The Myths and Mysteries of Violin Pricing
Part Five of Seven
by James W Robinson
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.
(copyright James W Robinson)