The fluff21 report.
These are some thoughts on the e-bay violin world and the future violin market that it will help shape. What business do I have to make such a report - relatively little, but my wife won't listen to me and you guys are the only ones I know who care about it.
fluff21 is my e-bay handle. Actually it started as the name of my dog, Fluffy, but there was a fluffy, and there was a fluff, and a fluff1, and a fluff2 so I just said, "To, H#ll with it!" and became fluff21. I figured that I would not forget my dog's name.
I was pleased to get involved in the recent posts in a more frank discussion of e-bay and its potential than what has normally been the case. With this post I would like to carry it a bit further.(To say the least ) I would like to give some perspectives on the e-bay violin market. Also a few suggestions for buying a good violin for dramatically less than one can get from a retail shop. But first a little background.
I bought my first violin in 1998, a Heinrich Th Heberlein Jr. Bought it at Du Mouchelles auction house in Detroit. I won the bid at $200 for an instrument that had a plate crack and various hairlines, one of which was a sound post hairline. I had been playing the mandolin for five or six years, and while I enjoyed it immensely, I did not like that fact that I needed to use a tremolo to sustain a note. I figured that if Paganni could make the switch to a violin, maybe could I. I contacted a respected luthier that I had met on my journeys, and was quickly told that to fix the cracked plate, would cost me $500 - $800 and that given the hairline soundpost cracks, they did not think that it was worth it. They recommended that I take it back to where I bought it, and get my money back. Since I did not have the option of taking it back, nor did I really want to, I tried another place and found a luthier that would fix the plate crack for under $200, and do it with a set up for a total of $300. Now I had long before found that for me that the statement, you get what you pay for, is usually preached by those that are charging a higher price, so I let this low-overhead luthier do his thing. It came out great. In the process, I learned one interesting thing about violins. The way the business is practiced today, sound and value have little relationship. I learned from discussions, a repaired sound post crack has no impact on the playing value of a violin, but that it has a major impact on the resale value. In the process I also found out what the going rate for a Heberlein was, and that for my $500, I had a violin that would play with ones costing far more. Nice starter violin, my mandolin mind knew where the notes were, I was happy.
Then, as things often happen unexpectedly, I found myself big-time ill. Over the next few years, I would find myself motionless in bed for months at a time. Lying flat on my back as days turned to weeks and weeks to months, one starts to wonder it one is ever going to walk again. To escape such concerns, I found e-bay and its violin sales. With a lapboard and a laptop, I could lay still and view violins on sale from all over the country. I found that to watch them conveniently, it was the best to bid on them at a low level, then you could follow the sale easier. I am sure that many of you will remember a time when fluff21 was as common as rclanier. At one point, from flat on my back, I had little doubt that I was bidding on more violins than anyone else in the world - with no idea of what I was bidding on, but with a sure desire to find out.
Fortunately I have been in good physical condition for some time, and am trying to get back to my normal life, but this fiddle obsession is more infectious than my aliment. I have been buying and selling for some time, in a modest fashion. Never bidding more than $500, selling at my leisure - but not selling much, and never on e-bay.
E-bay is today without question the largest single violin sales venue in the world. Maestronet is an amazing group of violin enthusiasts, 4,000+ registered, and probably another 8,000 voyeurs. I think that it is interesting to consider what will the long term impact of it be on the sale of violins. It has already changed forever the repossession of old instruments. They can no longer be obtained in pawn shops and thrift shops. For a number of years, I was in charge of antiques for the largest St. Vincent de Paul facility in the world, the one here in Southeastern Michigan. We would get violins now and again, and they would be purchased for $15 to $50 by violin pickers - people that made their livings buying violins from such outlets, and converting them back into the real violin world. Show us a pawn shop or thrift store that isn't on the internet, and you'll show us one that is on its way out of business. Pawn shops are placing violins on e-bay. The violin pickers are now the violin traders on e-bay.
