The Dark Side of the Violin Trade: Crooked Luthiers, Greedy Salesmen & Other Creepy Creatures Exposed
The Dark Side of the Violin Trade: Crooked Luthiers, Greedy Salesmen & Other Creepy Creatures Exposed
Watch out for fake labels, convincing replicas and other sleazy practices from disreputable dealers who go bump in the night
Originally Published July 21, 2006. Updated April 2021.
Caution: Trigger Warnings for Fraud, Crime, and Suicide
The violin business has many terrifying tales to tell. With rare items selling at Christies for millions, the trade can be highly lucrative for swindlers, thus attracting unscrupulous salesman like fruit flies to sticky paper.
As in other “make money quick” scams, such as the automotive industry and the current housing market, the violin industry has attracted all sorts of scary salespeople, excluding, of course, yours truly.
Not all violin sellers are dishonest, some of us nice folks are helpful, hard-working people who just love all things strings. But with an instrument that is surrounded in powerful mystique and glorified by films like “The Red Violin,” this high-profit market inspires many seedy entrepreneurs to cash in on the rotting old relic in the attic or snatch up “Lot No. 30” on auction to make a quick buck.
Such shysters get their sweaty paws on a find and greedily examine the label, hoping they've fetched a rare gem. But oh, dang. It doesn't say Stradivarius.
Sorry bub, but even if the label claimed to be a Strad, all the authentic ones have been accounted for. You're ain't gonna strike it rich on another dud swimming among a pestilent sea of million copies. Ahh, but some cunning salesmen have learned to change the label to suit their bank account, making fake labeling one of many infamous atrocities of the violin sales underworld.
The creepy craft of label forgery has become so rampant that it's difficult for most ordinary people, and even some experts, to tell authentic from fake. Some enterprising scoundrels photocopy images of actual violin labels from old reference books, usually those of rare and obscure makers. They then stain the paper with black tea and craftily glue the impostors into cheap violins posing as the real McCoy.
Voila! The value of this old junk has just miraculously inflated by 800%! It's a ghastly and highly unethical practice, but it is unfortunately done all the time.
I think some luthiers (violin makers/repairers) are like computer hackers. The shadier of the lot are remorseless show-offs who abuse their talents and take up a life of crime rather than producing honest work. Like the notorious “Mafiaboy” wrecking havoc on CNN's website for kicks, a similar deceptive creativity oozes from dishonest luthiers as they spawn very convincing forgeries of master instruments.
This is the nastier practice of copies. Not only is the label counterfeit, but even the violin is such a convincing forgery that it stumps even the experts.
Case in point, the "Messiah Stradivarius" violin's authenticity has been disputed for years, resulting in anything from chemical analysis of the varnish and extensive grain examination. Some poor sods in lab coats spend weeks under a magnifying glass counting the tree rings in the wood to determine the actual carbon dated age of the timber then compare it to the date on the label.
The final decision, if the experts ever come to agreement, will make or break the assessed value of £10,000,000 so this science is taken very seriously.
Reproductions and Thieving "Experts"
Okay, it's not all lies and deceit. Some honest luthiers simply enjoy the challenge of creating a reproduction for players and collectors who can never afford the real deal. It's actually an intriguing and specialized art to create a violin worthy of the original maker. Simulated neck grafts, blurred labels, worn varnish indicating years of wear and intentional scrapes and dings instantly make a new violin more mysterious, adding to the appeal.
Certain copies are just as good as the original and it's fun to look over a copy and appreciate the detail the maker put into it. The difference here is that the buyer knows they are buying a copy and there is no huge hoopla when someone with far too much money pays $3 MILLION for a dud.
One of many examples sees a renowned and trusted violin dealer in Europe duping clients out of MILLIONS with fake Strads he claimed were authentic and sold as such. The sleaze admitted he "duplicated certificates for violins" as needed to keep up the ruse. Thankfully he was caught and was arrested in Switzerland 2011, convited for embezzlement and grand commercial fraud, which led to 6 years in prison and the seizing of his castle and other over the top decandencies purchased with the spoils of his swindling.
Another similar fraud in Russia was buying contemporary Chinese instruments and using his trusted reputation to pass them off as authentic instruments for many orders of magnitute more than they were worth. He ended up hanging himself after he was caught in order to avoid prison. Very grim.
Sadly, there are countless despicable reports of this kind of wretched behaviour in the violin trade and it has been a subject of many legal discussions.
Forgery knows no decency and it doesn't stop at false labels and a few scrapes. I heard, through a dodgy fellow from Winnepeg who claims he used to work there, of a rather prominent violin shop in England that kept a drawer full of old dust bunnies they salvaged from violins coming through the shop on repair. Profit-hungry luthiers crammed these nasty little morsels through the f-holes of their new violins for sale, obscuring the label and adding age and a perceived pedigree to the violin. The buyer was tricked into thinking the violin was ancient enough to have accumulated such filth and believed it must be authentic. Yuck on several levels.
