Virtually Yours

by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, November 2003 Vol. 114 No. 1363 page 1198

You can now purchase a genuine Strad without leaving your desk, thanks to Tarisio. Laurinel Owen finds out about the online auctioneer that has taken the string world by storm.

Move over eBay. On-line bidding has expanded from cameras, computers, cars and kitchen cabinets to Stradivaris, Sartorys and Steinways. It seems that Tarisio Auctions (named after the Italian collector who sold Amatis, Strads, Guarneris and the like to none other than Vuillaume) has become every string player’s favorite web address. Not only was it a real coup for the three-year-old auction house to capture the sale of the late violin virtuoso Isaac Stern’s estate, but also the impressive outcome testifies to the fact that it has become a major player in the world of violin auctions whose results compete with and even surpass the traditional high-end establishments.

The numbers speak for themselves: the May sale was the second largest violin auction of all time grossing $3.35 million in sales and selling 92% of the lots, the ex-Jan Kubelik Stradivarius of 1687 sold for $949,500 setting the highest price ever paid for a pre-1700 Strad, and a 1994 copy of Stern’s 1737 Guarneri ‘del Gesú’, the “Vicompte de Panette”, made by Brooklyn-based maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz brought a shattering $130,000!

Dmitry Gindin, a violin wholesaler who trades mostly in Europe, is one of Tarisio’s three partners. ‘I am a violin hunter’, he explained. ‘I buy at auctions, so I am a customer as well as a dealer who works with other dealers. Christopher Reuning, of Reuning & Son Violins, a retail shop in Boston, and I have known each other since high school. For years we went around the world attending every auction and always thought that there was a need for a different approach. Since there were no violin auctions in the United States at that time, and few Americans ventured over to the London sales, we saw a possibility to combine our strengths in another business’.

‘Auctions are usually for people who know what they are doing’, continued Gindin. ‘For example, dealers go looking for “sleepers”, instruments they judge to be mislabeled or incorrectly attributed. Obviously they are looking to buy cheap and resell for a good price. Besides having knowledge of identification a dealer has the additional advantage of being able to judge the condition of an instrument or bow. We wanted to appeal more to musicians. Players go to an auction because they believe they can buy fiddles for half price. However, authenticity is important for a secure investment and they can’t afford to buy a lemon. Chris and I are both experts with over 20 years of experience. It is my everyday business to find instruments and decide what they are’.

‘We really thought we could do a better job’, Christopher Reuning admitted. ‘But our scheme was not practical until the internet came along. I tried eBay and got ripped off. The pictures were not good and I couldn’t trust the vendors, but we saw the potential. We figured there was little overhead and the infrastructure was easy. Jason Price, our third partner who administers all the auctions, was a friend of ours and we talked him into doing all the work! In other words he administers the business, handles the majority of inexpensive consignments, writes and publishes the catalog, and handles the bulk of our customer relations’.

Reuning went on to explain that an internet auction offers a number of advantages. ‘Besides being really intimidating for the uninitiated, the bidding at a live auction is all over in two to three minutes and does not permit time for a considered judgment; there is too much pressure. If you don’t want to sit through the whole thing and decide to go out in the corridor to talk with someone you can easily miss your lot. An on-line auction lasting a week allows time for reflection, plus we have an auto-extend feature so if there is last minute bidding all will be accepted until the highest bid is made. Unlike eBay the winner is not the person who is lucky or skilled enough to click last before the time limit is up’.

Gindin concurred: ‘The internet factor is important. Sitting at home with your computer the bidding is slow and anonymous. You get a password and no one knows who you are, however, if you choose, you can leave a proxy bid (your highest bid) as with a traditional auction and walk away’.

Tarisio began on a shoestring from a spare room in Reuning’s Boston shop. ‘I was still in college desperately trying to handle the work of both our first auction and my degree program’, Jason Price recalled. ‘We wanted to give Skinner’s some competition and through mailings, ads, and phone call solicitations to individuals, collectors, and a number of dealers we were able to assemble almost 200 lots – not bad for a first time. We got people’s attention because we had a Fernando Gagliano and a C. G. Oddone – violins any house would be proud to represent’.

‘Our second sale was nothing short of miraculous!’ Price enthused. ‘We landed a beautiful 1616 brother’s Amati viola that hadn’t been on the market since 1954 and a J. B. Guadagnini, the “ex-Kingman”, made in Parma. At that point we decided to have a viewing in New York City. The Amati was estimated at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $775,000 and the Guad almost $300K’!

One of the reasons Tarisio has been fortunate in securing consignments is their favorable commission rates. ‘Our buyer’s commission is 15% and our seller’s commissions are as low as 2.5%’, Price informed me. ‘The “brick-and-mortar” house rates are higher than this – almost 20% on the buyer’s side (20% Sotheby’s and 19.5% Christie’s) and between 5% and 15% on the seller’s side. To consignors every percentage point counts; if we can save an owner 10% in fees they’re ecstatic’.

