Are there ever any GENUINE old Italian violins on eBay?

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As of 4th April 2014 three people don't like this guide. I wonder why and what they are up to on eBay.
 
Well, if you don't fancy a longish read then the short answer is ''NO'' . If you can handle a little more depth then read on.

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This guide is intended only to address the issues surrounding violins being offered for sale by dishonest sellers in a way which seeks to mislead the purchaser into believing that they are buying something of great value and historical interest when they are really being offered something very mundane and of little monetary value. Sometimes some quite nice instruments do appear on eBay, but not Italian ones, and they are usually in very poor condition or, in other words, not worth much.

There are I don't know how many millions of violins out there. All of them have a place, a value, and a story of some kind to tell. Most of them are not worth a lot in monetary terms  but some are worth a huge amount. My concern here is when people attempt to con others into believing that cheap violins are actually extremely valuable ones. It is very easy to get caught and the fraudsters not only know this but they know HOW to catch people too! It happens throughout the trade but as the 'Italians' represent the jackpot in terms of money I refer only to those instruments.

One of the golden rules with violins and their attribution is NEVER to trust any labels that are there. If the label confirms what you have already seen then that may a different matter but NEVER allow yourself to be influenced by the label. Don't assume either that just because a violin has had a neck graft or it's peg holes bushed that it is necessarily anything special. This is exactly the sort of thing which fakers do to trick people, the logic being something like 'they wouldn't have gone to all that trouble if the violin wasn't worth a lot would they?' Well, yes 'they' would because it is precisely that sort of thinking which puts false value on something; a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy if you like. Even if a faker has to pay somebody else to do this work what does it cost for a decent neck graft and some peg hole bushings........1K? If the violin has a true value of say 500 but by spending another 1000 the seller can ramp the price up to a modest 2000 they will have made themselves another 500 which wasn't deserved. Even worse, for the same outlay somebody could be conned into paying many 1000s for the same low value instrument Worse still, it could be YOU!

To some extent the same is true of violin fittings. NEVER be flattered by fancy pegs, Hill chinrests (nice though they are), carved or inlaid tailpieces etc. because when you buy a valuable violin you are buying the body, the scroll, and the pegbox and nothing else. In terms of valuable violin prices no significant value is attached to necks, bridges, strings, cases, pegs, soundposts, fingerboards etc. unless there is something very, very special about them like they were owned by Paganini, or made by Stradivari.

We often see violins for sale on eBay which were, allegedly, made by 17th and 18th century Italian makers such as Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Bergonzi etc. but is this really very likely? Is somebody going to let go of an instrument worth perhaps 6,000,000 USD for a few hundred or even a few thousand? Probably not, so what exactly is going on?

Not too surprisingly this is a very, very old game and one which has been rife in the violin world since Luigi Tarisio started bringing masterworks from Italy to other European countries in the early 19th century and the trade in valuable violins expanded and it is called 'deception' and, like most successful scams, relies on ignorance and greed. Surely if you want to know who made a violin all you have to do is look at the label inside? Well, no as I have explained above. Labels can be added or swapped very easily and most people will be more excited about reading something in Italian inside their violin than nothing at all or references to China, Romania, Mirecourt etc. I actually once knew somebody who made the mistake of buying a violin on the strength of the Italian wording on the label inside. Imagine how he must have felt when he rushed it to the nearest translator he could find only to be told that his 'maker' was called 'best quality tomatoes'...................a faker with a sense of humour, and good, if misused, insight into human nature!

It's amazing and disconcerting to see a violin for sale which is obviously nothing to write home about being frantically bid on to ridiculous prices because somewhere in the description, usually the title, we see 'labelled Bergonzi, Stradivari, Guarneri' etc. Sadly not enough people seem to realise that but those same people are unlikely to be caught by a rusty old Ford Escort or something wearing a Ferrari badge or worse still the Ferrari name crudely scribbled on the bonnet in felt-tip so what is the difference and why do people fall for essentially the same pathetic ploy when a violin is involved? The answer is that almost everybody knows what a Ford Escort looks like, and a Ferrari probably, but most people haven't a clue what a Stradivari looks like. Stradivari's best work is as near to perfect as is humanly possible. He had a thorough understanding and working knowledge of architectural principles, was a great artist, and produced magnificent forms, so if what you are looking at does not render you almost unconscious by it's staggering beauty and artistry then it is not a Stradivari, it is probably one the the very indifferent mass-produced wooden boxes which poured out of France and Germany from the 19th century onwards or, more recently, Eastern Europe and China.

In the case of Antonio Stradivari who is perhaps the best known violin maker of all time certain facts need to be fully assimilated:

1  We don't know where he was born but we do know that he lived, worked, and died in Cremona.

2  He worked only in Cremona and never in Eastern Europe, Germany, France, China or anywhere else.

3  Dedicated a maker as he obviously was he made no instruments at all after his death in 1737.

Strange as it may seem, all of these facts have been overlooked on some of the labels found in what is commonly said by a lot of people to be a 'Stradivarius' violin. The fact is that a Stradivari violin is a violin made by Stradivari (no surprises there then) it is NOT a piece of paper inside a violin with the name etc. as used by him. The same is also true of any other make of violin.

These 'trade' instruments vary enormously in quality but NONE of them even approach the standards set by the old Italian masters and are certainly not worth anything like 'Italian' prices! You can see the unwarranted enthusiasm in the bidding on eBay sparked by the inclusion of the magic word 'Italian'.  Fakers, forgers, bar stewards, call them you what you will, know all of this and the more skilful (deceitful?) use more refined techniques. Some of them were (are?) themselves good makers but sometimes they had difficulty spelling their own names, which means that there are some violins out there which are a bit better than 'trade' but still not the genuine article. Bear in mind that thousands and thousands of 'trade' violins have come from Germany over the years and they haven't all disappeared so, by simply playing the numbers game, you are much more likely to meet one of those than anything else. In fairness to these factories they did describe their works merely as copies and did not try to pass them off as anything else.

