I found this discussion board subsequent to being involved in one of the Zhang Shu Mei auctions last night. We didn’t get the fiddle, and having spent the last several hours reading everyone’s opinions, I’m sorry I didn’t go higher, and here’s why:
About eight or nine years ago, we bought an instrument from a dealer in Cincinatti. I’m not a musician, I’m a visual artist, so I was dependent on the dealers and my son’s teacher to guide me. My son was ready for a good student instrument. He was eleven or twelve at the time, and had been playing for about six years. We took home three violins from this dealer, two from another in town, and we also had three from Peter Zaret. One of Zaret’s was 19th century French, and was one of the top contenders.
In the end my son chose, with help, one of the first dealer’s instruments. This violin is numbered and signed with a French name from what we were led to believe (or maybe assumed) was an Amercian workshop. The fiddle has a big, rich sound, warm in the lower registers. If it has a flaw, it is that it is a trifle bright on the high strings, but it also has that magical ability to sound delicate in a small room (like in the living room while I am trying to cook dinner) and HUGE in a hall. The instrument shares many voice qualities with a Wiebe with which I am very familiar. It is a beautiful violin with, among other features, a one-piece back. It is dated 1993.
My son’s teacher preferred the French fiddle to the one he wanted, and the one he bought was her second choice. She never failed to remind me of that, though because he loved it I know he practiced more. It seemed a good trade-off at the time, and I still believe that. Getting to the point…
A luthier with whom we are friends has worked on this fiddle a couple of times, cutting a bridge, adjusting the sound-post, planing the finger-board, etc. It happens that this maker is on the Amati list with Zhang Shu Mei. It is his belief that the instrument we have is actually Chinese. You can imagine how much stronger was the prejudice against Chinese violins eight or nine years ago. However, without telling him what we had paid for the instrument, he gave a rough appraisal of its worth the last time we saw him. “I think if you got this for $6,000 you got a GREAT deal.” We paid about half that, and the deal involved a decent bow and case.
If this is a trend for Chinese fiddles, my amateurish advice would be to snatch up Zhang Shu Mei’s instrument as fast as you can get them. Not only do I feel that my son practiced more because he loved his “Chinese” violin, it has a beautiful sound, far better than I think you would normally expect from a student instrument, even a good one. And further, it helped him win a full ride at a university with a good undergrad music program. In college, he has found that his old $3,000 fiddle does him just as proud as it did when he was in the sixth grade.
Our Amati Foundation friend will make my son’s next violin, and we will probably pay the going rate for this work which, last I checked, was around $20,000, but this fiddle will do admirably as a back-up instrument for a professional musician. Am I provoked that the dealer didn’t make its origins clear? Not a chance; I wouldn’t have bought it, and THEN what might have happened? I would buy another violin from him in a minute. My advice: buy Chinese.