Speculative and Restorable Auctions Prove a Smashing Success
Growing in popularity, online auctions of vintage instruments and bows in need of TLC draw a diverse crowd
One day, as a man celebrated a special occasion by walking downstairs and playing a song for his wife, disaster struck. He tripped and fell, instantly smashing his cherished and valuable Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin.
End of story?
The shattered 19th-century French violin recently became the runaway star of Tarisio’s Speculative, Restorable & Trade auction, held in New York, where it sold for an astonishing $39,000. With an estimate of $6,000–$9,000, and described as “in need of serious restoration,” this example is at the extreme end of what may be found in an auction of fixer-uppers. Still, with the auction house claiming that 100 percent of the lots in this auction sold, there is clearly interest in this type of auction within the trade and this sale brings up many questions about who participates in these kinds of auctions and why.
Who are these buyers? Are they bargain hunters searching for hidden gem? Hobbyists or professionals looking for instruments to repair for personal use or resale? Or maybe they’re luthiers and dealers harvesting reusable pieces?
Or all of the above?
Part of the appeal is that the sources of the auctions are violin specialists, like Skinner or the online auctioneers Tarisio, who have built their reputations on evaluating and describing instruments fairly. Since many bidders are far away and only get a glimpse of the items online, an accurate condition report from a specialist auction house helps “you know what you’re getting into,” says Israeli luthier Jack Havivi. Violin maker and restorer Claire Curtis agrees, adding that while she’s dealt with blind eBay auctions “some sellers are ethical and some are not.”
Others, like violin dealer Bruce Babbitt, prefer viewing instruments in person. “Always view the violins and bows,” he says. “This is a mandatory rule and something that eBay can’t offer.”
Then there are the aspiring luthiers who see these damaged instruments as an opportunity to perfect repair skills using low-risk bows and violins. “You don’t want to do a soundpost patch or repair for the first time on a customer’s instrument, and I didn’t want to put effort and materials into a cheap student instrument,” says Curtis of her days learning repair techniques.
Havivi adds that it’s also a great chance to find bargains in need of minimal work that he can turn around and sell to a budget-conscious musician.“I have picked up some damaged, but fantastic, sticks and was able to pass along a very good deal to a few smart and poor musicians.”
Not all luthiers are business-focused pros, however. Retired Boeing physicist James Seward of Billings, Montana, took up violin repair as a hobby after being challenged by a local luthier. “I buy parts and pieces so I can put things back together and give them away. I’ve given over 40 violins away to kids that can’t afford to rent or buy.”
Musicians also are drawn to these auctions by prices. Still, the fundamental auction guidelines for buyers applies—be mindful of your spending limit on a given lot and you might score a good item at lower than market rate. “I had to outbid others who were willing to pay a hefty price for a Bazin bow [by the bow-making Bazin family dynasty]. As a result, I didn’t get a great price, but a fair price,” says New York attorney and cellist Jeff Silverbush.
All seem to agree that doing your research and casting a critical eye on the item are essential to making the right purchase. Be sure that you know the auction rules, including factoring in the buyer’s premium and understanding the description conventions (which each auctioneer details in its catalog). And know what repairs you’re capable of doing or able to afford.
Whether a prospective buyer is a luthier who hopes for a bravura display of his or her ability to repair a historical instrument, someone simply looking for something to tinker with, or a bargain hunter on the prowl, there’s a hot market, indeed, for auctions of violins and bows in need of repair.
This article, "Speculative and Restorable Auctions Prove a Smashing Success," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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