There are five main factors which determine the value of an antique violin. They are: wood, maker, age, appearance, and condition.
Violins are generally made up of one or more of the following woods: Maple, Spruce, Ebony, Boxwood, Willow, and Rosewood. Generally speaking, Ebony is used for the fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece, and end pin although sometimes boxwood will be used as it is a more common wood. This is unlikely on antique violins. Maple is normally used for the back of violins along with the ribs, neck, and scroll. The top, blocks, and linings are generally made of Spruce. Willow and Rosewood may be used to make the violin but are more likely to be used for decoration.
The quality of the wood will have a direct bearing on the tone of the violin and, therefore, on price. This is a combination of the original choice of wood by the violin-maker and the care which has been taken with it by successive owners. High-quality, aged Maple with perfect acoustics is expensive and so will typically be used on higher-quality instruments. Cheaper instruments will likely use plain Maple. The Spruce used for more expensive violins will have been aged for longer than on the cheaper ones. Although the appearance of the wood does not have a direct bearing on the quality of the sound, it does make a huge difference to the value. More expensive violins will be made out of more attractive wood and may have a greater level of decoration.
Varnish is also important. Although its practical purpose is to protect the wood from damage, by the elements, handling and dirt, it can also make a massive improvement to the appearance of an instrument.
This is a tricky area. There are some very celebrated violin makers such as Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, da Salo, and Maggini. Their instruments only come up for sale very occasionally, and when they do, they tend to be in high-security environments and at prices which are completely out of the reach of the average buyer. There are also a number of more reasonably-priced antique violins by lesser-known makers, which can satisfy the needs of both amateurs and professionals. In addition to this, there are a number of antique violins of unknown makers which nevertheless have a high-quality tone. As a rule of thumb, unless the seller has a guarantee of provenance, i.e. is willing to guarantee the maker as part of the terms of sale, then it's best to treat any labels with caution. There is a big difference between an item being of unknown provenance and it being counterfeit. Many legitimate antique violins are based on instruments created by the masters of the 17th and 18th Centuries. An expert should be able to determine essential facts about a violin, such as age and country of origin; however, even experts can differ as to whether or not a specific instrument was made by a particular maker.
Be aware that there is a significant difference between documents substantiating provenance and violin passports. Documents indicating provenance support claims about the nature of the instrument, such as its maker or any famous previous owners. Violin passports are simply documents which are used to facilitate the transport of instruments in countries which have strict laws regarding the export of antiquities. They are used to prove that a traveller had an instrument with them when they entered the country and, therefore, do not need a special permit to take it out with them again (or pay export or import duty on it). At the moment, violin passports are only used in certain countries although there is debate about increasing their use for antique instruments.
The modern violin dates back to Italy in the early 16th Century. The design is credited to Antonio Amati. It was initially perceived as a low-grade instrument, but its prestige steadily increased so that by the early 17th Century, it was a perceived as an instrument worthy of serious performers and composers. At this point, the skill involved in making violins became a highly-desirable craft and developed over the following two centuries, culminating in the outstanding instruments of Antonio Stradavari, widely held to be the finest instruments in the world. Stradavari lived until the mid-18th Century and violins from the 16th Century up to this period tend to be prohibitively expensive, if only because of their historic value. From the late 18th Century and beyond, antique instruments become substantially more affordable. Part of the reason for this is that the skill of violin-making spread beyond the north of Italy, so competition increased. Around the late-18th Century, quality violins begin to be made in other parts of Europe, including Southern Italy, Paris and Vienna. Later, the craft spread even further around the globe, including to the United States, which attracted many expert violin-makers fleeing troubled times in Europe. As a rule of thumb, the more recent the violin, the more affordable the price.
While appearance is purely subjective and makes no difference whatsoever to the sound, the fact is that many antique violins are genuinely beautiful works of art and are priced accordingly. Musicians looking for a high-quality instrument to play are likely to find the best bargains amongst the plainer instruments. Those who are interested in buying an investment piece may be better looking at more attractive instruments.
The ideal antique violin is in as good a condition as a modern one. Unfortunately, many antique violins have led eventful lives with their owners and it can show. If any damage is properly repaired, then its impact will be only cosmetic and may even help to lower the price of a perfectly playable violin. It is, however, absolutely critical that any damage is properly repaired. Otherwise the cost of the repair will need to be factored into the purchase price (as will the element of risk that the damage may be beyond repair). Many repairs will also need time to settle before taking full effect. This means that either they will need to have been undertaken well in advance of the purchase, or the time involved will have to be taken into consideration when considering the purchase. eBay rules require all sellers to mention any damage to their instruments, even if it has been repaired.
Finding an Antique Violin on eBay
Musical instruments have a category of their own on eBay. Click on String and then choose
Violin. All antique violins are acoustic violins although they may be listed under the sub-type unspecified. Most adults will need full-size violins, which are classed as 4/4. The smaller violins are classed in comparison with the size of a full-size violin, for example three-fourth is three-quarters of the size of a full-size violin, and ½ is half the size of a full-size violin and so on. By definition, all antique violins are classed as used; some are classed as seller refurbished. There is no category for musical instruments in the antiques section.
When buying a violin as an investment, appearance and provenance are likely to be at least as important as actual sound quality. By contrast, when looking for a violin to play, sound quality is paramount. It is therefore worth asking for a link to a sound file or a video of the instrument being played. It is also worth checking if the seller will accept returns. As violins are very personal instruments, there is a high degree of personal taste involved in choosing one. Professional sellers know this, so many are prepared to accept returns. eBay's “Top Seller” icon will help to identify which sellers provide the highest quality of service.