It seems that a lot of musicians have misgivings about integrity in the violin trade. Can they be blamed? What about the phony certificates running around? What about violin "makers" who don't actually make their own instruments? Some people's idea of integrity seems to be, "Anything goes, as long as it isn't specifically prohibited by law", or "Anything goes, as long as I don't get caught." Strange stories abound. Maybe sometimes sellers exaggerate a little.

Carla Shapreau, an attorney and violin maker in California has written a book called Violin Fraud. You can order a copy through most book stores. Along with a host of other things, it describes how contemporary artists can manipulate auction prices to promote their work and make it seem more valuable, desirable and in demand.

Here's basically how it works:

Suppose you're a violin maker and you sell your violins for ten thousand dollars. You want potential customers to think that they're getting a really good deal and making a great investment. So you put one of your violins up for sale at the Violin Auction. On auction day, you and a friend bid against each other until the price reaches 40 grand, and you end up buying it. You paid 40 grand, but you get your violin back, and you get most of the money back, because you were also the seller. So for the cost of the auction houses commission, maybe 10 or 15 percent of the sale price, you've set up a widely available published "sales history" which, incidentally, doesn't mention the buyers or sellers name. Now, you can show every potential customer the auction record, and tell them what a great deal they're getting, because you only charge 10 thousand for violins which people will gladly pay 40 for. Maybe your customer thinks he can turn around, put it in the auction, and immediately make a huge profit! If you're afraid you might get caught, you could even do the whole thing through friends or accomplices to keep yourself out of the picture. And this all cost less than several full page ads in Strad magazine! Brilliant!

Teacher commissions:

Strings Magazine wrote an article on this a while back, so most of you are probably familiar with this practice. Many dealers and violin makers offer the teacher a commission (some might call it a kickback) if one of their students purchases an instrument from them. The amount is often around 10 to 20% of the sale price. A teacher who has many students and is constantly pushing them to upgrade, can generate a huge amount of income this way. What's sad about this is that the student probably involved the teacher in the selection process in the first place because they wanted an objective opinion. Some of the greatest makers may be excluded. They may not pay teacher commissions because their stuff is so good that they don't need to, or because of ethical considerations, or both. If you are a student, it might be worth asking if your teacher accepts commissions. If they do, they still might be a wonderful teacher. You just might want to find someone else to help you with your instrument selection. You might also ask the dealer or maker if they pay these commissions. It's information that might be useful.

Click here for the Strings Magazine aricle on teacher commissions, "An Elegy for Ethics?"

The Ringer

I've heard other makers describe a situation where they are pretty sure something fishy is going on. It goes something like this: There is an exhibit where the public is invited to try instruments by many makers. One maker allegedly brings in a "ringer", some hot player who plays loud, flashy stuff on that maker's instrument. A crowd gathers. Periodically, the player stops, making comments like, "Wow, this is great!" and "How much did you say this costs? Wow, that's a bargain." And "How soon can you make one for me?" Impressionable spectators grab business cards.

This next item is something I witnessed with my own eyes.

There was an exhibit of modern makers, and they were invited to participate in an event where their instruments would be played back-to-back in a hall, in front of an audience of musicians. Several makers were asked to help carry the instruments from the exhibit area to the hall. As one of the makers was making repeated trips with instruments, I saw him changing the position of the bridge on several instruments, instruments that were not his! You may not know this, but if a bridge is moved even a tiny amount from its ideal position, this can have disastrous effects on the sound.

Can someone make a great instrument sound worse than a bad one?

You bet! Why does this matter? Musicians usually have someone else play the instruments they are considering so they can hear what they sound like from a distance. What if that person has a financial stake in the outcome? Remember, a lot of money can change hands behind the scenes to facilitate a sale. Try this for yourself. Take a decent instrument, which typically sounds best when played with a slower bow closer to the bridge, and try playing it with a fast, light bow close to the fingerboard. The power, focus and brilliance will disappear. A really great instrument can be made to sound just awful! Like the Boy Scouts say, "be prepared" (and be observant).

I pledge to operate in a manner that is free of deception and gimmicks. I'm not in this business for the money. My goal is simply to make the very best instruments possible, and to operate at the highest possible level of integrity.

What kind of a person do you want to deal with?

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For more information about Burgess violins, violas and cellos, contact David Burgess at:
1510 Glen Leven; Ann Arbor, MI 48103 U.S.A.
Phone: (734) 668-7803
Burgess Violin Maker Main Web Site:

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