The Myths and Mysteries of Violin Pricing

by James Robinson

Many people, whether they are looking for their first violin purchase or are upgrading their instrument for another, better one, find the issues surrounding violin pricing confusing. After all, newer(older) is better, right? So, why are ‘second hand’ or old violins often more expensive? The purpose of the violin is to sound beautiful, isn’t it? So, the more expensive violin should sound more beautiful than the cheaper one, correct? 

The purpose of this article is to examine the above questions and to separate myth from reality. Hopefully, this will help some readers to gain a clearer understanding of the main principles in how violins are priced. It should be understood, however, that the pricing of violins is not always straightforward. 

 It is important for players to understand, that violin family instrument prices are based primarily upon who made the instrument, its condition, and where and when it was made, not on how it sounds as that is a personal opinion. How an instrument sounds is not only related to its inherent acoustical qualities but are also determined by who is playing it, what strings are used, how well it is set up. To complicate matters, even more, this is not to say that the sound of an instrument will never have any bearing on its price; it does to a degree only. 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 why many music shops have salespeople who are skilled musicians. Also, unlike fretted instruments, a violin family instrument’s sound can be altered in many more ways because it is made to be taken apart. Almost anything that is done to an instrument will have an acoustical effect. So, issues surrounding how an instrument sounds are complex. As yet, there is no truly objective means, beyond personal opinion, to compare the sound of one instrument against another on a sliding scale of very good to very bad. Some say this is like finding the 'Holy Grail' of musical instruments.
Selling an instrument to a player is a matching process. It involves matching the skill, experience, and needs of the player to the sound and quality level of the instrument. The same instrument and bow, playing the same music, by 10 skilled and experienced players, will have 10 different sounds. The sound of the instrument bow combination might match some of the 10 player’s likes and preferences but certainly not all of them.

Different sellers could have different approaches to pricing, either from a marketing point of view, to support their positioning in the buyers’ mind (psychographics), or an economic point of view, or a combination of both. Some pricing methods that might apply are;
Cost-plus pricing - one first adds the cost of making the instrument such as labor and materials adding overheads and cost of sales then an additional amount to represent profit.
Cost-plus pricing with elasticity considerations - which takes demand into consideration. Some individual makers and factories may use one of these first two pricing methods.

Competition-based pricing - Setting the price based upon prices of another instrument made by the same maker or a similar level of instrument or maker. The amount and quality of information become very important here. Just like a price history is important when buying real estate. Sometimes this price history information is not easily available to the buyer. Another important factor is the reliability of information the buyer has to determine the instrument’s true identity. An auction house will provide the buyer with some information about their degree of certainty regarding the identification of an instrument. They use specific language in describing each instrument or bow. Of course, in an auction, the value of an instrument is what someone is willing to pay for it at any given time and place. Close to a 'pure market' condition, this method is sometimes used by a contemporary maker or someone selling an older instrument. However, auction room hammer prices are traditionally viewed as a wholesale price since many violin shops/dealers acquire most of their stock this way. Now, this is not so clear-cut.

 Penetration pricing - Setting a low entry price to attract new customers. In particular, this method might be used in the pricing of entry-level student instruments. Also, this method is sometimes used when the traditional supply chain of the manufacturer to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer is short-circuited to either manufacturer to retailer or manufacturer to consumer.

 Premium pricing - 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 represents exceptional quality. The psychological impact of this can be very persuading in the mind of a buyer. According to the relatively new field of Neuroeconomics, this notion is even 'hardwired' in our brains within the nucleus acumbance. The psychological power of this can be so strong that some dealers might even raise the price of an instrument in an attempt to sell it quicker. The belief in the relationship between higher cost equals higher quality is most often apparent with complex products, where the buyer does not have a lot of information, which can be the case with string instruments. Remember,  the quality of sound in an instrument is largely subjective and is always dependent upon its set-up/condition, strings used, and most of all, the player. Sometimes, instruments made by contemporary makers or older instruments where there is no auction price history, are priced by this method. Contemporary makers sometimes enter into competitions with their peers at violin-making conventions. These competitions are judged by 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. If the prices an instrument maker is asking for their instrument sounds high but there is a documentary history of similar prices being realized, through a number of sales transactions, establishing a price trend, it is not premium pricing but rather competition-based pricing method that is being used.

Addressing the first question above;" newer is better, right?" While newer may be better in many products, it is not necessarily better when referring to violins, though it may be..
The new violins most people will come across either in music shops or elsewhere are mass manufactured. They would have their origins in factories most probably somewhere in China, but may also come from Sri Lanka, Romania, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Czechoslovakia, or Germany. These are often identified as being ‘ hand-made’ by a master craftsman either on the label inside the instrument or on the sales promotion material by the seller. Often, they have a label inside with an Italian, German, or French-sounding name. By law, in Australia, the label should state the country of origin, for example, ‘Made in China, however it is very commonly left out. 

These days, they are made by some combination of machining and massive assembly line work, where people would be highly specialized in one small operation, repeating their operation on each instrument to pass through their station. This is also known as 'Fordism'. The quality of the output by this process would be determined by the quality of the materials used, the skill, training, and motivation of the workers, and the quality control/assurance processes in place at the factory. These instruments must also meet current industry standards to be successful in the marketplace. Each factory produces a range of instruments based on a range of price points and quality levels, and they are most often sold as an ‘outfit’ (including a case and bow). The entry-level class of instruments provides a very affordable means for a student to begin their musical studies. The production standards of most student factory-made instruments, these days, are generally high relative to their price.  So much so that one could suspect dumping. In general, they cannot be expected to appreciate in value over time. Also, you should expect to pay extra for a professional setup. Some things to look out for are poor set-ups (fingerboard, bridge, soundpost and strings) are:

Check to make sure 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 not too flat or too rounded
The inner shapes of the bridge are cut to a high standard
The brand and quality of the strings is also very important
The soundpost fits well and in the best position
Check to make sure there are no open seams; top and back to ribs
Check to make sure there are no open (nor show any movement) center joints especially under the fingerboard or tailpiece. 

