Looking for a new stringed instrument—specifically, a contemporary one? You’re in luck. “If you look at the past 20, 30 years, there’s been a total renaissance in new making,” says Jason Price, founder and director of the auction house Tarisio. “People are making really great contemporary instruments.”

If commissioning directly from a maker isn’t for you, consider auctions, exhibitions, and dealers. I spoke with Price, Julie Reed-Yeboah of Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, and Matthew Fritz of Carriage House Violins about navigating each in today’s ever-growing market.

Auctions, or wholesale markets, are attractive for musicians hunting for less competitive prices than they would find in the retail sphere. But how plentiful are contemporary instruments? “Auctions definitely work better as classic and collectible marketplaces,” says Price. “There’s never really been a situation where a contemporary maker sells a new instrument at auction.” Some exceptions exist (for charity, for example), and while auctions aren’t traditionally popular destinations for contemporary instruments, it is possible to find one. But, expect it to be second hand. “You’re still getting something that is three years old, ten years old, 20 years old,” says Price.

In some cases, modern-made instruments at auction will still be unattainable for most. Especially if an instrument is by an A-list celebrity maker or belonged to a famous soloist—violinists Christian Tetzlaff or Isaac Stern, for example—the price will be much higher than when it was first made.

For those who feel it’s worth the hunt:
A common first step is searching by price category, allowing for some flexibility. While Tarisio conducts sales online, it’s crucial to attend general viewings or make appointments in person. Become acquainted with auction lingo—it can mean the difference between understanding if a violin was indisputably created by a well-known maker, or is just in the style of that maker. Request condition reports, assessments by auction-house experts made available to everyone and detailing every flaw and characteristic.

At the general viewing, many players test instruments simultaneously. “Then, it can be an absolute cacophony of everybody playing all at once and you think, ‘How can you possibly make a reasonable decision there?’ And a lot of people can’t,” Price says. He adds that buyers should come for a month ahead of the sale and spend as much quality time with several instruments as possible.

One drawback is that most auctions don’t allow people to take instruments home. “Auctions are for people who know what they want and can make a decision in a reasonable amount of time,” Price says, stressing that it’s not an amateur buying market. “It’s not something that lends itself very well to someone who needs three weeks with [an instrument] to get the level of confidence he needs to buy it.”

Players who need more time to consider multiple instruments can do so by working with a dealer, who would have direct relationships with makers and shops. “String players are by and large sensitive to the degree that they should be given enough leeway to make a very well-informed decision,” says Matthew Fritz, director of sales and acquisitions at Carriage House Violins in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts….

Photo courtesy of Cozio