How to choose a violin, and knowing how much it is worth!

Buying a violin can be a bit intimidating. How do you know what makes a good violin? And what should it be worth? And how “good” does it have to be to be good enough?

Violins can be incredibly expensive! A true Stradivarius violin can be worth from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. A Guarnerius could be worth millions as well. There are also millions of violins that are worth less than a hundred dollars. So, what makes a violin worth what it is worth?

Well, there are, arguably, five components worth considering that make up the value of a violin, or cello, or bass.

  1. Who made it?
  2. How old is it?
  3. How does it look?
  4. How does it sound?
  5. What does it mean to you?

These five things are not all that need be considered, but if you take them into account, it should give a pretty good idea of how much an instrument is worth.

1) Who made it? There are thousands of violin makers in the world, tens of thousands if you count those who have already passed on but whose instruments are still being played. Who they are, what country they are from, where they were trained, and more can be factors increasing or decreasing the value of instruments they made, or are still making.

If the maker is Italian, value may go up. French? Up a little, but not as much as Italian. German? Maybe a bit of a value increase, but not like some French or Italian makers. If the maker made lots of instruments, and lots of people like them, the value may go up. If they only made one before, and they couldn’t sell it, value goes down. Or, if it was hand-made by one person, a highly skilled craftsman–value goes up. Hand-made but in a factory by lots of people where many people work on all the parts, value goes down. Hand-made but someone really good at making fronts makes all the fronts, someone really good at making backs makes all the backs and so on until someone really good at assembling all the parts does all the assembly–then the value may go up compared to a different factory approach.

2) How old is it? Of course the age of a violin is connected to who made it–if Stradivarius himself made it, it is at least 285 years old — he died in 1737. But the age of a violin, as it relates to its dollar value, has to do with its rarity. If a violin is really old, if it has survived many decades intact, even if its maker made many violins, chances are the intact one is somewhat, or very, rare.

But that’s not all there is to a violin’s age in relation to its value. The fact that it is old may result in the violin having a story–a love story, a drama, an adventure. And if that story is known, and if it is a good one, a captivating one, one they might make a movie out of, well that nudges the value of the violin towards the higher side.

Age may also be related to a violin’s commonly agreed value–violins are rather delicate pieces of wood. If one has survived in good condition for many years, it is likely that at least one, or possibly very many, people place a high value on it. If many people placed a high value on it–enough to take good care of it and to ensure than others did the same–then the violin increases in value. Care could be considered a price paid. A lot of care by many people, over many years, is like paying a lot for something. If a lot has been paid for something, its value is, naturally, increased.

3) How does it look? Well, this one is really subjective, but that’s the beauty of it. If, in general, people would look at a violin and consider that it look “nice” or “lovely” or “beautiful” that judgement immediately attaches to the violin’s value. A brand new violin that looks beautiful is worth more than a brand new violin that looks plain. An old violin that looks plain is not as valuable as an old violin that looks like a work of art.

When looking at a violin for its beauty, experts look at everything: the shape, the finish, the flaming on the back, the striping or coloration on the front. But they also look at the craftsmanship–the seams, the scroll, the purfling (the thin stripe sometimes found around the edge on the top), the pegs, the bridge. They will closely examine the structural integrity of the instrument — the projection of the fingerboard, the location of the sound post, the quality and cut of the bridge, the type of wood that is used in the top, back, ribs, fingerboard, chin rest, scroll, and pegs. (That’s enough material for an article itself.) Suffice it to say that the beauty of a instrument is more than skin deep. And more beautiful inside and out translates to higher value.

4) How does it sound? Clearly one of the most obvious factors is the sound. If a violin sounds terrible, its value goes down. That is not to say that there are violins that don’t sound good that are still worth a lot of money–for it is somewhat like buying a piece of art. If it is old, looks beautiful, and was made by (or even owned by) some famous person, it still may be worth a lot of money even if it doesn’t sound great. But really, in the world not dominated by collectors, someone might pay a little more for a scratched up, plain looking violin made by nobody famous, as long as it sounds like they want it to sound.

It could be said that the power of a violin–its ability to project clear, rich sound across a large room filled with people (or not) is closely connected to its value. Some world famous violins made by Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Guadagnini, and others are expensive (into the millions) partly because when played, their sound projects throughout a concert hall filled with people–who paid lots of money to be there. When you are choosing a violin, consider whether the power matches your intended playing. Do you want a quiet, mellow instrument that sounds pleasant in your living room, or one that projects to the back of a large church cathedral?

5) What does it mean to you? If you have a violin that your mom bought you when you were just starting out, for not much money, forty-five years ago, perhaps you wouldn’t part with it for any amount of money. Sentimental value is still value, quite simply.

Each of these five factors is subjective. Sounds good? That could mean different things to different people. Looks good? Likewise. Age? Even that can be controversial–there are plenty of “Antonio Stradivari 1722 Cremona” labels stuck on the inside of awful-looking, poor copies of the original. There are also plenty of very nice violins that are very good copies of whatever they are copies of that are quite old–but not as old as the label might say. And who made it? Also controversial. We have a violin in our shop that we think was truly made by a maker named “Vuillaume” but that has yet to be positively verified, so it is priced at a fraction of what it could be. Interestingly, the least controversial of the factors that make up the value of a violin is what it means to you!

Brent Purnell, Tan Violin Shop, Edmonton, Alberta

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