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Documentation
(Certificates of Authenticity, Letters,
Appraisals, Warranties, etc.)
By Reginald Williams

It is self evident that accompanying documents will not make your instrument sound or look better. Yet, just as keeping your receipts when making any expenditure of more than a few dollars is a good business practice, the same can be said when purchasing an instrument or bow. Some documents may also be of considerable interest and give pleasure in the form of pride of ownership, providing an interesting history of prior owners and/or illustrious events in which the instrument featured. These are usually referred to as provenance. The question is which documents mean what, how much weight do they carry, and in what markets are they important?

Certificates of Authenticity (Knowledge is Power)

Historically, these have been the most coveted documents. Accordingly, world-renown experts usually charge a percentage of estimated value to issue certificates of opinion regarding the authenticity of important instruments. These documents are typically issued with the sale of an instrument valued in excess of fifteen or twenty thousand dollars and almost always essential to the sale of the work of old or modern masters whose prices may range from $50,000 to $5 million or more.   

An undisputed certificate of authenticity can drastically affect the selling price of a rare violin. For example, an instrument deemed to have been the work of Stradivarius during his golden period, but later disputed and called a late work of his former master, Nicolo Amati might be reduced in value from several million to less than one million. More than once, instruments deemed by highly respected experts to have been the work of Stradivarius have later been discovered to be the work of great but devious copyists. Should such an example be uncovered today, the market value of the instrument would immediately plummet from in excess of a million dollars to less than $100,000 and perhaps less even than $20,000 depending on who the maker was discovered to be. It is clear then that careful attention needs to be paid to these certificates. 

Forgeries are not uncommon. Some issuers themselves have very little or no recognition, even in their own region. Others are well respected in one area, but not another. And only a very few are wideley respected throughout the world. But virtually none are universally accepted. Nor, might I add, are the opinions of art experts. After all, to err is human. Here, yet another complicating factor presents itself. Experts age like everyone else. Eyesight and memory fail. Other problems present themselves, and thus opinions may be more accurate at one time in an expert's career than at another. In turn, professional jealousies and rivalries being what they are, each new generation of potential experts may produce at least one who begins the attempt at destroying the reputation of an expert of a previous generation.

Let's now think about what all of this really means.  First, the certificate is only a statement of opinion and the opinion of even the world's most renowned experts has been shown to be wrong more than once. It follows that some experts are more knowledgeable than others, and likewise that some experts are more widely respected, more widely known and more trusted than others. It's equally apparent that any true expert is constantly learning. He may at any point learn something that changes his or her perception of the authorship or authenticity of a given instrument or bow. 

This does not mean that all such certificates are to be dismissed. Rather, it is important to learn which experts are most highly regarded, not only for their knowledge, but for their business practices. The most widely respected experts have issued many certificates and their certificates are most likely to prove useful at the time of sale. They are, in essence, somewhat akin to AAAAA rated bonds, or to highly regarded insurance policies--unlikely to fail in the marketplace, but never infallible. The more valuable the instrument, the more important it becomes to have more than one such certificate. The best security comes from having a document issued by more than one living expert, and for older instruments, having these documents corroborated by certificates from highly regarded experts of an earlier era. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those certificates issued by dealers virtually unknown outside their own communities. When in doubt, consult several sources, including one or two professional musicians AND two or more nationally known dealers. Bear in mind always that the response of each may be tempered by ulterior motives. Consensus amongst all, or the majority of sources as to the usefulness of a certificate in backing up the resale of an instrument should be the goal.

At the end of this segment I will provide an annotated list of widely known experts, both current and previous.

Letters of Opinion

Letters of opinion are sometimes written by experts when significant uncertainty exists as to authorship and even region of origin, but where somehwat helpful information can be provided as to probabilities or likelihoods. Statements such as "The instrument bears many of the characteristics one would expect to find in instruments emanating from Northern Italy in the late 1800s" are typically found in such letters. These documents may be of some assistance in the resale of an instrument, but only if they state firmly a time period and a region of origin. Even then there will be many potential buyers who will want something with more solid documentation. Note that the example I have just given is rather equivocal and never firmly states that the author of the letter believes this instrument does originate in Northern Italy. It is therefore essential to pay careful attention to the wording of letters. They are often more ambiguous than documents titled "certificate of authenticity". In either case the document's value lies in the reputation of the issuer.

