The violin market isn’t a simple thing. The resources and expertise required to craft and sell these instruments alone can provide a substantial cost, but that alone doesn’t justify the million-dollar price tags on some instruments. For that answer, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.
1. Speculation: buy and hold historic instruments
People don’t always buy violins for the same reason. The bulk of the buyers out there buy them to play them, but to some people, a violin is an investment. To investors, a violin can be a lovely asset because it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll make a return on it. They know that old instruments will continue to go up in price, so they hang onto them for the express purpose of making some money off of them.
It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts as the instruments being bought and stored could potentially cause a spike in the cost of old violins on the market due to limited supply.
2. Time & Skill: crafting a violin is long and difficult
Not just anyone can grab some wood and strings and throw a violin together. The art of the craft requires a great deal of precision, patience, know-how, and other skills you’ll only find in someone who’s devoted to their work. There’s a reason cheap imitations are cheap.
Even if you were to disregard the skill required to make a violin, though, the time spent is extraordinary as well. It’s not a one-day project. Depending on the specifics of the violin and the expertise of the craftsman, it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to months– and that’s for the full-time professionals. The cheaper violins out there may not be made so carefully, but even they’ll take a few days from start to finish if you’re lucky. If you consider the cost of labor alone, the price tag on that fancy new violin becomes a lot less mysterious.
What if you take the cost of labor out, then? It’s true that automated factories can cut out a significant portion of the time necessary to craft a violin. You’ll find these instruments in the bargain bin on eBay. Again, there’s a reason cheap imitations are cheap. There’s a certain degree of human skill that a machine cannot provide. If they were just as good, they’d still fetch a high price, even if they cut costs. It should come as no surprise that cutting corners reduces quality.
3. Age: the older the violin, the better the sound
Many instruments degrade over time. If you play guitar, a wind instrument, the piano, just about any musical instrument out there really, you’ll know how much fun it is to deal with a vanishing finish over time or parts breaking from excessive use or insufficient maintenance through its lifespan. Some instruments aren’t particularly easy to maintain and these issues can come whether you baby it or not, but that’s often not the case with a violin or a viola. It’s completely feasible to maintain a violin for decades, and sometimes even centuries, so long as its owner knows what they’re doing.
That’s great and all, but who cares? The high spenders, that’s who. Unlike those other instruments, many consider the sound and projection of an aged violin to be a boon rather than a bane. There are a million theories and articles of pseudo-science that try to explain this appeal, but the general consensus is that over time, the wood adapts to its moisture levels much better than fresh wood could (source) .
Whatever causes it, what’s sure is that aged wood tends to have a different sound profile than fresher wood. Whether this is truly scientific or not is still debated. Needless to say, aged wood is inherently valuable because it can’t be mimicked. It’s in limited supply and it goes to the highest bidder. Considering the millions of violinists across the planet, that highest bid is going to get pretty hefty.
4. Supply and demand in a free market
Perhaps the biggest cause for the high price tag on violins is simply that people want them. If people will pay a lot of money for a product, producers will sell that product for a lot of money. Competitors may arise trying to cut corners, but we’ve already discussed the end result of that venture. If demand ends up particularly high, that price is liable to increase even further.
This is particularly evident when you’re dealing with old violins. As mentioned previously, their supply is limited, and that limit isn’t negotiable. Producers can’t simply whip up a big new batch of 19th-century violins to hit the store shelves. People want these violins and that fact alone makes them pricey.
5. Teacher’s commission: on every sell?
A sort of uncounted cost to the consumer eye is that if you buy a violin from a dealer, teachers are pocketing a bit of the money too (naturally). It doesn’t make up the bulk of the cost when you buy a violin, but it certainly adds to the price tag.
6. Myths and magic: have we lost our minds?
You might assume that technological advancements and in-depth studying of the inner workings of the instrument over the years would lead to a higher quality product in the modern world than that which the legends of centuries past would have constructed. Whether or not that’s accurate, there are people that will pay a lot of money to disagree.
There’s some truth to the idea that different individual instruments have some particular desirable quality. After all, every piece of wood is unique, and instruments are seldom atomically identical to one another. Any player out there can attest to the variations in different instruments they own. The question is whether those minor variations are so significant that they warrant a $10 million price tag. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
A study was actually performed on this matter in which players were blindfolded and handed a variety of violins from different ages– even a Stradivarius was in the mix– and given some time to try them out before an audience. Not only did it find that the listeners preferred the sound of the newer violins, but the players themselves also preferred the older violins (source).
Does this mean old violins aren’t valuable? Not at all. Artifacts from wrecked ships from years ago sell for a lot of money because they’re old and rare. How much more, then, should a prized, functioning instrument of limited number from legendary craftsmen of another era sell for? Their price isn’t a_ total_ mystery, but the supposed, intangible preferences people claim to find within those violins might not quite add up.
The movie “The red violin” is a perfect example of the profound mystical and mysterious history of great Italian violins.
7. Pure scam: Stradivari can be counterfeit
There’s not always a good reason for a high price tag on a violin. As valuable as they may be, violins can also be faked. It’s not always easy to spot a fake, and unfortunately, people fall for these scams on a regular basis. These scams come in all shapes and sizes from falsified credentials to fakes so convincing that you might not care if it’s authentic or not.
One trick you’ll sometimes see is a false seal, sticker, etc. on an artificially aged (i.e. abused) instrument. This can come in a lot of ways and from all angles, from a violin falsely claiming it’s from the 18th century to modern-day knock-offs of the leading brands. These fake labels could be completely fake to begin with, or they could be taken from actual instruments, a disservice to both the buyer and the original instrument.
In some of the more interesting cases, people may even completely fabricate a replica of an expensive violin and try to pass it off as the real thing. Needless to say, the appearance of a violin doesn’t carry all of its worth. Scam artists can make it look like it’s from the 19th century, but that won’t make it sound or feel like it’s from the 19th century. If you’re buying an old violin, it’s always a good idea to get it appraised beforehand if possible. There are some fine details that can tip off a trained eye as to whether or not the instrument is authentic that you might not notice yourself.
At the end of the day, the worth of a violin is subjective. Fortunately, if you don’t want to pay a million dollars for a violin, you don’t have to. Just like many other major products on the market, you’ll find basic models, quality models, enthusiast models, antique models, and all sorts of other ones that create the spectrum of pricing you see today. There’s a good reason for some of them to cost so much, but for every million-dollar violin, there are a plethora of affordable models for you to choose from as well. Find one that suits you and run with it, whatever the naysayers say.