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Buying from a pawn shop


AJ
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Okay, I'm an amateur fiddler so I don't know a lot about violins, but I would like to buy a better quality instrument without paying a fortune. I often see them in pawn shops missing a string or two, or no bow so they can't be played so what should I be looking for to avoid getting a real dud. From what I understand the label alone isn't good enough so is there maybe a checklist of things I should avoid? Should I go by measurements, wear and tear, quality of the wood? The other day I saw one that had badly worn off varnish, but they only want $100 for it, but I had no idea if it would be a good instrument. Any suggestions?

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I don't hang around pawn shops much, so I don't really know what they usually have, but I do know that they often sell new stuff just above the level of garbage. My first thought, then, would be that you should avoid like the plague anything in a pawn shop that looks remotely new. That leads me to say that if I had a choice between their shiny yellow one and the beat up one, I'd take the beater. Without being there to see it, that's the most I can say.

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Michael's given you some good advice.

Having said that, my Dad bought my first fiddle in 1965 from a pawn shop in Seattle. It turns out it was a Markneukirchen fiddle from the 1800s. It has a curious "tattoo" etched inside the top of three men in Lederhosen with arms around each other holding beer steins!! Very cool. The poor violin has been through much and been repaired by amateurs and professionals alike. Unfortunately, I have not had the time nor the capital to do a full restoration - what it deserves for the joy it has given me over the years, so it languishes in a Bobelock case in the back of my shop. Some day I will send it to Michael to see what he thinks of it!

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It has been a long time since I have been in any pawn shop, but years ago I used to go regularly hoping to find some gems in the rough. In all that time I was only able to find a few fiddles worth buying to fix up and make a small profit on if they did not end up sounding good enough for me. Michael is absolutely right, they tend to sell lots of new junk (Skylark comes to mind) so stay away from those shiny new orange looking fiddles that have absolutely no character. The best fiddle I ever found at a pawn shop ended up being a nice 1906 H. R Knopf violin in a new Bobelock case was actually a nice treat, but never again was I so lucky to find anything even close to that, but doesn't mean that it is not possible. ;-)

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Pawn shop buying is not for anyone who asks if they can do it. Takes a very good eye for damage, for provenance, for repair costs, etc. That said, I've gotten some rather good buys on guitars in pawn shops. Straight from the pawn shop to me to eBay and a few hundred profit.

You'll be better off buying from a place that sets up instruments very well than fighting most of the pawn shop junk. This stuff ends up in pawn shops for a reason.

Steve

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I haven't found anything but junkers in pawn shops, and I always check them when I'm fiddle shopping. The chances of finding a really good instrument that the pawnbroker is ignorant of is very slim these days. Most pawnbrokers spend more time on the web looking up prices than Maestronetters. Most of what I have found have been greatly overpriced. You will probably do better in the long run at a reputable dealer with a setup shop.

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In some pawn shops (and even in "respectable" antique shops) a string or two will be deliberately left off, in order to lull you into thinking that you have found an undiscovered treasure. "All it needs is a little loving restoration to make it sound beautiful again."

What is embarrassing is that I did the same stupid thing twice; that is, buying flea market fiddles that just happened to be missing a string or two. There is a saying; Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

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I bought a beautiful viola from a pawn shop last year. Before a student of mine bought it from me, a friend of mine took it to a rehearsal and was amazed at how warm it sounded. After my student bought it (I paid $50 for it and sold it for $100), she had it appraised and it was valued at $1200. Granted, you can get some real junk (I refused several that were total garbage or that I was not allowed to play test), but there are some decent instruments out there.

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A little over a year ago I decided to buy my teenage daughter a violin and return her rental. I bought 4 on eBay for what I would have had to pay to buy her rental. One was great, one was good, one was average, and one was a pretty and old wall hanger. The real bonus is that the one that was good had two fine bows in the case. I sold the lesser of the two bows on eBay for more than I paid for the whole adventure and still had 3 violins leftover. The better bow that we kept is a gem.

Since then, I have become a part-time violin dealer. My first experience hooked me. There are decent violins everywhere, but I would agree to stay away from the new stuff unless you know a bit about it. Anything you buy for less than $200-$300 can't hurt you too badly. And it may be the start of a great adventure. I agree with Flemenco, that when you find the dusty treasure that you fall in love with, give it to someone who can optimize it for tone and playability for you.