Ethical shop owners get our violins the proper way: At Fiddleheads I order nearly all my violins directly from my trusted makers, with whom I have done business for years, and take instruments back on trade from customers who bought them from me originally. That way I always know from where the instruments came and there are no switcharoos or questionable origins.
Sleazy Salesmen Slither On
Despite the risks and punishment associated with committing fraud in the violin world, there seems to be no sign of this slowing down. And take note that this thievery is not only limited to the big shops and high-valued violins. These practices occur in big cities and small towns, against young and the elderly victims, and all using positions of trust to deceive.
Some greedy wheeler-dealers sink pretty low and prey on the ignorance of the violin's owner in their home, usually an elderly person with a failing memory and an inability to stand up for himself. The wheeler- dealer practically takes the fiddle for a song (mind the pun) and the seller later catches on to the scam but only too late.
It's even been rumoured that some nasty violin barterers even check the obituaries and contact the next of kin of deceased violinists! But maybe that's a hair-raising story wise violinists tell their kids at the campfire.
This next chilling story happened to me when I was 19 years old (a year before I started my violin teaching studio). I traveled from my music college to Vancouver to have my vow rehaired at an established violin shop. The stuffy, rather unfriendly owner pulled a face and talked my bow down, saying it wasn't really worth the investment of $50 to install new hair on it. This is the typical ruse employed to drive the price down. After this he casually offered me $100 for it in its "poor condition."
I was young, but I wasn't stupid. It seemed too darn fishy to me, so I didn't take him on his offer, despite his pushiness and raising his offer to $200.
I later learned this authentic and rare bow from a well-known French maker was worth at least $10,000 and would be welcome at an auction with many interested buyers.
Another bloodcurdling tale: Recently the host of a house concert at which I was playing brought out his old violin for me to see. Well, it wasn't really his violin but an unwanted replacement into which he was duped. You see, many years previous this poor fellow had taken his original violin in to a local fiddle chop shop for repair and the owner secretly swapped it for an inferior violin and probably made big cash on the stolen one.
By the time the (then) naive young owner clued in to the fact the violin was similar but it was not his exact violin, it was too late. The shop had conveniently moved to another town and the violin was long-gone.
Are you spooked yet? How about this treacherous tale that is very close to home for me:
Before I knew much about the violin trade I, too, was burned. There was an old violin dealer in the Fraser Valley area of BC whom I once trusted to provide instruments to my students when I was just starting out my studio. He told me he had an Italian violin worth $8000 but he offered it to me for only $4500. On his written appraisal letter upon my purchase he claimed it's replacement value was $10K-$12K.
Wow! Was it too good to be true?
Yes. It was
In the end it turns out the violin was only worth about $1000 and the markings I was told meant it were “Italian” was actually indicative of a typical German factory trade violin. I was very young and had saved for years and taken on gruelling gigs that summer to pay for it. It was heartbreaking to discover I'd been ripped off.
After standing up to and arguing with the shop owner (remember, I was just barely an adult so this was intimidating as heck) I got most of my money back. He kept $1000 of my hard-earned money. I immediately terminated our business relationship and became motivated to educate myself on violins top to bottom and eventually open my own shop so this sort of thing wouldn't happen to me or my students ever again.
I still have the fraudulent appraisal letter from this old scammer as a sobering reminder of the experience and to remind me how far I have come in my knowledge about violins. I also am grateful for the expeirence as it was the final (rather painful) nudge to start my own shop so this sort of thing would never happen to anyone under my watch.
Last I heard he's still travelling town to town selling violins out of the trunk of his Mercedez, as well as running an online store that was rumoured to investigated for sales tax fraud. Even more disturbing, many regional violin teachers still promote this shop to their students because they make a percentage-based sales commission (a wretched practice that is very much frowned upon in legitimate violin sales) for connecting their students to this guy.
[UPDATE April 2021] The shop closed after two decades and the owner lived out his remaining years in luxury before passing. Just recently I saw an ad online asking $400 for a violin originally sold by his shop to the unsuspecting buyer for $1500. After 25 weeks on the market the violin still had not found a buyer, despite dropping the price by nearly 4 times what they paid for it new. Not only was the original price inflated, but it seems now educated buyers are steering clear from the source since it has been closed a few years.
[Photo] Rhiannon holds a Topa violin up to the camera during a video call with a client.
Shop with a Trustworthy Source
There are many, many other spooky violin sales horror stories that will make your toes curl and your fiddle fall flat in fear, but I don't want to give you bad dreams. Just do some research before buying or selling, ask lots of questions and if a deal ever feels fishy please don't fall under the pressure to go through with it.
Soon you will buy and sell with confidence and you may even help weed out the weanies and help out your fellow musicians.
As for me, I've built excellent business relationships with reputable companies and makers since the early 2000s and have made and kept to the solid moral choice to never burn anyone. Sure, I'll never get rich off this practice, but honestly I don't need the pressure of massive wealth and keeping track of my misdeeds! Instead, I sleep like a baby at night and there are no skeletons in my closet.
Just old violin cases!