REUTER'S FOCUS REPORT
English Report Summaries-Available German Titles
Even the locomotive is not a
greater marvel of mechanism
than the violin. -Gladstone
"secret" of Stradivarius' sound,
as well as the esteem accorded to antique or old instruments by the general public, is
largely based on myths rather than on verifiable facts.
2. The true "secret," unfortunately, lies in the manipulation of the marketplace. This report, therefore, like other Focus articles, will disclose the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the business of selling old, antique violins. By presenting facts which are probably little known to the buying public -- the player; the antique violin collector or speculator -- I hope to provide tools which will prove useful in selecting a violin and, also, in contracting for repairs and restorations. I will illustrate my points by speaking of the violin. But identical considerations apply to the viola, cello, and bass -- and to bows for these instruments.
violin is probably the most romanticized instrument in existence. Much has been written about it from the position of the maker;
collector; and player. Little, however; has been said about the dealer's perspective. Most
people, inundated with information which excludes the dealer's role, find truth and fiction hard to separate. Much of the fiction is
deliberately fostered by certain types of dealers and teachers -- those who seek to turn a
profit, grossly inflated, from buyers' understandable ignorance and confusion. For this
reason, it is urgent for us to highlight the three
major myths which conspire in perpetuating the Great Violin Mythology.
4. Especially at retail, old antique violin prices are termed "Liebhaber Preise" -- the price unsuspecting buyers are seduced into paying through the secret financial collaboration of sellers and "matchmakers," i.e., teachers and others having pecuniary interests. Among those using "creative" merchandising tactics, the actual sales price is determined by the absolute maximum a buyer can be persuaded to pay. Then the fun begins. From the "Liebhaber Preise" various kickbacks are subtracted, "referral fees" (extending up to 50%) paid to teachers and others for their "matchmaking" services -- as well as an exceedingly substantial profit for the seller The remainder; say 20 to 30 percent of the "Liebhaber Preise," most often exceeds the price for which the same instrument could have been purchased through unrigged channels.
|5. Auctions are a quite different matter. Even though
often scandalously weighted to favor the house, prices reflect the general range of value
for a given object as well as the trend or fashion prevailing among collectors. Experts
assess extrinsic values -- authenticity (origin and maker),
physical condition (any damage, repairs, or
other factors contributing to depreciation) -- and price an instrument with reference to
the open-market values prevailing among violin collectors.
6. Thus a violin's actual cash value (not the on-paper value) can only be determined in one of three ways: -- by the instrument's selling price on the open market, regardless of initial purchase price, -- by the minimum cash (not trade-in) value which the previous seller guaranteed, in writing, to the present owner; -- by the insured replacement value, the amount an insurance company will actually pay in cash (not replace in kind) if the instrument is stolen or totally destroyed.
|7. These are primarily respectable auction houses (for
example: Phillips, Christie, Sotheby's in London). Even so, auction "hammer
prices" are payment for extrinsic values, values placed upon antiques by collectors, and
are unrelated to the use for which the violin was originally intended. No attention goes
to the instrument's intrinsic value. Perusal of a Sotheby's auction catalog will
quickly illustrate my claims, however casually one reads.
8. Permit me a few quick generalizations about these matters. Antique items are purchased at auction for various reasons, and this holds for all kinds of antiques: clocks and automobiles, chairs and china, pianos and violins. Museums enter the bidding for one reason, a desire to add to the store of items they exhibit. Collectors purchase because they are making speculative investments -- and, sometimes, because their acquisitions nourish the collectors' own vanity. But the items acquired are not representative of the "state of the art" in a given field -- nor should anyone imagine them to be.
|9. If one wanted an automobile embodying "state of
the art" engineering, he would purchase some famous semi-custom model... and the most
recent one. One would not buy a classic Duesenberg! There are good
reasons for buying a Duesenberg: historic stature, rarity, condition, etc. No one,
however; imagines that this car represents the height of achievement in today's automotive
engineering. No one, in short, purchases the Duesenberg because of its having the kind of
value I am calling intrinsic. Yet, quite amazingly, people will purchase an antique
violin and simultaneously delude themselves as to its "state of the art"
stature. For they choose without reference to an objective standard.
10. Writing in Forbes magazine (30 January 1984), Robert Teitelman reported on efforts to probe the "mystery" of Stradivarius. Only a few months later; the Reader's Digest (June, 1984) made Teitelman's report available to an even wider circle of readers. As printed in The Digest, his conclusion could hardly be improved:
|12. Stated even more bluntly: Stradivarius' "secret" sound is based upon a hypnotically induced condition of
the mind! Especially after one has
spent a fortune, one's mind concludes that the sound is unsurpassably beautiful. . . and,
if it is not, it had better be!
13. On the matter of sound and price, consider the following. Vuillaume's "Messiah" (today exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England) is probably the most expensive violin in existence. Being played infrequently keeps the instrument in pristine condition. But note the conclusion to which this forces us. The violin's sound -- rarely produced, seldom heard -- can not possibly account for the monetary value of the "Messiah." All alone, the name and condition do!
any one of these four basic components will inevitably change the sound of "the violin
itself." Furthermore, there is an
additional complication we must note. Each of the four basic components can change in more
than one way, can, so to speak, be divided into subcomponents -- thus opening the way to thousands of possible variables affecting tone.
|19. However this may be, I would like to close out this
section of our "mythology" with a suggestive analogy. Suppose one went to an art fair
or gallery to buy a beautiful painting. Suppose, too, that one were truly seeking visual
beauty -- paying NO attention to painters' names, price tags, or the seeming
"prestige" of the surroundings. Any of us might well choose, and be most deeply
gratified by, the least expensive canvas!
|20. Here, I can explain my position in rather simple
fashion --merely by reference to the dictionary. Let us consider what is meant by
references to the "secret" of making violins, the "secret" of
Stradivarius, and the like. Webster's, the "Third New
International Dictionary," explains the word secret in three ways:
|25. Is it not obvious that the facts of violin making are far more substantial than the preposterous fables and alleged "secrets" sometimes put forward in their place -- that the Great Violin Mythology, however appealing to that capacity for gullibility which all of us share, is far less wondrous than the enduring realities of the violin maker's patient, venerable art?|
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