced early in the 20th century.

The quality of the resultant instruments will be determined by the qualities of the materials used to make them; the skill, training, and motivation of the workers on the line; and the quality control and quality assurance processes in place at the factory. To be successful in the marketplace, these instruments must also meet current industry standards.

Each factory produces a range of instruments, at various price points and quality levels, and they are commonly sold as a complete instrument 'outfit' – i.e., including a case and a bow. The entry-level class of instruments provides a very affordable means for students to begin their musical studies. This is of great benefit to the aspiring violinist, and hence to all music lovers. Indeed, today's quality standards for most factory-built student-grade instruments are high relative to their price. However, these instruments cannot be expected to appreciate in value over time.

Many of these mass produced instruments, especially the higher-level ones, are generally attractive, showing neat workmanship – at least on the outside – and good materials. However, they will still need to be set up to a high standard by the retailer, in order for the player to get the best use out of them. It is very rare for them to be professionally and satisfactorily set up at the factory.

Since it adds to the cost of the purchase, the buyer should be on the lookout for poorly performed setting up of the fingerboard, the bridge, the sound post, and the strings. A checklist of instrument quality and setup will include making sure that: 

  • The measurements, especially the neck and string length, are correct

  • The pegs fit properly and turn smoothly

  • The top nut is not too high or low above the fingerboard

  • The strings are not set too deeply in the top nut

  • The fingerboard does not have a 'hump' in it causing string buzzing

  • The curve or radius of the fingerboard is correct

  • The bridge material is of good quality

  • The bridge is not too high or too low

  • The feet fit well and in the proper position on the top

  • The bridge curve is correct, being neither too flat nor too rounded

  • The inner shapes of the bridge are cut to a high standard

  • The brand and quality of the strings are good

  • The soundpost fits well and is in the best position

  • There are no open seams, from the top and back to the ribs

  • There are no open center joints, nor any show of joint movement, especially under the fingerboard or tailpiece

Apart from the need for factory violins to be properly set up, it should also be noted that the bows provided with the violin 'outfits' from China and elsewhere are mostly of poor quality. They are usable, but not much more. So, be prepared to purchase a good bow.

For many years, China’s production of violins was mainly one brand, Skylark. I have never seen a very good Skylark violin. However, starting in the early-to-mid 1980s the violin making industry in China began to radically change, to grow and mature. Now the majority of the world's new violins are manufactured in and exported from China. In some regions of China, violin production is many tens of thousands per week, truly supplying the entire world with decent student-grade instruments.

This poses an interesting question, "Are the new student-level instruments coming out of the world's factories today better than those made in the past?"

For as long as there have been violin students, there has been a demand for inexpensive student-level instruments. Previously these were mostly made in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. However, this production was much more diverse in style and quality than today's. Moreover, the methods of production were quite different.

Sometimes the work was a communal activity, with production shared between households or individuals in a village. During the winter months, when farm work was slack, a household might specialize in making violin necks, for example, while another worked on backs and sides, and so on. Violin assembly and setting up would be done by one or several of the other participants in the communal enterprise. These so-called 'trade instruments' are sometimes unlabeled, but they may also have labels bearing names such as Stradivarius, Maggini, Amati, Kloz, Stainer, Hopf, and many others. In effect, these are brand names, not the names of makers.

In other instances, student instruments were made in specialized workshops. Particularly in Germany and France, trade guilds of specialized instrument makers were well developed and highly organized.

During this historic era of violin production, there was much more diversity of instrument style and quality than there is today. This was especially true in France, where there was a very highly trained and skilled workforce. This was a time when mechanization was much less than today, and the era stands in stark contrast to the uniform, large-scale production methods of today.

French "trade" violin French "trade" violin French "trade" violinAs I previously mentioned, this category of older student-level violins is known as 'trade instruments'. The individual makers of trade instruments are by definition anonymous, as any given instrument is probably the output of a workshop, a village, or a small factory. Their quality can vary substantially. However, the French instruments made between the years of the French Revolution and the start of the Second World War are in general the best in this category.

For me, there is something inherently attractive and compelling about the patina of age these violins have, where human hands have spent countless hours in the attentive focus required to learn to play, and in making music. Are they better than new student instruments? It is hard to generalize. Some are, and others are not. However, it is certain that many trade instruments are definitely better than today's manufactured instruments.

When considering the purchase of any old instrument, its condition – cracks, repairs, varnish, measurements, etc. – becomes very important. The prices of trade violins can vary across a wide range, and will depend a great deal on the local demand for and supply of them, as well as on each instrument's quality and condition. For good reason, the better quality French-made trade instruments typically command the highest prices.

Getting back to the violins being made today, there is another category of new instrument that you may come across in a violin shop – the professionally made instrument. Each of these is made entirely by a single individual, an artisan known as a 'luthier'.