I have purchased with a 80% success rate (receiving better value than what was paid) on twenty violins purchased - I am only a novice at this. What I know I have learned at the library, this board, and in dealing with makers and luthiers as I travel for my business. I have little doubt that there are professional violin experts around the world buying good value violins on a continual basis on e-bay. In the present market, one could surely do this for a retirement income.
While e-bay is continually denigrated on this board as not a place to buy, I have watched as the volume of violins for sale in the United States has gone continually upward. Not only the number, but the value that they bring has been continually rising. When I first started watching, there were about 400 string listings at any one time. Today there are over 1000 new string items per day, 8,000 string listings. Rarely did a violin break a thousand dollars, today it is a common occurrence. I believe this reflects not only a better understanding by the buyers and sellers, but a recognition that buying on e-bay is generally safe once you have become acclimated to the new environment.
Many aspects are superior to the store experience. Prices are lower. How many of us would appreciate seeing a sign on the outside of any dealer's establishment that allows his customers too freely record their opinions of the goods and services provided. I believe that we would see a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction. On the other hand, it would be nice to play an instrument before you buy. But how nice? Ten times the cost nice? Don't forget that we are told that a violin has a value based on who made it because the maker or factory has a good reputation of a certain level of instrument - you can rely on a Juzek to play like a Juzek. I would still like to play it first.
There is concern that some buyers will get hurt by unscrupulous dealers, and vise verse. These are valid concerns. I would have greater concerns about an out of town driver having a flat in the wrong section of any of our major cities. We have concerns about it. We try to put measures in place and we move on. E-bay has moved on. 400 string items for sale to 8000. Dramatically rising sale values. This is not happening because people are being cheated, but because it is offering the user something that they want.
E-bay is not a fluke or a fancy that is going to go away. It will have market swings like all markets, but it is here to stay, and the world will be better for it. What I think is particularly interesting and I think will have even more long term impact on the violin market is the opening of the rest of the world to e-bay. I have been particularly close to the European activity, buy most of my violins out of the German e-bay now. It may be a situation that is a bit hard to comprehend because of the language barrier. Like the US, German e-bay is carrying an ever-increasing number of violins, and expect that number to continue to increase. It is now up to 400 string listings. More importantly, these listings will have a significant number of mid to upper range instruments. Not the old masters, although some will be there, but good violins bringing $5,000 to $20,000 retail, that will flood the American market.
I was in the modest shop of a respected master maker in Germany who set up one of the violins that I had purchased through German e-bay. I asked him what he thought of taking one of my violins for consignment sale. He told me that it would be crazy. He said in every German home there is a violin or two from departed relatives. He said that in his shop alone he had over 500 violins of the quality or better of the one he was setting up for me and he couldn't get rid of them. My violin is now on consignment sale here in the United States for $3,500. With the set up and repair, I paid about $500. Presently we see "violin pickers" out of England, harvesting the violins out of German e-bay, turning around and selling them to the United States on US e-bay. Same violins, no time to do anything significant to the violins other than translate the auction listings. The violins bring immediately $200 to $500 more than they paid for them. Numerous English speaking German violin pickers are dealing directly to the United States, sometimes making major profit on the shipping alone. (This problem is dropping as US shipping becomes more common. Normal insured mail shipping out of Germany should be around $45 dollars.) French e-bay is just starting to come on line as well as Belgium and the Netherlands. Clearly, the value that can be obtained within the US for the same instruments that they had a hard time giving away before, is not yet recognize through out the potential European marketplace - but it will be. Just like the US, where everyone was afraid to deal on e-bay at first, they will recognize that there is money to be made, and value to be obtained. Also, that the process, even with its pitfalls, is relatively safe.
I expect to see a second market area grow to be as large as that of the present US e-bay, and expect to see a two year period where these excellent violins are going to be undervalued within the e-bay trading sphere, not the retail market but the e-bay market. The entire European Community has yet to fully open! We know that the American makers were not as good as the European in general. Not only was the cultural knowledge higher within Europe, it was where the great violins came from. What is the chance of finding an old Frantisek Spidlen in an attic in Terra Haut compared to finding one in Prague or Vienna This means good violins for less than 1/4 of the present shop rate (my viewing has told me that auctions are 50% of retail, and e-bay is 50% of auction sales - just my opinion from what I have observed), and within this there will be greater bargains for those that have developed the "eye!" I am not talking about the sale of junk. Yes, many people are buying violins that they could get at better value within shops, but guess what, "It is not stopping them!"
