You wouldn’t buy a house without a survey, so why buy a violin without a qualified second opinion? But things are never quite as simple. Benjamin Hebbert writes about the issues of divided opinions.
In Britain the housing market is supported by the profession of the Chartered Surveyor, an expert who has no financial stake in the property market beyond the fees that they charge you in order to make sure that your prospective purchase is examined by qualified professionals. Similar roles exist in other industries and across the world, particularly where there is a high level of government regulation. Likewise, the rise of cost comparison websites for booking flights, buying insurance, and finding hotels all adds to the perception that there are ways for buyers to acquire information. Anyone with a penchant for antiques will be aware of Miller’s Antiques Guide, which has been going strong since 1979 which seems to comprehensively provide sales values for the antique market. Anyone intimate with the market can also attest to how impossible it is for a guide of this sort to provide any kind of accuracy in pricing.
Should the same thing happen in the violin world? Well the truth of the matter is that the market is so small that it would be difficult for someone to both acquire the knowledge to give trusted advice, and to be able to make a living from it. There is, to my knowledge, just one person in the world who fills that niche (and they are not in Britain). Ultimately expertise resides within the trade because it is experts within the trade who do the legwork to constantly look at violins, evaluate them and understand them. Dealers have to confer amongst themselves in order to reach consensus on different instruments and to expand their knowledge, and at the end of the day it is the continual communication within the violin world that creates integrity, but conflict of interest is always inherent in asking a rival business for an opinion.
The fundamental conflict of interest is that if you trust one business enough to gain an opinion on an instrument you want to purchase, you probably trust them enough to purchase an instrument that they have for sale, so why should they give their time for little or no reward when a rival of is making a sale?
The fundamental conflict of interest is that if you trust one business enough to gain an opinion on an instrument you want to purchase, you probably trust them enough to purchase an instrument that they have for sale, so why should they give their time for little or no reward when a rival of is making a sale? With this in mind, there is in fact little incentive to give a second opinion that directly supports a sale. Moreover the culture amongst musicians of obtaining opinions free of charge mean that there is no implied contract of fiduciary law underlying the opinion sought.
As a result the efficacy of the second opinion rests purely on the integrity and trust that you have with the party giving the second opinion. There are ways of getting around this, and my preferred way of operating as a dealer is to ask the musician to do me the courtesy of trying any violin I may have in stock that competes against the one they are trying to buy. I think that’s fair enough. The buyer is looking for the best value for money, and they have the chance to see if I can deliver that goal. Hopefully I get the sale, or at least provide the argument to keep looking on an inferior instrument. However, once I am out of the running for a sale, presuming that to be the case, I’m in a better position to provide a trusted opinion, because I theoretically have less to gain from knocking the instrument. Nonetheless, there are many reasons why a dealer may seek to win a sale by demolishing a colleagues violin. Inevitably within the small world of dealing there are disagreements between dealers that spill over into preventing sales, so petty vindictiveness can play a part. For small companies, the chance of making another sale at any level can be critical for them at that point. Larger companies sometimes employ sales staff with relatively little knowledge by comparison to the companies reputation, and whose income is dependent on sales commission or on reviews of their salesmanship to the point that their conduct rests on personal finances rather than the wealth of their employer. Sometimes there can be differences of opinion or differences in knowledge – I, for example, am not particularly passionate about minor 20th century Italian makers. Therefore, if I can’t give you a definite opinion on say a Mario Gadda, that is not to say it’s wrong, or that my reticence in giving an opinion is intended to diminish the sale. Some people are just unremittingly ruthless, after all for that kind of person, at the end of the day it’s all about money to them.
Amongst most reputable dealers, the shadow of the second opinion is a great levelling factor in the industry. If you expect to suffer the scrutiny and ruthlessness of your rivals, it makes sense to price things conservatively, to be particular about condition issues and select instruments to sell where there are less grounds to dispute over their authenticity, so realistically in an equal world you are unlikely to get much conflict of opinion.
