• Zanotti Violin Front
  • Zanotti Violin Back

Purchasing a Fine Stringed Instrument at Auction

“Violin Auction

Violins, cellos, violas, basses and bows are sold at auction all the time. It works for buyers and sellers, but it’s possible to get it wrong.

Buy a fine violin, cello, viola or bass at auction? It may not be for the faint hearted, but auction sales of fine stringed instruments offer certain advantages.

One is that it is possible to purchase an instrument at a lower-than-dealer price. This comes with a great deal of caution, however, as detailed below. Second, an auction provides buyers an opportunity to consider many instruments at one time and in one place. A well-stocked local violin shop, however, may offer the same.

There are disadvantages as well. One is in the speed at which decisions must be made, although there is time allotted to review instruments in advance. Another is that the “hammer price” is never the full amount the buyer pays. Further, professionals are almost always involved in auctions. They might have inside or instinctive knowledge as to why a particular instrument is offered at an opening bid far below similar instruments – and therefore a poor buy.

Buyer beware (but optimistic) about stringed instrument auctions

Auction houses are by and large honest brokers in the sale of musical instruments and other fine items. Most have existed for decades based on a solid reputation and satisfied customers. What might flummox the newcomer to auctions are the specific features and requirements of auction purchasing that hold true regardless of auction firm. In short, those are:

Quick decisions. Whether online or in person, auctions do require would-be buyers to determine what their limits are on bidding for a lot (all items are called “lots,” and a lot may include more than one item). This is less a problem for the bidder who pre-determines those limits, but sometimes a different instrument can look attractive in the moment where the buyer might act impulsively. Rule of thumb is to take advantage of the pre-auction viewing of lots, which are typically the day before the live auction.

Will it need repair? Very often the answer is yes, so the buyer should try to learn in advance how much repair and restoration is necessary, and at what cost.

“Buyer’s premium.” This is the approximately 20% markup (plus tax) over the “hammer price” on a purchase that essentially covers the auction house service fees. Due to complexities of US tax codes, it is advantageous to the seller to separate the hammer price and buyer’s premium. This also explains the differential between appraised value and lowest starting bids, as the starting bid does not include the buyer’s premium that will be charged after the sale.

You won it, you can’t back out. All sales are final, as no “do overs” are allowed in auctions.

You usually have to be financially qualified. The auction houses require some form of identification, such as a government-issued license or passport, and usually financial information to determine your purchasing ability before you are allowed to make your first bid. 

Every auction house has its own additional requirements and methods that the buyer should study. In a first-go at this, the buyer should consider working with a knowledgeable dealer or luthier to navigate the process, in particular to study the instruments to identify if extensive and expensive repairs will be necessary.