Pricey Auction in The City of Music

“Here at the Dorotheum, We’ll Need Four or Five Years to Reach The Level of London Auctions.” - Janos Markus-Barbarossa

The display gallery of the Dorotheum Auction House | Photo: Courtesy of the Dorotheum

Dorotheum Auction House

The display gallery of the Dorotheum Auction House | Photo: Courtesy of the Dorotheum

No one expected the Dorotheum’s recent auction of musical instruments to make headlines. Outside of London or New York, the buyers just aren’t there. Even in a city of music like Vienna, with what might seem such an obvious market, instrument auctions have been largely local affairs, and for a number of years had been discontinued altogether, revived only in 2003.

And so the famed auction house looks at the Mar. 31 sale as just be part of a process.

“Here at the Dorotheum we’ll need four or five years to reach the level of London auctions,” said Janos Markus-Barbarossa the instrument specialist responsible, who is now busy writing condition reports and talking up the event. You have to start somewhere. “We are receiving pieces from the very different parts of the world, and our job is to put them up for auction.”

Since the auction of musical instruments takes place only twice a year, November and March, it is a big event for the musicians, violin makers, collectors, dealers, students and others interested in owning fine old instruments, some by bit-name makers, some not.

At the preview, more than 200 instruments were on display in four or five glass cases in a back room of the auction house. Expecting to see them displayed individually so you could inspect the quality of workmanship, perhaps with the backlights accenting their shape and color, the grain of the wood or richness of the varnish, it was disappointing to see them hung sideways in a common shop rack, like sides of beef, squeezed tight to each other as inventory. It was hard to know where, or how, to look.

However the only thing that really mattered was how they played, so I took a musician friend Sara Lilian along to try a couple of them out. She selected four violins: the first one was from Sebastian Klotz (1696-1775) with a set price of €25,000 to 30,000, which charmed her with old look and dark color. I watched her as she tuned the instrument and then tucked it up under her chin for a few scales. Then she played a bit of Lalo, Symphonie Espagnole which is mostly on G strings and can show the quality of violin immediately. Then a little of violin concert of Max Bruch, whose opening climbs up along all four strings, testing the match in quality and response. In general Lilian liked the instrument, though said she would never buy it:

“I have no way of knowing if there is any crack or some other flaw covered by a very good repair,” she said, “and the prices are too high.  I would prefer to buy my violin directly from a violin maker.”

Her next selection (No. 18) from the shop of Tomaso Balestieri (1725/1790) in Mantua, was one of the most expensive violins on offer, with a starting price at €40.000-50.000.

“That violin wasn’t interesting to me at all,” she said dismissively. “The sound was too dark and it was in need of repair.”

But when she started playing on No. 22 by Antonio Sgarbi (1866-1938), with a set price of €30.000-40.000, even I, a non-professional, could tell the difference. It had a full, clear sound and wonderful resonance together with an interesting and bright finish.

The final instrument we tested (No. 55) was a German violin probably from the Bawarian town of Füssen, famed for three centuries as a center of lute and violin making. Despite of its low price of €1.800-2.000, it was a wonderful instrument with a bright, open sound that carried easily into the next room.

Several professors from the Vienna Conservatory had also stopped by to take a look at the instruments, and admitted that this on was better than some of the more expensive ones. And the same was true of No. 77, set at €1.300-1.500, probably made between 1790-1800 in the Saxon town of Klingenthal.

But over all, the group of musicians who had gathered were not very impressed with what they saw.

“It is better to buy instruments from a contemporary makers or from a known violin dealer, rather than the auction,” said one of the professors, who asked to remain anonymous. “Then there is someone who stands behind the instrument, someone who knows it and can adjust it, mend the cracks and deal with other problems.” If you did want to go to the auction, he suggested, he advised taking a very knowledgeable person along who could appraise the instrument and make sure was worth buying.

“There are many factors that are very sensitive and difficult to recognize, which can devalue the price up to one third of it,” said another professor. “You can never tell if the violin is well or badly repaired – has used lacquer or some special material – and resold it as a healthy one.”

It seemed clear that Barbarossa’s confidence was not shared by the violin makers and musicians present that day. One violin maker and dealer, who had attended previous auctions, reported that often not even 1/3 of the instruments are sold. “Last time, even the cheap stuff didn’t go,” he said. Plenty of buyers were present, but apparently, “not to buy but just to look and laugh,” he added.  “Barbarossa is not a violin maker himself, and his ideas about the instruments are quite funny sometimes.”

In answer, Barbarossa might merely cite his latest success, the sale of a violin by the legendary Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), which brought €100.000, a price the buyer undoubtedly thought a steal, and was only possible because it was need of repair.

The makers agreed that the instrument market is very tricky: “Everyone wants to push prices up to make profit,” one dealer said. He himself never buys instrument at auction, since prices are very high: “I go to the shops, so that I, as a reseller, have some profit in between.”

violaThe star instrument of this auction is a viola by Lorenzo Storioni (1751-1802) thought to have been made in 1777, and expected to sell at between €200.000-€250.000. According to Barbarossa, Stronioni is considered as the last great violin maker in Cremona, also home to Antonio Stradivari and considered the heart of Italian violin.

Barbarossa is excited about having an important Italian instrument on offer as Austrians have traditionally bought instruments from the countries of the old monarchy, in spite of the renown of the Italian makers. Thus developing buyers from all over the world, particularly from Japan and America as well as across Europe – including telephone bidding which is relatively new for instrument auctions here.

Just before we met, someone had called Barbarossa from Berlin and had decided to fly to Vienna to check out one of the instruments for himself. In the end Barbarossa reaffirmed that he was trying to bring the world’s top makers to the Vienna auctions and push the market up to the level of London or New York.

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