The purchase of a string instrument can be a confusing and
complex matter. Whether you are
considering an older instrument or a newer one, there are certain risks which one should be aware
of before making the investment, especially if the instrument being considered is an expensive
one. This brief guide is not designed to make the reader an expert, rather it is intended to give
ample guidance so that an unwise investment and costly mistake might be avoided. It will also
point out some incredible bargains in violins, violas and cellos which were not available to
string players a few short years ago. Read, Enjoy and Learn.
The question of old vs. new has been pondered by string
players for centuries. The ideal is to
own a fine old 18th century Cremonese instrument made by either Stradivari, Guarneri, or Amati just to name a few. Ownership of one of these gems will cost you much more than your
house if you can get one. Even many of the lesser Cremonese and instruments from other
geographic locations in Italy have become prohibitively expensive. Since most of the fine old Italian instruments have been in constant use for hundreds of years, many are very fragile from numerous repairs and restorations. They require constant expert attention which can be very costly. On the other hand players who own such instruments do so because of their fine tone which may not be available in a newer or newly made instrument .
If you have decided to purchase an old instrument , here are some important factors to consider:
The physical condition of an old instrument is extremely important for the reasons of reliability
and investment protection. An old instrument which may be in need of restoration or one which
has been poorly restored will most probably not be an instrument you can rely on to be ready
for concert work on demand. Instruments which are not in a good state of preservation can disappoint owners especially when the seasons cause drastic climactic changes. In addition
an old instrument which appears to be a bargain because of its less than fine condition can cost
many times its actual cost because of the expensive restoration it may need.
Another consideration in purchasing an old instrument is "how much of that instrument is by
the original maker?" There are countless violins, violas cellos and basses which are known in
the trade to be "composites." These are instruments where the scroll may be from another
instrument. Perhaps the top has been replaced by a new one and made to look very old. This can be
very deceiving to the prospective purchaser if that purchaser is not very familiar with the details of a particular maker's style, indeed sometimes the experts can be fooled. An unoriginal scroll will not negatively effect the tone under most circumstances, however; the investment value will be compromised. The replacement of the top is a much more serious matter which will have a greater effect on the value of the instrument and most likely will have an effect on the tone, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.
Varnish is another important consideration in the purchase of an old instrument. If an instrument is 150 to 200 years, undoubtedly it has had either partial or full varnish restoration in some form. Some old instruments are overcoated with a very thin clear varnish to preserve what original varnish remains. Some have been preserved with regular French polishing over the years and others have been revarnished. "Revarnishing" is the worst case scenario where the original varnish has been removed because it has changed the originality and integrity of the instrument. Again we have a very confusing matter, especially in cases where the replaced varnish is very well done so that one might never know. Revarnishing in many cases will change the tone of an instrument; however, as the varnish ages, it tends to be less of a negative factor where tone is concerned, provided a proper violin varnish was used in the revarnishing.
Projection of the neck (neck height from top of the belly)
20-21 mm in violins, 24-26mm in violas, 62-68mm in cellos
Alignment of the neck ( is the neck centered perfectly between the F holes?)
Are any visible cracks open ?
Are repaired cracks level on both sides and have they been cleated from the inside?
Are there any sound post cracks? (especially undesirable if on the back)
Is the fingerboard shaped properly and free of ruts so that strings don't buzz in all positions?
Are there any open cracks in the peg box ?
Do the pegs work properly? ( turn smoothly and stay in position)
Are there any strange buzzes when the instrument is either bowed or plucked ? (could be an open seam or a loose lining inside.
Is the bridge positioned properly and properly fitted (centered on the table and usually between the two notches in the f holes; feet perfectly contouring the arching of the table; bridge slightly leaning toward the tailpiece and not warped.
Is the nut high enough to clear the fingerboard yet give slight resistance to the first finger? ( If the string is hard to finger, the nut is probably too high.)
Is the tailpiece positioned properly? (Should just clear the saddle by about 1 or 2 mm.)
New string instruments have been gaining in popularity over the years due to the fact that many current makers are better trained than they were 60 or 70 years ago. Today there are a fair number of violinmaking schools throughout the world which are highly professional in nature. The graduates of these schools are serious and well trained makers. Those makers who have gained recognition can command high prices for their instruments, especially when those maker's works are endorsed by concert artists. An instrument of this type can endure the rigors of hard concert work. Their construction is strong and they tend to be highly dependable. A player must be ready to develop the personality of a new instrument as it has not had long years of existence as an instrument and will need to have its tone developed. This can be a long curve and might not be ideal for all players. Many makers of today have taken to imitating the old masters in a very detailed manner and are producing instruments that don't have a new look to them. Others adhere to the style of the new made instrument where the varnishing is of an even color throughout. In comparison to an old violin by a famous maker, the new instrument can represent a very good value where it is made by a dedicated modern maker. The owner also has the advantage of having a working relationship with a maker for adjustments and repairs. This is especially true if the instrument was made upon commission.
A fairly new school of violinmaking has become a good source of modern instruments at very reasonable cost. These are the hand made instruments from China. They represent an excellent value because at this time they are very reasonably priced and of fairly high quality. Most of these are by individual makers and small shops which are able to produce large quantities of instruments. Naturally some are better than others; however in very recent years the standard has risen significantly and the consumer can get a good sounding and attractive instrument at a very low cost relative to other available string instrument products. A few words of caution are in order at this point. There have been numerous cases where these instruments have been misrepresented and labeled as contemporary Italian instruments and are being sold at much higher prices ,or they are being offered at bargain basement prices too good to be believed. Beware of instruments offered to you with labels of well known contemporary Italian makers at prices far below current market values for modern Italian Instruments. Beware of instruments bearing Italian labels of makers who can not be traced in any encyclopedia of contemporary violinmakers ("Twentieth Century Italian Violin Makers", by Marlin Brinser; or "Liutai Italiani di Ieri e di Oggi", by Niccolo Gualtiero) A reputable dealer who offers instruments from China will tell you the country of origin.
Over the last few years there has been a proliferation of violins and other string instruments offered on various "on line auctions." This should be an area of extreme caution when considering a purchase. Many instruments which are offered are often not in playing condition, are not properly set up and are sometimes misrepresented as to what they are. It is not unusual to find someone offering a fine Italian violin for a fraction of the price it would normally bring from a reputable dealer or auction house. There have been numerous cases of this type of violin being sold to unknowing buyers with the result that buyer is mislead as to the actual value and authroship of the instrument. Sometimes these instruments are intentionally offered with the intent to mislead, other times they are offered without any expertise on the part of the seller who sees a label and assumes that the instrument is what it says it is. Auctions are also good outlet markets for general music stores which do not specialize in string instruments. They market lower end Chinese (not to be confused with hand made high end Chinese) mass produced violins with white wood accessories or violins with very heavily sprayed varnish. They are usually offered at a very low price as they come from their suppliers, without properly fitted bridges ,without properly shaped fingerboards, nor fitted with decent strings. All of the above facts can result in a loss of investment not to mention the frustration which is experienced by one attempting to play a violin not properly set up.
It is hoped that this little guide will provide useful information to the prospective string instrument buyer so that he or she will be able to select the instrument best suited for them and do it with some intelligence.