When approaching dealers for an opinion, playing with a straight bat is often the best way forward. You don’t necessarily have to disclose where you have brought the violin from, although don’t be surprised if they have already seen it, or recognise identifying characteristics of a particular shop that you would not have considered. These are elements of being an expert – they are, you’re not. Amongst most reputable dealers, the shadow of the second opinion is a great levelling factor in the industry. If you expect to suffer the scrutiny and ruthlessness of your rivals, it makes sense to price things conservatively, to be particular about condition issues and select instruments to sell where there are less grounds to dispute over their authenticity, so realistically in an equal world you are unlikely to get much conflict of opinion.
So what happens when there are basic differences in opinion? Who do you know to trust? Often a strongly divided opinion will result in the musician taking sides with the party that has killed the sale, and this is often a mistake, losing out on the potential of buying the violin they have already selected, and falling prey to the greed of the other dealer. For the record, if I ever have to damn an instrument completely, I will place myself out of the running as I think that is ethically safer in the long run (if the purchaser can’t find a violin after a few weeks, I will get back into the game, but not on the back of condemning an instrument). Generally speaking, the best course of action is to distill the criticism into a number of questions and get back to the seller with them. Ask questions, especially email questions as you have a written answer, and they have the time to consider how to respond. At that point you can begin to make an informed decision between two varied opinions, understand who to trust and how to progress. Remember that you can be looking at an instrument that is up to 400 years old, there are plenty of anomalies in violin making, and few instruments survive in perfect condition. An honest dealer will be taking condition issues into account when they describe an instrument as in “good” condition, or “with minor restorations” and pricing accordingly. When someone else points out that it has a crack in the front, that may be consistent with the price and the description. My policy is to walk through the condition issues and give practical assessment on all of them, but only with knowledge of the asking price on the instrument and to assess whether the two are fair. I have come across circumstances where a forensic analysis of minor faults in an instrument has given the impression of a very poor state of repair.
When opinion is irreconcilably divided then something is definitely fishy. Get on the phone and find a third experienced opinion. Name no names, but describe the situation and take it from there step by step. Not long ago, a foolish client was offered an 18th century Neapolitan violin from a private seller for £20,000 and I had to side with the basic internet research he had done, to explain that had it been original I would have offered to go into business to buy it and give him at least £60,000 return on his investment. As an anonymous old French violin that I knew it to be, my valuation was a less than half what it was being offered for. He made a foolish purchase edged with greed, trusting good fortune and an “old retired musician” over a professional opinion. Ultimately I even went so far as to give him the name of a dealer with a genuine example of the supposed maker for a more authoritative view, but he resisted my absolute insistence to settle the matter with a further opinion, and threw his money down the drain.
Recently, the situation happened in the opposite way when a “colleague” of mine valued two instruments at a quarter of the price I had quoted for sale in a second opinion. Both were straightforward, the less preferred of the two was by a contemporary maker, selling it at the price they had set, and the 19th century instrument that had passed through W.E. Hill & Sons, priced the same, was the one the one the customer favoured. Once again, a suggestion to find a third pair of eyes seemed to be the most scrupulous means to clear the air. A brief telephone call with virtually anyone with experience would have supported one direction or the other. The two violins were either the value of a reasonably priced contemporary handmade violin by a reputable maker, or they were priced at less than a middling Chinese factory instrument. The poor mother of a young violinist who already felt out of her depth fell into a tailspin of confusion and distrust that benefitted nobody. Whilst she was much the fool for not finding arbitration through a third opinion, following several suggestions to simply find out which way the wind was blowing, but the craven greed of a certain colleague ultimately caused much harm to the development and opportunities of a young musician.
Under the best of circumstances, a second opinion should be all that is necessary to assure a purchase. There are people in the violin trade of great integrity with a passion for using their knowledge for good, even if like every industry it can be an unexpectedly mixed bag at times. If something is a fair deal, you should get the reassurance to proceed backed by competent expertise. If you have opinions that are radically opposed a chat with someone who can provide perspective and a third opinion will inevitably put your mind to rest and resolve issues in one direction or the other. Good luck, and buy with confidence.