Over time people began to realise that, unless they had considerable knowledge of the subject, they could easily get conned so the more reputable dealers began offering 'Certificates of Authenticity' with their wares as a guarantee, to some extent at least, that what the customer was buying was what the thought they were buying. Although this was never 100% reliable it is a whole lot better than trusting a slip of paper inside a wooden box and the 'word' of the 'nice man' selling it. Fairly quickly the sale of valuable violins became largely a matter of the the sale of COAs and guess what?............the fakers job was now a lot easier. All they had to do now is fake the COA and they are again raiding unsuspecting people's pockets. Even if the certificate is genuine, does it relate to the instrument for sale? If it does then was it issued by somebody who's opinion actually counts for anything, names like Hill, Beare, Vatelot, Vuillaume to mention just a few? There is no value whatsoever in somebody i.e. the seller rambling on about their item having 'certain features' consistent with the instruments of x, y, or z. This means absolutely nothing unless they are experts in the field and there are very, very few of those around, and guess what?...........they don't sell Italian masterworks at massively knocked down prices on eBay or anywhere else for that matter.

Many of the Italian violins around today have passed through the hands of the now long deceased W.E.Hill and Sons Ltd who were universally regarded as great experts and even today, despite what some people maintain, their certificates are about as watertight as you can get. Where a violin has been through their hands and certificated by them it was given a 'Hill number' which was recorded against the name of the owner in the company records. This number was stamped on the end of the fingerboard and it should still be there if the instrument is what it purports to be. Yes, the fingerboard could have been changed but by the time that has happened, the Hill bridge has mysteriously vanished, the original certificate has been lost and is survived only by a photocopy, and the letter from the great virtuoso who bought it from Hills seems to be missing the whole thing just gets more and more laughable to my mind.

The truth is that if you want a Strad or a del Gesu you will be expecting to part with between 4 and 6 MILLION USD at today's prices. You will not get one on eBay for the price of a second hand car and we need to seriously question whether such an instrument would ever end up in the hands of somebody who doesn't even know what it's component parts are called let alone worth. Does somebody selling a Stradivari, or a Guarneri really think that the neck is called a 'handle' or that a peg can be called a 'knob' or are they trying to con you into believing that you have cleverly found something that nobody else has noticed and that the seller is too thick to realise what they have got bearing in mind that there are a number of very unscrupulous dealers out there operating relatively anonymously on eBay? I say 'relatively' because many of them have long had their cover blown.

Another strange belief held by a lot of people is that valuable violins live in attics. No they don't! Why would they? Who would pay a fortune for something and then lob it in the attic to be unearthed by somebody else years later, and perhaps even more worryingly why would they do this? Forget the words 'attic find' in a listing; it is Romantic nonsense and it means nothing. Who on earth sorts out junk in an attic muttering ''empty cardboard box, old cassette player, kids football boots, 6 million dollar Cremonese violin, cuddly toy, worn carpet'' etc. etc? It may be tempting to assume that at the time these violins were put 'in the attic' that they were not worth very much but is that likely? With Stradivari the answer has always been 'NO' as his instruments were highly priced from new; they have never been a poor person's instrument and Stradivari was himself a wealthy man. With other Italian violins, prices have steadily increased over the years but they too have always been highly prized, so in reality they have not become valuable but they have become more valuable. Important Italian violins cost a lot of money, are worth a lot of money, and to most owners represent a major outlay and are certainly not the sort of things that are likely to slip unnoticed into somebody's possession to be almost immediately forgotten and ignored only to resurface now on eBay.

Is the sound of a valuable violin important? Again, NO, so what is the point of banging on about it in the description, linking to youtube or whatever unless it is to divert you from the things which really matter? The highly subjective sound of a violin may be of great interest to the player but it makes no difference at all to the monetary value to a dealer. He, or she, will be interested in the money and not much else. The monetary value is based on the maker, the instruments condition, provenance etc. It could sound like a haemorrhoidal cat with a nasty throat infection, and in the wrong hands all violins have that rather dubious potential regardless of price, but if it all adds up then so does the purchase price or value.

To sum up, to find a valuable and genuine old Italian violin you need to ask the following questions:

1.  Is the seller knowledgeable and trustworthy which means are they an established expert and/or dealer in violins or just somebody who has an inflated ego but zero knowledge?

2.  Is there a valid Certificate of Authenticity with the violin.......... Hill, Beare etc. NOT Joe Soap's Fiddle Shop?

3.  Does it relate to the violin being offered for sale? You'd be surprised how many do not.

4.  Is the provenance good and is it verifiable? If the violin is an important one it certainly should be!

5.  Has the condition of the instrument been recently checked by somebody who's opinion counts?

6.  Is there a recent, WRITTEN valuation available from a reputable violin expert? Again local orchestra members, teachers, music shop staff etc. do not count, it must be somebody who's opinion will be widely accepted.

These are the questions which need to be answered properly by the seller and you should not be diverted from them towards the vague, meaningless, and valueless ramblings about how pretty it looks or what the leader of the local orchestra said about it, or how long somebody's ancient Auntie is supposed to have owned it which is usually about 100 years longer than the wretched thing has existed.

If the answer to any of these questions is 'no' then walk away because you are close to losing your money.

If the answer to all of these questions is 'yes' then one more question needs to be asked:

''Why is it on eBay with no reserve and an opening bid of 99p when it could be at one of the major auction houses with an opening bid in hundreds of thousands where it could even set a new record?''

...................................stolen? or just a simple case of wake up and smell the coffee?
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