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The Dark Side of The Violin: Crooked Luthiers, Greedy Salesmen and Other Creepy Creatures Exposed

Fake labels, convincing replicas and other sleazy practices in violin sales

Read a similar article on this subject

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio

 

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The violin business has many treacherous tales to tell. With rare items selling at Christies for millions, the trade can be highly lucrative for swindlers, thus attracting unscrupulous salesman like fruit flies to sticky paper. As in other “make money quick” scams, such as the automotive industry and the current housing market, the violin industry has attracted all sorts of scary salespeople, excluding of course yours truly.

Not all violin sellers are dishonest, some of us nice folks are helpful, hard-working people who just love all things strings. But with an instrument that is surrounded in powerful mystique and glorified by films like “The Red Violin,” this high-profit market inspires many seedy entrepreneurs to cash in on the rotting old relic in the attic or snatch up “Lot No. Thirty” on auction to make a quick buck.

Such shysters get their sweaty paws on a find and greedily examine the label, hoping they've fetched a rare gem. But oh, dang. It doesn't say “Stradivarius?”

Sorry bub, but even if the label claimed to be a Strad, all the authentic ones have been accounted for. You're ain't gonna strike it rich on another dud swimming among a pestilent sea of million copies. Ahh, but some cunning salesmen have learned to change the label to suit their bank account, making fake labeling one of many infamous atrocities of the violin sales underworld.

The creepy craft of label forgery has become so rampant that it's difficult for most ordinary people, and even some experts, to tell authentic from fake. Some enterprising scoundrels photocopy images of actual violin labels from old reference books, usually those of rare and obscure makers. They then stain the paper with black tea and craftily glue the impostors into cheap violins posing as the real McCoy.

Voila! The value of this old junk has just miraculously inflated by 800%! It's a ghastly and highly unethical practice, but it is unfortunately done all the time.

I think some luthiers (violin makers/repairers) are like computer hackers. The shadier of the lot are remorseless show-offs who abuse their talents and take up a life of crime rather than producing honest work. Like the notorious “Mafiaboy” wrecking havoc on CNN's website for kicks, a similar deceptive creativity oozes from dishonest luthiers as they spawn very convincing forgeries of master instruments.

This is the nastier practice of copies. Not only is the label counterfeit, but even the violin is such a convincing forgery that it stumps the experts.

Case in point, the “Messiah Stradivarius” violin's authenticity has been disputed for years, resulting in anything from chemical analysis of the varnish and extensive grain examination. Some poor sods in lab coats spend weeks under a magnifying glass counting the tree rings in the wood to determine the actual age of the timber then somehow compare it to the date on the label.

The final decision, if the experts ever come to agreement, will make or break the assessed value of £10,000,000 so this science is taken very seriously.

Okay, it's not all lies and deceit. Some honest luthiers simply enjoy the challenge of creating a reproduction for players and collectors who can never afford the real deal. It's actually an intriguing and specialized art to create a violin worthy of the original maker. Simulated neck grafts, blurred labels, worn varnish indicating years of wear and intentional scrapes and dings instantly make a new violin more mysterious, adding to the appeal.

Certain copies are just as good as the original and it's fun to look over a copy and appreciate the detail the maker put into it. The difference here is that the buyer knows they are buying a copy and there is no huge hoopla when someone with far too much money pays $3 MILLION for a dud.

Forgery knows no decency and it doesn't stop at false labels and a few scrapes. I heard of a prominent violin shop in England that used to keep a drawer full of old dust bunnies they salvaged from violins coming through the shop on repair. A profit-hungry luthier crammed these nasty little morsels through the f-holes of violins for sale, obscuring the label and adding age to the violin. The buyer was tricked into thinking the violin was ancient enough to have accumulated such filth and believed it must be authentic.

Really, I'm not making this up.

Virtuous shop owners get our violins the old fashioned way: We order them from a supplier or maker, take instruments on trade or consignment from customers and buy from other dealers.

However some greedy wheeler-dealers sink pretty low and prey on the ignorance of the violin's owner in their home, usually an elderly person with a failing memory and an inability to stand up for himself. The wheeler dealer practically takes the fiddle for a song (mind the pun) and the seller catches on to the scam but only too late.

It's even been rumoured that some nasty violin barterers even check the obituaries and contact the next of kin of deceased violinists! But maybe that's a hair-raising story violinists tell their kids at the campfire.

This next chilling story really happened. During music college I was having a bow rehaired at a big city violin shop. The owner talked my bow down and said it wasn't really worth fixing up. This is the typical ruse employed to drive the price down. After this he casually offered me $100 for it in its poor condition. It was too darn fishy, so I didn't take him on his offer. I've since learned the bow is worth at least $1000 or much more if it's sold on auction.

Another bloodcurdling story. Recently the host of a house concert I was playing at brought out his old violin for me to see. Well, it wasn't really his violin but an unwanted replacement. He had taken his original violin in to some shop for repair and the owner secretly swapped it for an inferior violin and probably made big cash on the stolen one. By the time the owner realized he'd been duped it was too late and the shop had conveniently closed.

Are you spooked yet? How about this terrifying tale.

Before I knew much about violins I, too, was burned. The dealer I then trusted had an Italian violin worth $8000, then on his written appraisal he claimed it's replacement value was $10-$12K. I got it for only $4500. Was it too good to be true?

Yes. In the end it turns out the violin was only worth about $1000 and the “Italian” markings were indicative of a typical German school of violin making. I had saved for years and taken on several grueling gigs that summer to pay for it. I got my money back less $1000 after much arguing. I ended our business relationship and was what motivated me to learn more about violins and eventually open my own shop so this wouldn't happen to my students again.

There are many, many other spooky violin sales horror stories that will make your toes curl, but I don't want to give you bad dreams. Just do some research before buying or selling, ask lots of questions and if a deal ever feels fishy don't be pressured to go through with it. Soon you will buy and sell with confidence and you may even help weed out the weanies.

As for me, I've built excellent business relationships with reputable companies and dealers and I've made the personal decision to never burn anyone. I'll never get rich off this practice, but I sleep great at night and there are no skeletons in my closet.

Just old violin cases!

 

Comments for "The Dark Side of The Violin"

Yes, interesting stories and I agree that the trade stinks. I'm a bow maker in UK, I'm asked frequently to undertake comissions to make bows, copies of antique french bows in fact. I'm making a bow at the moment for a prominent viola player, he asked me if I could leave out my name brand! Can you believe that? Of course I refused!

I'm asked all the time to do the same when making bows for the trade in London, god knows what the bastards are up to? Yes,the business stinks and London is no exception. Happy days !

- John, www.johnmatthewsbowmaker.co.uk

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