There are a great many factors contributing to the market value of a stringed instrument, - here is an overview of what you'll encounter when you seek a valuation of your instrument.
- Origin. Was your instrument originally handmade by a master luthier, or was it a workshop instrument? The great majority of those likely to be encountered through everyday channels, such as being found at an estate sale or inherited from a grandparent, are workshop instruments which originally sold for as little as a few dollars through a catalog! Yikes! In Germany and Czechoslovakia, quantities of instruments were made at home by craftsmen in the early 20th century, and sold by their makers to "publishers" (distributors) who may have labelled them with various brand names, realistic or not. Other instruments which currently turn up on the market in quantity were once school instruments, or comparable. Although many are made of fairly nice wood and may even be in good condition, their general quality of workmanship limits their resale value.
- Condition. Even an instrument from a good maker can be severely devalued (to 30% or less of the value of a comparable instrument in good condition). Though the instrument may play beautifully and sound as good as one in good shape, specific issues can drastically devalue it, as well as having a large number of smaller defects. The majority of old instruments have suffered serious damage, mainly as a result of the lack of climate control and sufficiently protective cases. Once damaged, the devaluation to the current market depends greatly on the quality of the repair or restoration work. The more severe the damage, the greater demand on the skill of the restorer to mitigate the devaluation - or put another way, severe damage which has been ineptly repaired is a culmination of evils. Conservation is the single most important factor in recouping the value of an instrument you own. If you've inherited an instrument you don't play, taking it for an evaluation and keeping it in good repair, safely stored, is the best investment in its eventual selling price. It's just tragic to see instruments come in with warped plates, cracks, and with warped necks and bows because heirs didn't know there are a few simple steps to preserving them. If you don't have space to store it in your house, it's better to sell it, even if it has sentimental value, rather than store it in an attic, garage, or storage locker, which will inevitably damage it.
- Playability. This is the most significant factor to a buyer, and invariably a buyer will choose a less-valuable instrument that sounds good and plays well over one of a better pedigree which is hard to play or sounds bad. A bass which has had many devaluing repairs, or which came from an inexpensive label, but which sounds good, is known as a "player's bass" and is sought-after bargain. When deciding on a bass to buy (you're not going to like this), a workshop bass that sounds good is a better investment than a handmade bass from a modern maker IF the handmade bass has inferior workmanship. This is an unfortunate fact in the US in modern times - many owners who have invested large sums, doing the right thing in supporting domestic makers, have nonetheless ended up with basses that are extremely difficult to sell, and/or that have serious problems. This is admittedly not a popular topic, and one which may be explored a bit more in a later blog.
- Inaccurate papers. OMG - where to start. Firstly, an INSURANCE APPRAISAL is not a MARKET APPRAISAL. Owners/sellers are very often dismayed to learn this after the fact! Many have been led to believe that a bass that was appraised by the shop from which they bought it (which may or may not reflect a viable value) 15 years ago has appreciated and will sell for more than they paid. It is always very sad to have to relay that the appraisal they are carrying is in fact a dealer's opinion of replacement cost, not its estimated resale value. When requesting an appraisal for your instrument, make sure to specify which you want - insurance 'appraisals' should be CLEARLY worded as the appraiser's "estimation of replacement cost for insurance purposes". This number is generally understood to be 30% higher than an instrument's market value, but don't take this for granted. Secondly, a huge number of unlabelled instruments are inaccurately attributed, even to this day. QBC is a pretty new shop (5 1/2 years), yet has already witnessed a large number of far-out written appraisals and misattributed instruments. The staff was recently presented with a modern, garden-variety Eastern European bass that had been revarnished, yet had papers from a major name in the trade attributing it as early 20th-century Italian, at a value 4x what it would bring on the market. Anyone working with stringed instruments would have to be blind, deaf, dumb and unable to smell to fail to recognize the instrument as Eastern European. Yet, someone put his reputation on the line and caused a large effect in the financial life of the unsuspecting bass owner by signing his name to a wildly inaccurate appraisal. This has happened so many times there are instrument dealers who have actually been enjoined through the courts from writing appraisals! Another customer had paid 2x the market price for a modern Hungarian bass which had been labelled Italian, so he wanted to consign it for far more than its market value and was very upset to hear that his instrument, in which he was financially and emotionally deeply invested, was not actually a 250-year-old Cremonese bass. What's the answer? At least one appraisal from an instrument expert (not necessarily the dealer from whom you are considering buying), plus an 'opinion' on the age and origin of your instrument from another expert. This can usually be obtained via email by sending photos. All parties should be able to substantiate their statements, and their opinions should concur. If not, ask questions and/or seek another appraiser.
The biggest factor in the value of your instrument is the market. The music world is seeing many fine instruments disappear into private collections in Europe and Japan, at record prices, while at the same time it's extremely difficult to sell a mid-priced instrument at a price near to what you paid. Dealers have influence on both sides of this issue and must be ethical enough to stand up against artificial inflation. Artificial inflation is when a seller insists on getting the same amount he paid, so the dealer adds his commission on top of the seller's demand, thus pushing up the price by as much as 25% each time an instrument gets sold. Example: a mid-century German workshop bass such as a nice Roth or a Juzek sells on consignment for $5500, a price the seller and dealer found on the net for similar instruments. A reasonable plan. Three years later, the buyer brings it back to the dealer to be sold, but insists he wants $5500 in his pocket "because instruments appreciate", so the dealer shows the bass at $6600. Other customers see the bass in the showroom and want to consign their basses at that price. Rinse, repeat: in a few years, the dealer has a log jam of numerous mid-century German workshop basses in his showroom at prices approaching $10,000, several clients upset that their instruments haven't sold, and then a private seller puts a bass up for sale that has not been on the market in 20 or more years at $5500. The dealer looks to be radically overpricing everything (true) and perpetuates the stereotype that dealers are greedy.
THE MAGIC OF 10%
Artificial inflation can be largely averted by dealer and seller agreeing to each sacrifice 10% WHEN RE-SELLING AN INSTRUMENT THEY HAVE SOLD BEFORE or that has sold recently. The consignment fee pays the dealer for a service: advertising, insuring, appraising, inspecting, cleaning, adjusting, shipping, and securing your instrument and the financial transaction. Private sellers, unable to verify the condition of their instruments, fall prey to lowballers and almost always pocket less from a sale than if they sold through a dealer, are unable to offer financing and take credit card payments, and in some cases have been robbed or even physically harmed AND robbed by assailants posing as buyers. Many buyers paid far too much from private sellers for instruments with faked labels or hidden damage, and find they have no recourse.
Why should dealers discount their consignment fee when they are re-selling an instrument they've recently shown? Primarily for market viability - it keeps things moving for everyone to keep the instrument in a marketable price range. Some of the work of selling this instrument has already been done: photographing and creating the advertising pieces, writing the apprasial, and performing repairs. Sellers are hugely influenced by the persistent myth that stringed instruments appreciate - but ultimately, the market doesn't see it that way. In order to get a recently-sold instrument to re-sell in a reasonable time frame, expect to receive about 10% or so less than you paid. Make sure you take excellent care of your instrument, and that it's as close as possible to showroom condition. The cost of interest, repairs, customizations and accessories can virtually never be recouped. The true value of a stringed instrument is what you can do with it - did it help you grow as a musician, and are you selling it to get a better instrument that will help you grow even more? Instrument dealers and their clients are best served by collaborating to make this happen!