Ifshin Violins

by Richard Ward

In the past, Ifshin Violins as well as most other major violin shops have been happy to offer our extensive expertise and experience to do insurance appraisals, not just for those who have purchased instruments and bows from them. Today, we still provide appraisals for those instruments and bows purchased from our shop, but at this time we have reduced the number of written insurance appraisals on any instruments or bows not purchased from our shop. Many other violin shops and experts have made the same decision. We regret having to do this, but there are a number of important reasons for it.

Any sort of written appraisal is a legal document and if necessary, must be defended in court. In recent years, a number of our colleagues in the violin world, all well known experts, have had to face expensive litigation simply because someone, in some cases not even a real expert, disagreed with their judgment. In one case, a shop was forced to buy (at full retail price) a very valuable old Italian violin rather than face ruinous litigation, simply because in a written appraisal, he missed a small structural detail that didn’t even affect the violin’s value. This decision was made simply to avoid a costly and time-consuming lawsuit (which he certainly would have won). We also know of experts who have been sued simply for making an offhand and unwritten comment about an instrument or bow that was showed to them, later disagreed with by another "expert".

In the past we have also done verbal appraisals of instruments and bows. Our policy has always been not to get involved in a transaction by another seller. Situations like this are very awkward and often lead to difficulties between all parties.

Some violin dealers welcome the opportunity to pass judgment on instruments or bows being offered by their competition. Dealers like these always have a hidden agenda; to "kill" the sale in order to sell something they have instead. Their comments are far from impartial. We chose long ago not to get involved in this sort of behavior.

A small business like ours can ill afford any kind of litigation that requires retaining an attorney for the nominal fee we would receive. Although these kinds of situations are rare, we feel we can’t take the risk.

If you are thinking of purchasing a violin or bow and want to feel secure that you are paying a fair price and that what you are being offered is as represented and has no serious condition issues, your best option is to deal with someone you trust. If you feel you have to get a second opinion, perhaps you should find someone else to deal with. The seller should stand behind what they sell and should be willing to write an insurance appraisal (and do future appraisal updates) on what is purchased. Dealers who can’t or won’t do either probably should be avoided.

We will continue to provide insurance appraisals for any instrument you purchase from us, and will also do appraisal updates on items we have already appraised in the past.

So what is my violin worth?

The answer is; that depends on many things, such as:

  1. Who made it. For most well-known makers, there is a range of prices based on condition, quality of the specific example, provenance etc. With old instruments, the difficulty is in establishing the maker. A living maker can charge any price they like, regardless of quality, but the real test is how their instruments perform on the resale market.
  2. Country of origin. All other things being equal, an Italian violin will be worth more than one made in France. French instruments will be more valuable than German, and so on down the line. In recent years, the best old instruments from France and especially Germany have increased in value because so many of the finest Italian violins have been priced out of the reach of many musicians.
  3. Condition. This is an especially important factor. An exceptional example by a hypothetical maker with the best workmanship, using beautiful materials in top condition might have a value of $100,000.00, while a violin by the same maker in poor condition with many repairs and replaced parts (scroll, ribs etc) might be worth only 10% to 20% of that figure. An instrument with a repaired back sound-post crack may loose 50% of its value, and a violin that has been re-varnished even if it was made by an important maker, may have minimal commercial value. A bow with a broken and repaired stick will only be worth the salvage value of the frog and button. And while any of these instruments may still have an excellent sound, that doesn’t change the commercial value.

The actual monetary value is based on the above factors and the track record similar instruments or bows have on the resale market, either through dealers or at the major auction houses.

Customers are often surprised when an instrument isn’t played during the appraisal process. There is an excellent reason for this. Sound is very subjective! If an instrument is played by several musicians, they will likely each give a very different assessment of its sound. An inexpensive German commercial violin worth $500.00 may "sound like a Stradivarius" to its owner, but will still only be worth $500.00.

In most cases, it is difficult or impossible to establish who actually made a given instrument or bow. In some cases, it might not even be possible to establish the country of origin. We have had a number of instruments we were unsure of, that we showed to several well-known experts. In most cases, none could agree as to the maker or even country of origin. After all, unless you were actually in the workshop when the instrument was made, how can you tell for sure who the maker was?

These days, most experts feel they need to be cautious in their appraisal of fine instruments and bows. In auction catalogs, we are seeing more and more instruments described as "school of", "by a follower of", "from the workshop of", or "possibly by". If an expert says that something was "made by" a specific maker, he had better be able to back that attribution up and in many cases he really can’t. If you don’t know much about the origin of an instrument, you can’t give it any kind of useful appraisal other than an educated guess.

An instrument or bow can’t be appraised in a vacuum. It doesn’t have an inherent value simply as a violin if we don’t know anything else about it. Unfortunately, many instruments fall into this category, unless an established and respected expert is willing to make and stand behind an attribution. Even then, others may well disagree. These days, fewer and fewer experts are willing to make that kind of commitment.

Expertise in fine instruments and bows can only be developed from years of studying countless genuine examples by a wide range of makers. After you have had the opportunity to study numerous examples by a given maker, one becomes very familiar with that maker’s work. This expertise also requires a specific kind of visual memory that allows you to remember the features of instruments seen years ago. An expert appraiser must also have the respect of his colleagues in the violin world. Only then can you be considered a real expert.