Jesse

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Driving through Winnimuka, Nevada ("Big W") between 15 and 20 years ago an adult student of mine bought a violin, case, and bow in a pawn shop for $125. The violin was signed "Ernst Heinrich Roth, 1926" (I may be off a year one way or the other on the year). It had every quality of that vintage Roth that you would hope to find. At the time such a violin would retail for about 12 times that price. And they have continued to appreciate, I've seen some that sold for $4000 and seen them listed (in the Johnson String Catalog for about $8000. You can win some!

My student knew about Roth, the pawnshop, obviously, did not.

Andy

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Quote:

Anything you buy for less than $200-$300 can't hurt you too badly.


It can hurt quite a bit if the unknowledgeable buyer has convinced himself that in spite of the fiddle's poor condition this is really a gem (maybe because of the pretty tailpiece) and after getting it fixed up, the buyer thinks, it will surely be worth the couple thousands that almost any decent fiddle is worth. So you bought the fiddle for $200 and paid $500 to get it fixed up, and finally found out from a reputable dealer that, all fixed up in its best condition, this is a $400 fiddle, retail, which you might be able to sell for $200. You're out $500.

For a buyer who doesn't know the violin market well and who doesn't know anything about fiddle construction, setup, and repair, the above scenario is more likely in buying a pawn shop fiddle that is the scenario of finding a real, undervalued gem.

If you're buying from a pawn shop, you'd better be very knowledgeable not only in the value of the instrument if it were in top shape, but also knowledgeable in what kinds of repairs the instrument needs and the costs of those repairs. If you have that knowledge, then buying from a pawn shop makes sense. Otherwise, your purchase may not only be worthless, but may be a liability, leading you to throw good money after bad in trying to get it fixed up.

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When I first bought those four fiddles, I took them to a local, in the basement, luthier who fixed up one, told me one was fine as is, and told me the others were not worth spending money to fix up. He also informed me that I had a couple of valuable bows well worth rehairing. I would hope that a reputable luthier would not have a customer pay $500 for some repairs and set up when the quality and value of the instrument does not warrant the work. Most luthiers I know of are not that desperate for work.

There is also a liquid market for violins in every shape and condition on ebay. As long as it is described properly, I would imagine a buyer of a $300 pawnshop violin could get the largest part of his money back.

For people not into the adventure of possibly uncovering a great value, my recommendation would be to find a small, independant maker or luthier and buy what they recommend and guarantee.

Jesse

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I love looking through second-hand stores, that's how I ended up in the pawn shop to start with, I was looking for some tools. Is there a book that will help me get to know what to look for? I think I have one on violin making, but it is very technical and hard to read. Any recommendations anyone? I love these stories of pawn shop adventures and finds.

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Some attributes that are common on most better violins include inlaid purfling, corner blocks and linings, discernable edges, well crafted corners, traditional shape and curve to the f holes, and sometimes, attractive wood. Things that might indicate genuine age include, a grafted scroll, varnish wear, build up of rosin on the top and ribs-especially on the treble side, and dust and dirt inside. Often older violins that have not been used for a long time might have gut strings and perhaps a string tied around the soundpost.

All of the attributes I listed can be found on cheaper violins and much can be faked, but it is unlikely that a good violin will not have many of these attributes, if not, all of them. Probably the physical attributes that really separate the wheat from the chaff, are the most difficult for a newbie to recognize. These attributes include, outline, quality of scroll carving, edgework, corners, purfling, varnish, arching, f hole carving, and of course tone and power.

I have had a lot of violins in my hands over the past year, probably close to 400 if you include the ones I looked at but did not buy. I am little better at idenifying the good, the bad, and the ugly than I was when I started. Well, I've gotten pretty good at identifying the ugly.

Best of luck and let us know what you find.

Jesse

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Quote:

I would hope that a reputable luthier would not have a customer pay $500 for some repairs and set up when the quality and value of the instrument does not warrant the work. Most luthiers I know of are not that desperate for work.


A lot of the people doing violin repair may well be honest but not very knowledgeable about repair or the value of instruments. I've seen some very poorly repaired violins, wildly overpriced, in retail stores. I'm sure that management of such places had no idea of what is good repair and what isn't, and they had no idea about a violin's value. If a crack is cleated, it's regarded as repaired, even if the crack is cleated open. For pricing the thinking seems to be: If the fiddle's old, then it must be worth a grand or so.

