The Myths and Mysteries of Violin Pricing

Part Six of Seven

by James W Robinson

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.

(copyright James W Robinson)