Appraisals

Ironically, the key document necessary to protect your investment for the purposes of insurance is different from the one most commonly requested in the event of a sale and usually costs a fraction thereof. Expect to pay from $50.00 to no more than $100.00 for a written appraisal under most circumstances. Insurance companies rarely ask for certificates of authenticity but rather, most commonly ask first for a written appraisal. An official appraisal should fully describe the instrument in question as to objectively verifiable attributes, including but not limited to materials used in principal parts and a description thereof, color and texture of varnish, key measurements, labels, brands and distinguishing markings, both inside and out, a full and accurate description of condition, and anything else that might help identify the instrument in case of theft or dispute.

The usefulness of this document, too, stems of course from the reputation of the expert writing the appraisal. There, are several fundamental and interesting differences. There are many dealers who are quite knowledgeable about the market value of different makers' work and very able to assign values confidently once the authenticity of an instrument is known. A proper valuation should reflect the beauty of the instrument, its origins and history, its condition and the trends in the marketplace where it is most likely to be offered for sale. It should give a specific dollar amount rather than a range (required by the insurance companies). Finally, the appraisal should show the owner's current name and address and the valuation should be current. This usually means within the last two to three years but you should check with your insurance company to be certain as to their requirements. The value shown should be that which it would cost to replace the instrument in "as is" condition. Without such an appraisal very few insurance companies will be willing to compensate the owner of an instrument for any loss.

The problem with many appraisals is that they are many times written with a hidden agenda. Sometimes low values are assigned in hopes that the owner may later return wishing to sell the instrument and with the thought in mind that this may make it possible to acquire the instrument at an attractive price. Sometimes an appraisal may be written simply to make the owner feel good about what he or she has in hopes that he or she may return to do business again. And in yet other cases appraisals are written in collusion with an owner to minimize estate taxes. It is for these reasons, amongst others that relying on an appraised value as any sort of guide whatsoever as to what you should or should not pay for an instrument is not usually a good idea, unless you know extremely well who you are dealing with and what the practices and policies of the appraiser actually are.

By the same token, when dealing with an instrument of any value, it is probably a good idea before buying or selling to go to more than one expert with the instrument or bow and ask for an independent appraisal. Be careful when doing so not to disclose what the other has said, nor to indicate whether you are buying or selling. By consistently asking for an appraisal for insurance purposes you are most likely to get appraisals which can be compared as apples to apples.

Warrantees and Resale Policies

While rather uncommon and not much spoken about, some dealers do have  policies written to protect the consumer with regard to, trade-in and resale of instruments and bows represented by them. In many cases these policies may prove more meaningful than any other form of documentation when it comes to the reselling of an instrument. 

Finally, some dealers will issue a written guarantee that covers the cost of any necessary repairs or adjustments that might present themselves subsequent to purchase for a limited period of time.  These are usually qualified by a disclaimer with regard to repairs necessitated by consumer neglect, carelessness or accident and should not be expected to cover string breakage or rehair problems caused by weather or bow bugs.

Provenance and Other Documents

It is always interesting to find with an old instrument the original bill of sale from the maker and/or any letters from the maker to the purchaser. It can also be fascinating to read the correspondence of former owners related to their impressions and experiences with their own instrument or bow, or to find old programs or photos of the artist holding or playing the instrument. In some cases this sort of documentation can add considerably to the perceived value of an instrument, or possibly even prove crucial in tracing the history of an instrument. Here, too, forgeries and trickery may come in to play. Caution is advised. Unless the document in question can be directly tied to the instrument in question even though written by the former owner, it may not have been associated with the instrument in question, but with another once owned by the musician. Additionally, unless the musician was of national or greater fame such documentation is unlikely to add significantly to the market value of the instrument.

Ultimately, never forget that the real value of an instrument to most musicians stems from its tonal beauty and utility as a tool for expressing him or herself musically.

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