London Sales Spring 2011

Posted By on March 11, 2011

I spent the first three days of this week in London. There were five violin auctions there within that period, and I managed to view three of them. I suppose I could have managed all five, but it’s quite tiring. I should add that I had visited Sotheby’s and Bonham’s two weeks earlier to examine those instruments that particularly interested me. I remember the late Bob Lewin’s articles after the big auctions in London, noting trends and recording particularly unexpected prices. I could do something similar, but this information is available elsewhere, so here’s an alternative and very opinionated sale report.

Violin auction catalogues

In the Sotheby’s catalogue (Lot 62) I was amused to see a viola correctly described as by George Wulme Hudson, labelled, as his instruments so often are, with a completely fictitious Italian-sounding name – in this case J. Galiendo of Turin. Wulme Hudson instruments are sometimes very recognisable, having backs made of a particular piece of slab-cut maple which Cyril Jacklin had sold to him. This was one such. Wulme Hudson was not a complete faker, though, and it’s unlikely that he sold this instrument as anything other than his own work – and anyway he generally branded his work on the top block, as indeed he did in this case: it’s clearly stamped George W. Hudson. And yet this instrument had a certificate from no less an authority than W.E. Hill & Sons, dated 27th April 1960, ascribing the instrument to . . . yes, you’ve guessed it . . . J. Galiendo of Turin. Once again I marvel at the folly of those who write certificates for things they know absolutely nothing about. I mean, anybody can make a mistake – but a certificate?

In the Bonham’s catalogue was a violin (Lot 40) with a recent certificate from an American dealer, P.P. Prier of Salt Lake City, dated 17th May 2005, which stated that it was made by Carlo Tononi, circa 1720. Wow. An important violin, then. Except it wasn’t. I think the Bonham’s catalogue got it about right with their description “circa 1750, Tyrol School”. Now, I wonder if the author of the certificate feels humiliated by this? Or if he feels that Bonham’s are wrong? Or if he doesn’t care about the very big difference in attribution? For myself, I’d curl up with embarrassment if my opinion and reputation were so publicly questioned. I have very thin skin, I suppose.

What else? The magnificent and beautiful violin by Stainer, the very one in the Hottinger book, sold for a hammer price of £170,000 – but the price recorded on their website is £205,250. More than 20% extra. This was above Sotheby’s printed estimate, but even so, it seems very good value. Over twenty years ago a wonderful and original Stainer violin sold for over £70,000, and in that time prices for the very best stringed instruments have increased, what? tenfold? Something like that, in the case of instruments by Stradivari and Guadagnini.

Oh, and despair, all you players who want a Sartory bow. Bonham’s had a wonderful selection of bows, among which were three really good, clean and straightforward examples: Lot 89, a silver-mounted violin bow – £19,200, and lot 91, another silver-mounted one at £18,000. Lot 92 was a silver-mounted cello bow – £20,400. Now, these were very good bows, but not Sartory’s highest specification gold or tortoiseshell-mounted work, which presumably would be even more. Bearing in mind that I saw only dealers at these sales, I wonder how much more will be asked later on?

As always, some undistinguished instruments seemed to go for inexplicably high prices, and others with apparently everything to commend them flopped. Auctions are strange. A friend reminded me of one time I was in the rostrom at Sotheby’s, over twenty years ago. I’d forgotten, but apparently I’d conducted the sale not in pounds or dollars, but in sponduliks . . . I guess I really was too flippant for such an establishment.

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