What, however, will be the impact on the present violin "process?" None you think - think again! The first tier of change has already happened as noted earlier, the direct thrift and pawn shop sales are already a thing of the past. I think we are already starting to see a backing up of violins in consignment venues. The naive or the uninitiated are not purchasing the good violins out of e-bay. The professionals, violin pickers and dealers, are clearly buying. The best way to make a good return on your investment, if you can afford to wait, is through consignment, or put them in your own shop. If you cannot wait for your money, then a sale back over e-bay or to a dealer who will then bring it to a shop.
But here comes the good news, and the bad news - price reductions on violins in the $5,000 to $20,000 range. If you were holding violins in this range with the hope that you are going to see a profit ten years out, I would suggest that you might be better to get back into the stock market. On the other hand, if you are interested in violins for the sound, this has to be music to your ears. We already know that the tons of great playing instruments lie in this price range. Violins that will play right with the old masters! Get ready to have a ton of them to choose from over the next years.
It is understandable that those involved in the present process of buying and selling violins recommend against going to e-bay to purchase. They have many valid concerns about the e-bay process and risk to the customer. It also has a direct economic impact. Not only does it take sales away from them directly, but it gives them more competition in the procurement of instruments. One thing remains unmistakably clear.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
E-bay is a tidal wave and the swell is already rising.
Some thoughts on how to buy a good violin on e-bay, for those that recognize the risks and still want to venture forth. All of these are only my opinion and worth what you are paying for them. But it is the power of the idea, expanded by others thoughts that might be helpful.
Know what you are looking for and "Don't pay more than a 1/4 of the retail shop price for anything!" There will be another one coming in a short time.
Forget this nonsense about violin labels being meaningless! They tell you a ton of information at the first blush. For e-bay shopping they can tell you immediately if a violin is worth looking at further or not (you have 1000 items to sort through daily). Not many of us are truly interested in Czech Strad copies. Yet tons of the labels send that information immediately. Nobody is faking a Lark labels, or Czech Strad labels. Steiner violins, are in general not in great demand. Steiner only made 30 violins in his life, you probably aren't going to find a real one. Unless you want one, and they can sound nice, the label tells you it is not a strad copy, you do not need to study the outline! Not that I am suggesting you don't want to consider Steiner model violins, just the label helps you sort them out.
Study about violins if you want to buy like a violin picker. Select the type of violin that your interested in and read about them. Many great makers and types are not particularly in vogue, within which great violins can be found. Guess what, no expert today knows everything about every maker who's violins are valued at $5000 in today's market. They need to read too.
Don't expect that you are going to be able to find a sleeper by the masters, sorry, the professionals are not going to let you out bid them on it. (Unless your so rich and sure that you can risk over 50% of value without touching it??? I have seen some high end items with good return policies, and I think you will see more in the future.) Buy reference material or get access to it. Buy fubbi2's CD! Than combine it again with these "useless" labels to learn a lot about the violin. Does the label have a date at a different time than the maker was alive? Might be a problem. With some violins though, it might be a good clue - learn what you are looking for. If the label is from a little known maker, it has a greater chance of being genuine, why spend time making a good copy and labeling it with a little know maker. If so does it have a date, if not, it has a good chance of being a lower level rather than a higher level.
In general, do not use the label to validate, use the label to eliminate, but use the label. Experts can pick up an instrument, ignore the makers label and tell you what it is worth by the quality of the work. Even if you can do this, this market place does not allow you to pick it up.
Choose a selected group of makers to study, keep it small to start with. Learn what models they made, varnish colors etc. Make a list, and cut and paste it into the E-bay search engine, search for "any of these words" under musical instruments, add to this list as you see others you like, but do not bid on them until you start to understand the ones you see. The bigger the list of makers you can create, and truly have a knowledge of what you are looking for, the better the chance of finding something that provides you with a great violin.
