Violins – why colour matters

Posted By on November 15, 2009

I must confess immediately that I am colour blind.  Not just the usual red-green confusion, but something far worse, or so I’m told – for how would I know?  Of course, I’ve grown up with the inability to match socks and so on, but it has rarely mattered.   As a child,  everybody else in the family car would be yelling with joy about a field of poppies that were quite invisible to me, but so what. domain tech info   Oh, and much later I remember being taken on a trip to New England in the autumn, the point of which was entirely lost on me.

It didn’t matter at all until I was old enough to drive, at which time I went through two sets of reds, and the problem was most urgently diagnosed.  Now, it’s OK to drive during daylight hours, as I can see if it’s the top or the bottom light which is lit, but I try to avoid night driving – doesn’t matter what colour it is, it looks just like all the other lights to me.  I was over fifty, which is to say that I’d been driving for thirty years, before it came out in conversation that stop lights are apparently in some way different from ordinary side lights – or is it indicator lights?   Nobody had ever told me before.

Being colour blind was no problem cataloguing violins at Sotheby’s – I simply asked anyone passing what colour the damn thing was.  Violins tended to be red-brown or golden-brown, bows were usually chestnut-brown.  Expensive violins might be “red-brown on a golden ground” or some such.  Now, as a dealer, I am less called upon for this style of work and colour blindness has been no problem.

Or so I thought.

On the 30th August 1996 I purchased, at auction, a beautiful and well-preserved violin by Olivier Marissal, dated 1933.  Olivier’s dad (Auguste) had been an apprentice of Joseph Hel, in Lille, and my violin was in every way gorgeous, and sounded magnificent after a decent set up.  What I paid for it is my secret, but I was disappointed when it didn’t sell during the first year.  I’ve forgotten how much I was asking – it seemed very reasonable – but I lowered the price.  After two more years, and several dozen more players trying it, I lowered the price again.  Then, three years later, I had the bridge, fingerboard, tailpiece, soundpost and of course strings changed.  Sometimes it is possible for a violin to remain unsold because the price is not high enough – I will add more on this subject another time – and my new increased price reflected the amount of money I had spent on it.  It’s a quite beautiful violin, remember.  It sounded, well, different, oh, alright, not so good, but sometimes that doesn’t matter either.  I suppose I’ll have to explain that as well, but not now.

It still didn’t sell, and two years later (in 2004) I had the set up changed back to what suited it best.  And I lowered the price.  Twice.  Last summer, in desperation, I lowered the price of this beautiful instrument again, to a level far below what I had paid for it.  It still sounded magnificent, indeed it still does, and here it is, right next to me in November 2009, still unsold.  “God that thing’s a vile colour” remarked my partner, as she passed.

Marissal violin So I am having a clever man, with colour vision, do some subtle work which, I am assured should enable me to get rid of it.  Is it sacrilege?  After thirteen years I don’t care.  Being colour blind, I don’t care.  Those with ordinary vision may care, but they care enough not to buy it.
A very poor – 1996 – image of it.  Apparently it’s vile.

Here’s a true story.   Just after I’d started life as a dealer I was asked to look out for a viola by Charles Buthod for a client.  Within two months a different client asked me to sell their Buthod viola.  Joy, I thought.   I phoned the prospective buyer with the news.  “How big is it? he asked.  I told him.  “Perfect”  he said, “now what are its widths? Again, they were fine.  After checking the rib depths in various places, he had me measure the body-stop and the string length.  All was fine. “What about the condition?”  he asked, and I told him, truthfully, that there was nothing at all the matter with it.  Finally the crunch question “How much is it?”  When I told him he whooped with joy, it being less than he’d dared hope for.  He said he’d be straight round, and within the hour he arrived, and I showed him the viola.  He never put a bow across it.  “But I wanted a red one”  he said.

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