Many of these instruments, especially the higher-level factory instruments are generally attractive, showing neat workmanship (at least on the outside) and good materials, but still need to be set up to a high standard by the retailer, for the player to get the best use out of them. The bows provided with the Chinese outfits are mostly of poor quality, usable, but not much more. 

For many years, China’s production of violins was pretty much one brand and quality; ‘Skylark’.  I have never seen a  good Skylark violin. Starting in the early to mid-1980s the violin-making industry in China began to change radically. Now, the majority of new violins are exported from some factory in China (there are hundreds), some regions producing many tens of thousands per week, or millions a year, supplying the world with student instruments.

Are the new student-level instruments coming out of the factories today better than the student-level instruments made in the past? For as long as there have been violin students, there has been a demand for student-level or inexpensive instruments. Previously these instruments were mostly made in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. However, this production was much more diverse in style and quality. Also, the methods of production were quite different. Sometimes this was a communal activity with production shared between households or in a village. During winter months when farm work was slack a household might just specialize in making violin necks, for example. These' trade' instruments are sometimes unlabelled, but may also have labels such as Stradivarius, Maggini, Amati, Kloz, Stainer, Hopf, or many others.
In other cases, student instruments were made in specialized workshops. Specialized instrument makers’ trade guilds were highly developed and organized in Germany and France. Historically, there was more diversity of style and quality. Especially in France, where there was a highly trained and skilled itinerant workforce. This was in a time when mechanization was much less than today and stands in stark contrast to the uniform large-scale production methods of today.
As a category of student-level violins, these older instruments are called “trade instruments”. The maker/s of a trading instrument is by definition anonymous and is probably the output of a workshop or small factory. The quality can vary substantially, however, the French instruments made between the years of the French Revolution to the start of the Second World War are in general the best in this category.
Also, there is something inherently attractive and compelling about the patina of age, where human hands have spent countless hours in the attentive focus required to learn to play.  Are they better than new student instruments? It’s hard to generalize, but some are and others are not. Many definitely are better.

 When considering any old instrument, its condition (cracks, repairs, varnish, measurements) is very important. The price range of a trade violin could vary widely, depending also on the local supply and demand forces in play; however, the better quality French-made trade instruments command the highest prices, in general. 

Another category of new instruments that you may come across in a violin shop is the professionally made instrument. These professionally made instruments are made entirely by a single individual. Sometimes the maker might be self-taught but more likely he/she would have studied instrument making, commonly referred to as Luthiery (French), from a master starting out as either a trade apprentice or at a violin-making school.  If they have worked for a sufficient time in the trade, have an advanced level of recognition from their peers, and have had apprentices or taught violin making to others they might be called a 'master’ violin maker. Some of the more experienced professional makers (20 to 30+ years experience) might command the higher prices in this category, especially if their teacher is very well known and they have made a lot of instruments and have won prizes at violin making competitions. The term ‘master’ violin maker might also refer to a violin maker who is not living. In this case, it would mean a well-regarded historical violin maker. Master-made instruments would cover a very wide range of prices ranging from thousands to millions and represent the best potential financial returns for a buyer. Again, the prospective buyer should keep in mind that the basis for pricing these ‘master’ and professionally made instruments is not based entirely on the sound of the instrument but rather the reputation of the maker, condition, and other things. Getting the right sound for a particular player is always a matching process. It is certainly true that some contemporary or modern instruments can compete very well with historical master instruments when the quality of sound is considered. This has been demonstrated many times by ‘blind’ playing trials where the instrument is anonymous to the expert player and unseen by the expert listeners and where modern or contemporary instruments are compared with antique master instruments. 

 It can be a very special experience for a player to own and play an instrument when they have met its maker. Strong emotional ties between a player and his/her instrument and bow are a common experience. This emotional tie can add to the expressiveness of a player’s sound.  Another important benefit of buying an instrument from a professional contemporary violin maker is that he/she could provide a valuable certificate of authenticity which would include photos and other details of the instrument. These certificates of authenticity are also very important to the buyer of a historical ‘master’ instrument when they have been authored by reputable experts. One problem with this is that these experts are now fewer than ever, as expertise is lost through a change in generations and the subsequent closure of some of the world’s most iconic violin shops. This expertise is particularly difficult to acquire, even though many people may claim to have it. There are no relevant academic qualifications or other methods of proving this expertise as there are in the fine arts world. There are a few exceptions to this statement but not many.

 Most professional instrument makers and instruments from master makers both past and present use either the competition-based method of pricing or the premium pricing method. These instruments represent the best value for a string player when the players’ needs are accurately matched to the instrument selected, and they can be expected to increase in value over time.

In conclusion, newer is not always better than older with violin family instruments. Some old instruments also have an antique value, rare and highly sought after, making them more expensive The quality of sound is very subjective, so their price is a factor of who the maker is, when and where they were made, the condition they are in and their provenance.

In auction house sales, such as in Sotheby, Phillips, Bonhams, Christie's,  Skinner ect, it used to be that often hundreds of instruments would be laid out on long tables, many without even strings or any set up at all. You would almost never hear any instrument being played. Large crowds of buyers/dealers would mingle, looking and picking up instruments. Bidding decisions were made based upon their expertise alone and the often scant information in the saleroom catalog.

(copyright James W Robinson)