For the best value look for violins that are not being sold by pickers. Pickers will have looked for better more profitable outlets to move their higher value items. (This isn't necessarily true for the US marketing German pickers, as they are getting their violins at such a low rate, and the American e-bay market can be as high as their regular outlets. They may well have some good instruments, but US buying competition will be tough.) At the same time if you have developed an expertise in a given type or maker, you may know more than the pickers.
Ask questions. If you have developed an expertise, ask questions that let you fill in the blanks for you and no one else..
Be very weary of any negatives in the feedback profile. Normal people do not like to say negative things, and only do it when they are pushed. Consider the conditions of the negatives very carefully. Be very weary of sellers, or buyers that have changed their userID's. There are valid reasons for this at times, but be cautious! I skip right by them.
Sellers not knowledgeable about violins, the best place for value, will very often post useless pictures. Some sellers will send pictures that they do not post. Ask for extra pictures. This gives you a tremendous advantage in the bidding.
If a seller claims to know nothing about violins, but shows you all of the relevant camera angles, be very skeptical. These are back , front, scroll, pegbox opening, side.
If the pictures are blurry be very skeptical. Go to some of the other sales that the seller has underway and check to see if all the pictures are blurry. If others are sharp, do not bid! The same holds true with dark pictures. Many times all the pictures of the violin are great, but one - turns out that one showed the edge missing but you could not see it through the blur.
In general, a seller that clearly knows little about violins, is not going to be trying to trick you into buying his violin by putting an little known but respectable name on it - and than start the bidding at one dollar with no reserve.
If you had a foreign language in school, here is a good time to use it. Many overseas sellers are afraid to ship out of their countries, as are many Americans. This should not be a surprise, but there are nice people everywhere. If you ask politely if they will ship to you, using their language, do not be amazed that most will say yes. The descriptions in the ads are very repetitive. If you have had a little German, French, whatever, it does not take much work to identify what the listings are saying. This is important if the shipper is willing to ship overseas, but the listing is in another language.
Check out the seller!
Go to his feedback. Obviously check his positives and negatives, but also look at the past sale items again to get a feel of what he is into. It makes it a little easier to gauge what he may mean in his listing.
Do a "search by seller" and get all the completed sales you are able. This helps at times to figure his reserve levels. Go to the sales and check the past bid histories. You can get a feel for the reserves at times through the patterns of the bid jumps. You often will find that a given item has been up numerous times before and did not reach a reserve. If you are willing to pay $300 and he has twice turned down a $1000, you have other auctions that are worth checking out.
Go to his other auction sales. If he is selling hundreds of items, and only one violin, he probably does not know much about them. If he is selling lots of violins, be careful. Why is he selling in this venue. Sometimes they may be selling on e-bay because they do not like, or have easy access to consignment opportunities, but the price difference is significant, so be careful.
If you are truly interested in getting "this" violin at a reasonable price, do not bid until the last 20 seconds. To bid in the last 20 second, set a clock with a second hand to the standard on the telephone, prepare the bid sheet down to the last "enter," and ignore any concerns about what may be happening with other bidders. Bid at the max you are comfortable paying and hit enter as the second hand passes the 20 mark. I know that sellers are not going to like this, but I will let someone else post ideas for sellers. I am a buyer. If you get into the process of bidding early, someone will believe that you know more than they do, and walk up the bidding to see where you are. Where you are is having to raise your bid if you really want this violin. Your better to shoot it out with the rest of the sharpshooters at the end, with a value that you are satisfied with, than to give courage to someone who does not have your knowledge. (We are assuming that you have gathered some knowledge before you are doing any of this.)
E-bay is an unstoppable force at this point.
Welcome to the hunt.
Again, the ideas expressed here are just that. Ideas that can be right or wrong. Take what you like and reject those you don't. Just things I have been thinking about while reading over some of the later threads.
Critique is expected and welcome. I could be wrong