A novice violin buyer looking for a place to evaluate and fix a pawn shop buy might well drop hundreds of dollars getting a fiddle fixed by honest people who didn't know better. All the shop knew is that it took 6 hours to fix the fiddle at $70 per hour and it took $100 in materials.

With all the enthusiastic but poorly trained repair people out there, you need to pick your violin repair person carefully.

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Well, I am not ashamed to say I hang around junk, second hand and pawn shops. In 20 years I have only seen about 5 instruments worth buying and they were not absolute gems, just nice instruments covered with dust, usually stringless, bridgeless, postless. The low success rate does not deter my habits. I never know what elese I might find. But you need to have an eye, which takes time to develop. I don't like new instruments from those places for reasons previously posted.

You need to look at the neck angle, and make sure it is right. I sight along the edge of the back, looking from tail to scroll. If the eye of the scroll is higher than that line, I leave it alone. Then you have to look for tiny cracks in the peg box, soundpost cracks on back and front, warped ribs, and open seams. You have to feel how heavy it is, and look inside for damage. You won't see much without a mirror and light, but I don't carry one.

Then you have to have a maximum you are willing to risk. With my level of judgement, that is below $200. Remember that if you don't know so much, you should not risk so much. Accept that you will loose on a few and those are the ones you learn from.

My advice (it is free): Unless you time is worth very little, you are better off to save your gasoline and time wasted. get a second job or pick up a little extra work (even housecleaning or lawn mowing), save that money and buy from a dealer. The time you waste on looking for deals could be productively used for playing some good music. There are plenty of good sounding violins out there for what you can earn from a second job, even at minimum wages or slightly higher. Many shops also have a trade-up policy.

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Quote:

You need to look at the neck angle, and make sure it is right. I sight along the edge of the back, looking from tail to scroll. If the eye of the scroll is higher than that line, I leave it alone.


If one considers that not all violins have the same rib depths, that the neck overstand can vary a lot, and that the eye of the scroll can be at different levels measured from the horizontal of the neck surface, your "test" really can't tell you anything about the neck angle at all.

What can is the following:

First check the overstand; IF this is between 5.5 and 7mm, then the nut should be on, or slightly below the sighting line along the edge of the top, for the string angle over the bridge to be in the acceptable range (if the bridge height is within standard parameters) - but then the arching height should fit the amount of overstand. A higher arching goes with an increased overstand, etc.

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Good advice all. Demonstrates that if you have to ask about evaluating a fiddle in a pawn shop, then you likely can't do it well enough to really make a decision. My favorite fiddles are the ones in pieces in the case or in a shoebox. They usually cost extremely little, regardless of what they are. The best of these I found was a 17th C Italian that eventually made a substantial contribution to my law school expenses. But it was just junk to everyone else who saw it. And I don't know how to tell someone via internet how to identify the magic fiddles when they show up. Even if I did, would I?

Steve

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Jacob - Thanks for the tips on the neck angle. I will change my approach on evaluatiing that.

Personally I play a "35 dollar" violin with a stable back crack near the soundpost. It was one of those stringless, postless, bridgeless three-peg specials that I like to find. Had it for 15 years and no problems, and it still sounds great. But it is just a turn of the Century Saxon fiddle with atypically shaped F-holes that are located a little low, but it does play nicely. It would not bring a very healthy price in a shop. After I set it up, I liked it so well I had the local shop do new pegs, bridge and s.p., and it got even better. It violates all of my "rules" except for price and neck-angle, so I guess rules cannot all be etched in stone.

I think I need to get myself a thin credit card sized ruler for my wallet. That will help me in checking the overstand distance.

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Things that might indicate genuine age include, a grafted scroll, varnish wear, build up of rosin on the top and ribs-especially on the treble side, and dust and dirt inside. Often older violins that have not been used for a long time might have gut strings and perhaps a string tied around the soundpost.

I've been following this thread with interest, as I also enjoy the "hunt", but I don't have the foggiest what the significance of a string tied around a soundpost has? (A recent purchase, however, does have such a string). Could you please explain? Thanks, Ron.

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Old habits die hard. I was taught the string method by a guy who liked it because it made hauling the post out during adjustment easier. I still use string-and-soundpost setter, but I remove the string after the final fit. I make a small pencil mark on the post to indidate the grain orientation. I also tell myself I like soundposts without setter holes in them .

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