Appraising rare violins is fiddly business

A symphony orchestra's decision to sell its collection of rare string instruments has highlighted the difficulty in appraising them...

Earlier this year, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra decided to sell 30 rare stringed instruments. The orchestra had bought the collection four years earlier for $17 million from philanthropist Herbert Axelrod in an effort to improve the quality of the orchestra's sound and enhance its prestige.

But some experts believe the purchase may not have been a wise investment. Axelrod valued the collection at $50 million, but, even at the lower price, some have questioned whether the orchestra paid too much.  

Authenticating that an instrument was made by a particular craftsman is critical to determining its proper value. But reliable documentation is scarce and new studies are making ever finer distinctions about the quality of instruments made by different craftsmen within a particular workshop.

These issues have long been known to the music world, but they have been brought to the forefront by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s plan to sell its collection.

“Often there are disagreements among the best experts of whether the instrument is authentic or not,” said Stewart Pollens, a former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s musical instrument collection who is assisting the orchestra with its sale.
 
Certain variables are measured when appraising a violin. Most luthiers, or violin makers and repairmen, can agree on the status of a violin’s condition and aesthetic appearance. Determining its previous owners and maker, however, poses more of a challenge.

Georg Ettinger, owner of the Hans Weisshaar Shop in Los Angeles, uses his 20 years of expertise to look for characteristics and particular materials or techniques used in creating the instrument to determine where it was made and by whom.

When luthier David Herman in East Meadow, N.Y., examines a violin, he checks the varnish by looking in the corners and crevices of the instrument. Ultimately, he said, the assessment takes some “detective work.”

“Strad[ivarii] and Guanaris had smaller necks, so I look for a graph, a line where the neck was replaced,” Herman said. But he has to be careful not to be fooled by a 20th-Century maker duplicating the look.

Some violins come with documentation--paperwork amounting to a birth certificate that includes the identities of prior owners--which can help identify the violin’s maker. Illustrious owners add to an instrument’s provenance and increase its value. Stradivarii are named after their owners, such as the “Solomon, ex-Lambert” violin that sold in early April for $2.7 million at a Christie’s auction.

While 90 percent of high-end instruments come with paperwork, it is usually unreliable, according to Diane Mellon, general manger for the David Segal violin shop in New York.

“Some [houses] cop out to make a killing on an instrument,” she said, referring to shops that are willing to give an inflated estimate of an instrument's value. “They make money but damage their reputation.”

Fritz Reuter, a luthier in Lincolnwood, Ill., has written numerous articles about crooked dealers that he posts on his Web site.

Experts agree that unless the certification comes from a reputable fine instrument house, it cannot be trusted.

“Great instruments went to great shops and were shown to someone who knew what they were talking about [at one point],” Mellon said.

However, even if the certification was considered correct and accurate at the time, recent scholarship may alter an instrument's value. It used to be enough to know that the violin came from the shop of Antonio Stradivarius for the instrument to be valued as if it were made by Antonio himself, Mellon said.

But recent studies have shown visible differences in craftsmanship between the work of Antonio and his sons; instruments made by his sons sell for much less.

Ultimately, luthiers must study originals of the famous makers to make an accurate assessment of an instrument's value.

But sale prices for 18th- and 19th-century Italian instruments have been soaring even when their authenticity can't be clearly proven. According to the Stradivarius Society, the value of Stradivarius and Guarneri violins has doubled since the 1990s. The “Solomon” Stradivarius sold for $1 million more than the presale estimate, which was based on previous Stradivarius sales.

“Before, musicians paid $1,000 to $1,500 for a bow,” Mellon said. “Now, he’s got to take a second mortgage to pay $20,000 for one.” And the supply isn’t exactly increasing.

“They’re just not making any more of them,” said Kerry Keane, head of the musical instrument department at Christie’s.

But before you go out and invest in a 300-year-old piece of wood, make sure you know what you’re getting.

“It’s a risky investment because [people] don’t know if it’s genuine and don’t know if they’re going to get their money back when they sell it,” Reuter said.

In the case of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, although the current estimate of its collection is confidential, experts disagree about its ultimate value.

Pollens has personally examined the instruments. Part of the problem, he said, is that some of the violins can be appraised in different ways. For example, one violin in the collection has the label and certification of Guarneri del Jesu, another leading violin maker who was a  contemporary of Stradivarius.

But the workmanship and tone of the violin suggests that the son, not the father built the violin-a fact that can trim the estimate of its value by millions of dollars.

Another violin in the collection that was thought to have been made by Stradivarius has an unusual scroll, or top, which despite chemical and other tests, still leaves experts disputing its origin.

Such a small piece not originally part of the violin can lower the instrument's value by 25 percent, according to Mellon.

“You don’t want a Van Gogh from here up,” said Mellon, as she simulated cutting out a corner of a picture on the wall of her studio with her hand. “You want the Van Gogh all the way through.”

Although Pollens said the collection was easily worth more than $25 million, Reuters believes the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra would "be happy if they get their [money] back.”