Appraising Your Violin, with Luthier Jean-Jacques Rampal

January 21, 2019, 12:34 AM · If you wish to sell a fine violin, viola, cello or bass for the high price you bought it for — or for more, then you’d better make sure that fiddle has its papers. In other words: an appraisal.

But what is an appraisal, and when do you really need one?

Certainly there is a difference between the value of an instrument made by the great Italian maker Stradivari some 300 years ago and the old “Stradivarius”-labeled fiddle found in Grandma’s attic — unless Grandma was a world-famous violinist with an extraordinary instrument! The real Stradivari would be worth millions of dollars; the other is likely an old factory violin that maybe could fetch $500.

How does one know the difference, and at what point does one seek out a formal certificate of authenticity, signed by a qualified luthier, which verifies the instrument’s origin, maker and year of creation?

I decided to pose this question and a few more to Jean-Jacques Rampal, a luthier who specializes in these kinds of certificates and who is one of five French luthiers who will be offering appraisals next week (Jan. 24-27) at a special event at the LA Violin Shop. The other luthiers coming from France to Los Angeles for that event include Jean-Francois Raffin, Sylvan Bigot, Yannick Le Canu (for French bows) and Jonathan Marolle. For those who wish to find out the value of their violin, viola or cello, in this case it costs $60 for a verbal appraisal, and more to have a certificate of authenticity made.

Rampal spoke to me about appraisals, why they are important, and what can make an instrument have more or less value. First, does every violin need an appraisal?

Jean-Jacques Rampal
French luthier and violin expert Jean-Jacques Rampal.

“It is tempting to say that each violin deserves a proper appraisal, but it is up to the musician to decide,” Rampal said. “If a musician deeply loves the instrument he plays, whatever the instrument, he should get a valuation of it in order to insure it. Much safer! I see so many musicians with beautiful instruments with no appraisals. They don’t even think about it until a problem arises; for example, the instrument is stolen or destroyed in an accident. By then, it is already too late. And don’t count on insurance companies to show compassion.”

For his part, Rampal specializes in the appraisal of high end instruments. Rampal learned to make violins, violas and cellos as an apprentice with Jean-Jacques Pagès, a violin maker in Mirecourt, France. Rampal then went to Charles Beare’s workshop in London to study high level restoration and expertise of antique instruments. In 1983, he returned to Paris and worked for 15 years under the guidance of Etienne Vatelot, restoring and setting up instruments played by international soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Slava Rostropovitch, Boris Belkin, Salvatore Accardo, Isaac Stern, Maxim Vengerov, Patrice Fontanarosa, Olivier Charlier and more. In 1998 he succeeded Vatelot as head of the workshop and is now considered an international expert. He has been doing appraisals for 20 years.

Not every luthier is an expert appraiser; appraising is its own art that requires a particular kind of training and experience, he said.

“Being a violin expert is a real job — not a hobby,” Rampal said. “My associate and I spend our days looking at violins: we see hundreds, thousands a year, taking notes, taking pictures, making comparisons, writing articles, and giving lectures. Over the years, a violin expert is more experienced and has a deeper knowledge of the different schools. It takes time, and you have to see tons of violins, non-stop, good and bad instruments.”

“Our shop (Vatelot-Rampal in Paris) has been doing this since 1909. Over a century, we have collected a massive archive which helps us to do our job as experts,” Rampal said. “Many luthiers believe they can do appraisals because they think they have the knowledge and moreover, what is an appraisal for them? A sheet of paper! But it is much more than a simple piece of paper. Giving an opinion on an instrument is a big responsibility. Musicians should be aware that only few workshops around the world have the real knowledge and experience to deliver solid opinion on instruments.”

What does an appraiser seek to discover about a violin or other stringed instrument?

“First, we have to be sure of the origin of the instrument: the period of time it was made, country, city. Of course, ultimately we want to determine the maker, which is something we cannot determine all of the time,” Rampal said. “Once we know the origin of the violin, its condition will also be an important factor for the appraisal. For instance: take a nice violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, all original, good condition. Its value should be around US $250,000. Take the same instrument, with a soundpost crack in the back, and the valuation should be reduced by 40 to 50 percent because of that. So you see the importance of the condition, for appraisals.”

Does an instrument’s value increase, when it has been restored? Usually not, he said, but on rare occasions, yes. “But we’re talking here about massive restorations that take months and sometimes even years,” Rampal said. “And of course, the instrument has to be worth doing that.”

More often, past restorations can be problematic for the value of the instrument.

“Restoration is a complicated work. The motto should be to do what is necessary, but as much as possible, you must also preserve the original wood and original varnish, and you must preserve the ‘integrity’ of the instrument,” Rampal said. “Throughout the long history of string-instrument restoration, there were different schools of thought on this. Not so long ago, it was normal to rework thicknesses, polish the varnish of an instrument to make it look shiny, or simply to double the edges, even though it was not necessary. Terrible harm was done to great instruments because of accumulations of unnecessary restorations. I think that the best way to preserve an instrument is to do only what needs to be done in order to bring it back to life and make it playable and comfortable for the musician. Simplicity! Don’t do million things because you think it will turn an average violin into a Strad! We see that quite often, unfortunately. So yes, restorations can sometimes damage instruments.”

As we know, rare Italian fine instruments are now worth astronomical sums. What is the highest value that Rampal has set on an instrument?

“I won’t mention the exact price here but, we recently appraised a wonderful cello made by Strad,” he said. “We’re talking here of several dozens of millions.”

For more information about the appraisal event at the LA Violin Shop, please click here.