Contemporary luthier-made violinToday's artisan maker is unlikely to be self taught. It is far more likely she has intensively studied and professionally trained in the making of string instruments (i.e., lutherie) under the guidance of one or more master luthiers. It is common for professional luthiers to have attended one or more instrument-making schools and/or to have apprenticed themselves to one or several established makers.

Formal violin making programs are very demanding and highly technical in nature. Witness, for example, the curriculum descriptions of the Chicago School of Violin Making in the United States and of the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Cremona, Italy.

Once a professional maker has worked for a sufficient time in the trade, acquired an advanced level of recognition from her peers and her customers, and has trained apprentices or taught violin making to others, she might be called or may start calling herself a 'master' violin maker. Some of the more experienced professional makers, those with 20 to 30-plus years of experience, command the higher prices in this category – especially if their teacher's name is very well known, they have made a good number of instruments that are well-regarded by musicians, and have won prizes at violin making competitions.

The term master violin maker can also refer to an individual who is not living, and who is a well-regarded historical maker. The names Guarneri, Amati, Stradivari, and so on immediately come to mind. (See Wikipedia's violin article.) 'Master made' instruments are available at a very wide range of prices, costing from thousands to millions of dollars, and are often of interest to buyers who are looking at their purchase at least partly as a financial investment. These instruments also attract collectors, including patrons of the arts who loan them out to musicians. Contemporary luthier-made violin

Fear not. The extraordinary prices that certain 'master made' violins sell for are just that, extraordinary. Depending on one's budget, a professionally made violin, new or not, can be an excellent fit for the experienced player. Certainly these instruments can be expected to retain or increase their market value over time.

As I emphasized above, getting the instrument with the right sound for a particular player is always a matching process. This is even more true the more experienced and demanding the player.

With this in mind, a new instrument made by a luthier often provides the best value for an experienced string player, inasmuch as the player’s needs can be accurately evaluated and matched to the particular instrument. Moreover, some degree of customization is often possible, especially when the musician works directly with the maker.

One might fairly ask, "Isn't an old 'master made' violin better than a new professionally made one?" It depends – on the player and on the instrument. The fact of the matter is that the instruments built by many contemporary luthiers are the equals of, and often superior to, highly-regarded vintage instruments. This has been demonstrated by numerous 'blind trials' – where the identities of the instruments bring played, both old and new, are unknown to the expert players and listeners, and where contemporary instruments are compared with antique or vintage 'master made' instruments.

Contemporary luthier-made violinConcerning price, as with all instruments, the prospective buyer of a luthier-built violin should keep in mind that these are usually priced not solely on the basis of the instrument's sound and other intrinsic qualities, but also on the basis of the maker's reputation. Today's professional instrument maker will employ one or several of the pricing methods outlined above, whichever best suits their individual needs and the parts of the market they participate in. If you want to know what kind of pricing formula a maker is using, just ask her.

Anyone who does acquire a professionally made instrument is advised to also obtain a 'certificate of authenticity' from the maker. This will include documentation of what the instrument is, who made it and when, and from what materials it was constructed. The certificate should also include a complete set of photographs of the instrument. The certificate is invaluable when it comes time to sell the instrument to another party, since it serves to authenticate the instrument's identity, which will affect its value. Of course, a certificate of authenticity is also very important to the buyer of an historical 'master' instrument, provided it has been authored by a reputable expert. Unfortunately, such experts are themselves an increasing rarity. Contemporary luthier-made violin

There is another noteworthy aspect of working directly with a professional violin maker, an aspect that strongly appeals to some players. Just as it is common for a musician to develop genuine emotional ties to his violin and bow, players and luthiers who work together often develop strong bonds, even lifelong ones. These bonds – between player and instrument, and player and maker – can only add to the expressiveness of one's playing. These are personal ties, ones which add to a player's attachment to and identification with his instrument.

Owning and playing an instrument made by someone you have met and gotten to know is its own special experience. It is an alternative that many musicians gravitate to, much as many people prefer wines from a small vineyard, especially one they have visited in person.

To sum up, with violin family instruments, newer is not always better than older, nor is older always better than newer. Whether new or old, the buyer has options as to an instrument's cost – and concerning where, how, and by whom it was made.

Some old 'master made' instruments also have a particular antique value, being rare and highly sought after, making them more expensive.

More generally, violins are not priced by how good they sound. The quality of a violin's sound is very subjective. Its price is mostly a result of who the maker is; when, where, and how it was made; its condition; its provenance (i.e., who has previously owned and played it); and most of all the current market demand for it.

When you look for your first or your next violin, hopefully you are now in a better position to understand your choices and to make a decision that truly fits you – one that will bring you many years of joy and fullfilment.

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