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How to get a Musical Instrument Appraisal

An appraisal is an opinon expressed by a professional relating to the authenticity and monetary value of an object. A determination of authenticity is only a part of the value assessment, which is the primary goal. In the case of violins and certain other objects, the question of authenticity can be very complicated.

Kinds of Appraisals

Why do you want an appraisal? What will you do with it once you have it? If your instrument turns out to be extremely valuable, are you going to keep it or sell it? What if it turns out to be a perfectly nice, playable instrument worth only a couple hundred dollars? What will you do with it if the cost of restoring it is greater than its value? You should ask yourself these questions before seeking an appraisal.

There are basically two reasons to appraise an object: to document its value for legal purposes, such as probate, divorce settlements, or insured losses; or to provide authority for a sale price.

Musical Instruments are not valuable just because they're old. In the last hundred years or so, manufacturing technology has enabled companies to produce masses of musical instruments. The old Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs going back to the late 19th century offered complete violin outfits for a couple of dollars, as well as brasses, pianos, parlor organs, mandolins, guitars, banjos, etc. The few of these instruments that have survived in playable condition are, with minor exceptions, essentially worthless today. They used a lot of shortcuts in the manufacturing process and the materials are, generally speaking, of inferior quality. For the most part, these instruments don't have the Sears or Wards names on them, but carry a brand name or pseudonymous maker name. In the case of violins, untold thousands have been produced with false labels.

You are not qualified to determine the origins, authenticity and value of your musical instrument. If you have a legitimate need to know definitively what you have, you must consult a specialist appraiser. The cost of a professional appraisal is probably not as much as you think (in most cases less than $100). In exceptional cases with an especially valuable instrument, you might need to get two or three independent opinions. In nearly all cases the value of a professional opinion will more than pay for itself should you need to sell your instrument or make an insurance claim relative to its loss.

Get it in writing.

Many appraisers will offer to give you a verbal appraisal for a reduced cost. Such an appraisal is useful if you are only thinking of investing in having the instrument restored, but it is not useful for just about anything else. The adage that a verbal contract is only as valuable as the paper it's written on applies equally to appraisals. If you plan to sell your instrument or make an insurance claim, the fact that someone told you it was worth a certain amount is utterly meaningless without documentation. Fine old instruments often are sold with a number of appraisal certificates from different appraisers over their lifetimes. The more objective documents you have from reputable authorities, the more comfortable you can be that what you have is what they say.

Finding an appraiser

It is often difficult to find a professional appraiser who has specialized knowledge in your instrument. Violin family instrument appraisers are relatively common and you can probably find one in your closest large city. Other instruments are rather more difficult as they tend to appeal to a very narrow market.

Most mmusicians are not interested in old or historical brass, woodwind or percussion instruments because they don't improve with age like some string instruments. They appeal only to specialist collectors or historical re-enactment ensembles. Unless what you have is demonstrably unusual, it's unlikely to have great value.

NEVER go to an antique appraiser who does not specialize in musical instruments. The instrument market is highly specialized. Antique dealers rarely have the background or understanding required.

Updated 06/17/2011
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