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Can you appraise my old fiddle?

There are a number of different types of appraisals. One is the insurance appraisal, where you need a dollar figure for insurance purposes. This is usually geared towards repair/replacement value. Another is the estate appraisal, where the question is what could you get for it in an estate sale. This tends to be rather lower, since estate sales tend to occur without regard for timing the market. A third is an auction appraisal, which is a range of what you could expect to get for the instrument at auction.

However, a lot of times, when people ask for an appraisal, they are simply asking "what is this worth?" That's a more complicated question than you might think.

What's it worth?

When you hear of violins going for huge amounts, it's mostly because of the antique collectible value of the violin. Secondarily, it's how it plays. You would think that the sound is the most important thing, and it is a huge factor, but it is the history and provenance that makes a Stradivarius or a Gurarneri so valuable.

As an analogy, consider an old rocking chair you find out in the barn. If it is not comfortable to sit in, or if it is unbalanced so it falls over, it's not worth much as a rocking chair. But if it was made by a famous 18th-century chairmaker, it becomes a collectible and acquires a value completely apart from - though related to - its use. Or, if it had been owned by somebody like Thomas Jefferson, it acquires a collectible value that is completely unrelated to the object itself. If it doesn't have a notable history, then its value comes from how well made it is, how beautiful it is, and how well it functions. But a new rocking chair can range from something perfectly functional for $100 at Sears, to over $4000 for an artist's original design.

If you are a player, then the instrument will have a value based on how it sounds and feels to you while you play. Chances are, a well-made artistic violin will respond better than a factory instrument. A hand-crafted violin will be made with a single artistic vision; all the parts will have been made in a way that the final instrument is a joy to play. However, handmade instruments are far more expensive than factory violins, and the quality may be more than what you need. In fact, if you are a beginner, a fine violin may not be pleasureable to play - it is too responsive to nuances you do not yet control. It's like taking a racing car out for a sunday drive; the added performance is not needed and the necessity for precise handling can be bothersome.

It is quite possible to have a violin that suits you perfectly, but that no one would look at twice in the showroom or at auction. Value is ultimately whatever someone will pay, so an unexceptional instrument that happens to suit you will be very hard to put a dollar figure on. You might be willing to pay a lot for it, but you couldn't necessarily sell it easily. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the beautiful but badly set-up instrument - it will probably have a higher value, since the "bones are good"; buyers will gamble that improving the set-up will produce a fine playing instrument.

Most violins that people find in their attic or barn are like the rocking chair. They usually don't have any particular collectible value. Most tend to be factory instruments from Germany or Czeckoslavakia. But some of those were higher-end factory instruments, and many can be set up to be a fine-playing instrument which will suit you just fine. And of course, there is always the chance that you've got a collectible. Almost certainly not a Strad, no matter what the label might say, but New England makers such as White in Boston or Prescott in NH are just beginning to be recognized as collectible.

By the way, you can usually ignore the label. At the turn of the century, Sears sold thousands of violins with Stradivarius (or other famous maker) labels. This was not fraud; it was meant to indicate model, much as today you can buy "Tiffany" lamps at Home Depot.


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