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A 1923 Ernst Heinrich Roth Violin, an excellent example of a well maintained instrument.

It is a running theme within the industry that there will always be quibbles over the negotiation for sale and purchase of used instruments.  “This was my grandfather’s instrument” or “This was a genuine piece by….” is a common response.  Unfortunately, to the public, there are a variety of factors that influence the ongoing value and playability of the instrument.  The first set of factors is a physical one which of course will dictate the sound quality and therefore inherent value.  Sadly the likelihood of a bargain price for an instrument that will require no additional maintenance, string repair or fine tuning is very, very low.  Even to the experienced player, the instrument that sounds good now may have bad structural issues that may erupt at the first bump or minor transit accident.  With this in mind, keep this factors in your mind as you consider a purchase.

The setup is an integral part of a violin and runs deeper than simple tuning.  It refers to the cut of the bridge, the shaping of the fingerboard and a crucial factor  – the setting of the soundpost.  The soundpost, in particular, can be overlooked as its concealed within the body of the instrument, and its adjustment must be done extremely delicately.  Too much an adjustment could mean very costly maintenance by a qualified luthier, and so it would follow that its best to leave it to the professionals.  The fittings are the second of the factors you must look to.  Poor quality pegs (made of woods other than ebony generally) will break, rendering the instrument useless until repair.  A tailpiece that is poor quality or fitted incorrectly will affect tone and in the worst cases make it difficult to play in tune.  There are two additional definitions to keep in mind, as its a common point to market the instrument around.  The terms “handmade” and “workshop-made” are not interchangeable.  Handmade refers to one craftsman working on all the elements of the violin (body, neck and scroll).  Of course, not all craftsmen are created equal, and their source materials may not match up with others working in the same country or even region.  The choices made are highly individual, especially for heritage craftsmen in the area in Italy, Germany and France.  Those in other areas like China, Korea and Japan may have different approaches to how they go about the same tasks also.  It is a question of research, as buying the work of one craftsman then complaining about its features may not be shoddy workmanship but simply representative of their choices in construction.  In terms of pure appearance, varnishing is generally applied by hand and so may appear uneven.  If the craftsman is reputable (or growing in reputation) it will maintain or increase in value.  However, this is entirely dependent on many factors.  On a personal level, it is correct storage, regular maintenance and most importantly loving play.

Workshop-made instruments are still made by hand, but with the important distinction that it is not the hands of only one craftsman.  This approach is common in with makers in Germany, Romania and Czechoslovakia as there is a strong inter-generational focus on passing down the art of instrument craftsmanship.  In terms of appearance as in with craftsman pieces the varnish is generally applied by hand so may appear uneven.  In addition, workshop pieces will hold their value, but apart from in exceptional examples, they will not increase in value much.  This is due to the difficulty in pinpointing the original artist and of course the aforementioned choices in construction.  Machine made pieces are very cheap, but unfortunately this often translates into inferior quality (and more expenses in repairs).  The varnish is also much more even, some would say it affects the aesthetic character of the violin, as its sprayed on by machine.  These instruments are good for a student level but will decrease in price rapidly.  There is some discussion over contemporary artisan’s work holding their value.  This entirely depends on the maker but it is, by most observers opinion, a stable if not improving marketplace.

Here at Animato, there is a wide range of pricing, with secondhand violins in a variety of sizes starting at a very reasonable 167 dollars, each has been professionally set up, repaired if necessary and tuned.  Renting as available, but can run to expense over time.  There is a preference to direct sale, as instruments sold here are generally accepted back at very reasonable pricing.  This solves the problem of having to purchase and up-size student instruments, which we understand can be prohibitive and sometimes block student progression.  This is the last thing we want as students are the lifeblood of the art form – without them, there is no future to look forward to.

It is very difficult to say which instrument is better in every case, we encourage whenever possible to come into the store and try before you buy.  There is some dispute as to which is the more reasonable basis on which to sell the instrument, sound quality or craftsmanship.  The more expensive instrument is not always the best for the individuals’ circumstance as ultimately it is the sound and playing of the instrument which really impacts the value.  However, from a mercantile standpoint, this makes pricing extremely difficult.  There is also the isolated practice of buying violins for the investment value, which has artificially inflated the value of some older and respected violin makers.  It is the nature of any valuable commodity to have this dynamic.

There are a variety of benefits and potential problems coming from purchasing older or secondhand violins.  A well maintained and cared for violin can mature in sound in the first ten years, acquiring a different character to that of a brand new craftsman or factory model.  However be wary of secondhand vendors without accreditation, as in some countries words like antique carry a certain legal requirement and in some others its simply a word.  In the United States, the item must be one hundred years old by law, it is the same within Australia but may differ from state to state.  Even if the item is a genuine antique, with reliable and cross-referenced accreditation there are still some things to consider.  It must be said the older violins are more fragile, have generally had structural repairs and accidents over the years.  The value of these items may sometimes exceed the quality of the sound, especially if the maker is deceased.  Even for the most valuable and perfectly cared for items have had necessary neck replacement or re-varnishing.  In addition, the most expensive and desirable instruments, like a Stradivarius, for example, have a very expensive cost for both insurance (which also can very expensive) and repair.  Some luthiers may not be willing to work on such expensive instruments due to the financial liability.

In summary, when purchasing an instrument you should hold these factors in mind:

  • The projection of the neck (height from the top of the belly).  It should be 20-21 millimetres in a violin, 24-26 in violas and 62-68 in a cello.
  • The Alignment of the neck (is it centred directly between the “f” holes in the body?).
  • Any signs of repairs on cracks (there should be no visible unrepaired cracks!) that have not been cleated?
  • No cracks on the soundpost (especially dire if on the back).
  • Has the fingerboard been shaped properly and free of ruts?  This will result in buzzing on the strings if present.
  • No cracks in the peg box, and that they all turn freely.
  • No unexplained buzzes when bowed or plucked.  If so, there could be a loose seam inside.
  • The bridge must be in perfect position, and set up properly and not warped from age.
  • The nut must be high enough to clear the fingerboard but give slight resistance to the first finger.  If it isn’t there’s a possibility it is is too high.
  • The tailpiece must also be positioned properly (with a clearance of the saddle by about 1 or two millimetres).

As long as these factors are in order, the primary motive should be how much you enjoy playing the instrument.