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Laurie Niles

A peek inside the world of elite violins

October 30, 2006 at 5:10 AM

Ever since writing about Jerry Kohl, the investor who fell in love with the idea of a Strad and then bought one, I've been rather curious about the finest of fine instruments and their fates.

With such enormous price tags, who buys them? Where do they end up?

When I heard that Michael Selman would be in town, I took the opportunity to chat with him over lunch. Selman is director of one of the the world's most revered dealers of fine violins, the London-based J & A Beare Ltd., the same dealer that sold Kohl the Milstein Stradivarius.

I must confess, the words "fine violin sale" make me seize up a bit; I've had the intimidation experience... have you? Going into a fine instrument store and feeling the pressure of being in a place where everything is out of reach -- where the dealer's expertise seemed to cloud any instinct of my own, where financial matters were on an entirely surreal plane, where even the instruments themselves are hidden somewhere in the back.

So I wasn't sure what to expect. I found a very affable American, a fellow Indiana University guy -- studied with Franco Gulli -- carrying his two valuable and delicate charges, a Testore and a Landolfi violin, in a single violin case. Selman is Beare's American director, and he helps match the right instrument to the right buyer, and/or the right player.

"A lot of people don't care about fine instruments until they really need one," Selman said. "The sound is what you are looking for. People don't say, 'I want to buy a violin with beautiful Cremonese varnish'; the sound is the starting point. In seeking that sound, they have to become educated about makers and about fine instruments."

Selman has been with Beare for about eight years, when the company merged with his London-based shop, Morris, Smith and Selman, with partners Steven Smith, David Morris and Simon Morris.

On one hand, "we've completely changed what Beare is," opening offices in New York and Seoul. On the other, they have worked to preserve the company's reputation for expertise. "We're kind of the first-stop company for Strads and del-Gesus," Selman said. "People who want the finest instruments come to us. Even people who buy elsewhere come to us for certification or opinion."

I was curious about how many Strads they sell in a year, and Selman said between 10 and 15.

"It depends on the country," he said. For example, Japan has set up the Nippon Music Foundation for the acquisition of instruments. "They are very generous about lending to artists all over the world," Selman said. Taiwan also has similar foundations.

In Europe and the United States, musicians and soloists are more likely to buy them, as well as investors. China is building many new arts facilities and is still catching up with acquiring fine instruments. In Korea, where Beare has an office, "music is incredibly important," Selman said. "The number of concerts, you just wouldn't believe." Office buildings have concert halls; Selman gave the example of the Kuhmo Co., which sponsors a full concert season and many music-related events.

Though many of the world's finest violins are sold to foundations or investors, "The majority of fine instruments are played on by musicians/artists," Selman said. Whether a musician or other entity buys the instrument, "We make every effort possible to provide as much information as possible regarding the care of the instrument. It is our philosophy that we are all caretakers of these precious instruments. We encourage all purchasers bring their instruments to us periodically for a checkup."

As for the instruments that wind up not in the concert hall, but on display in a museum or private collection, Selman said that such instruments serve an important function.

"If violin making is to continue to progress, it is important that makers have the opportunity to study the few pristine examples that remain," Selman said. "It is important that a few of the greatest examples be preserved for future generations to have."

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on October 31, 2006 at 10:12 AM
Interesting last paragraph. Makes you wonder if in a thousand years it will be possible to make a violin. At best they'll be based on drawings, photos, and multi-generation copies. That is, if the art keeps Strads, etc. as the ideal.

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