Buying from Tarisio seems easy enough. Three public viewings for Tarisio’s May sale (Chicago, San Francisco and New York) provided opportunity to see and play the instruments. Catalogs were for sale or could be viewed without cost on-line at The Stern Collection consisted of lots 1-164 and private consignors lots 201-393. Finding a specific item or browsing the on-line catalog was made simple by options such as listings by lot number, key words, or categories such as violins, violas, cello bows, manuscripts, etc. I found the quality of the photographs astounding. Each can be blown up to perhaps 10 times life-size and shows more detail than would be possible with the unaided eye. (Tarisio now has an archive of over 6000 photographs available for study.)

If you see something that peeks your interest and decide to bid you must register by providing contact details, driver’s license or passport number, and credit card number to which a $1.00 charge for registration is made. (Tarisio wants to know who you are before they allow you to bid thousands of dollars.) Choose a bidder I.D. – perhaps Sibelius, spiccato, or 007 – something that does not give away your identity and you will be given a password consisting of combinations of randomly selected numbers and letters. Now you are ready to bid.

Find your item’s lot number and you will see a suggested first or opening bid usually set at 2/3 of the low estimate. For example, an item in the price range of $7,000-10,000 may have an opening bid of $4500. Click “next bid” or if you prefer to walk away without watching the bidding choose “proxy bid”. Each time your bid is updated you will receive an email confirmation. The auction lasts from a week to ten days with each lot having a different ending time so those who have several bids can keep an eye on all their items without worrying about conflicts. If you are the highest bidder and “win” the lot you have seven days to pay.

Several prominent dealers as well as consultants from other auction houses, many who wished to remain anonymous, voiced concerns about buying off the internet, such as judging condition. Reuning replied: ‘We attempt to give a description of condition with the terminology guide at the front of the catalog and encourage potential buyers to ask for written condition reports, which we will gladly provide. In fact, I believe we are the only auction house to consider condition in print in the catalog. And don’t forget we emulate a traditional auction house in regard to the live viewings in multiple cities. Bidders have ample time to examine the condition of lots at the viewing’.

Frederick Oster of Frederick Oster Fine Violins in Philadelphia and a consultant to Christie’s voiced unease with the legalities of buying off the internet: ‘The internet is not governed by the same laws as traditional auction houses such as Christie’s. Our reserve price cannot be above our low estimate; it is illegal to put an item at a higher range than its reserve (the lowest price the seller is willing to accept). If the estimate is $2000-$3000 it should be possible to acquire the lot for $2000, if that is the high bid. The reserve price cannot be $2500, for example’. In response Tarisio’s catalog clearly states: ‘Although the exact amount of the reserve is confidential, in no case will the reserve be greater than the low estimate. When the reserve has been reached or exceeded, a label appears on the lot’s description in the online catalog saying, “reserve met.”’ Reuning added that because their business is based in New York they are held liable to the same laws under the state’s mandates as are Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

The head of the Musical Instrument department at Christie’s in New York, Kerry Keane, wondered if there was a conflict of interest when the owners of the company are selling their own property without the public’s awareness. ‘Even if there is no conflict’, he pointed out, ‘there could be a perception of conflict. If your instrument were being sold along with others perhaps you would work harder to sell it. I believe there should be a disclosure of a financial interest’. Tarisio claimed that their customers know what they are looking for and they do not have to make hard sells.

I asked David Bonsey, Director of Fine Musical Instruments at Skinner’s Auctioneers, if his company is feeling the heat from Tarisio. He replied: ‘The greater auction community actually appreciates the fact that Tarisio, through clever marketing on the internet, has helped to bring a greater awareness of auctions as an alternative marketplace. The public can buy instruments for a fair market price that is determined by consensus. The attribution to makers must also stand up to public scrutiny, which has not always been the case in the last fifty years.’

‘All major auction houses have websites that portray the instruments and bows and offer information and condition reports as well as online bidding’, Bonsey continued. ‘The other major houses prefer to auction live for several reasons. It takes us four hours to sell roughly 400 lots, and it is all done in the light of day. Every transaction has witnesses, and the people who participate will learn a great deal by being there in the community of buyers and sellers. They will come away with a real and tactile experience, which over the long run of many years contributes to the longevity and reputation of a firm. There is less of the novelty factor and none of the hype’. Chris Reuning responded: ‘I have been to hundreds of auctions where I didn’t know who was bidding, or in fact if anyone was bidding! Some bids came in by the phone, others left proxy bids, and some buyers sent agents. Unlike a traditional auction house ours is completely transparent – everything is on the screen. Take the Zygmuntowicz fiddle. Even above the $40K mark there were five or six people bidding. The proof was on the screen for everyone to see’.

Tim Ingles, the head of Fine Musical Instruments at Sotheby’s London, commented on Tarisio: ‘The May sale of Isaac Stern’s Collection was very impressive and reminded me of our November 1999 sale of the collection of Lord Yehudi Menuhin. Not only was there enthusiasm about the collection, but also the lots in the regular part of the sale were infected with excitement. The key was winning the sale in the first place. Musicians of this stature don’t die every day and even then few have collections of the broad base these two artists had.  Generally, items of lower value, like collectables such as photographs and memorabilia, do well – better than, let’s say, a violin bow, which has a very select and small market appeal since photos and letters interest a wider audience. We work in a very narrow specialty field, not like art where many are interested in hanging a Monet on their wall’.

‘Basically an auction house lives or dies on their expertise’, Ingles added. ‘Tarisio’s is very solid. They were unusual because they didn’t start small and build a reputation. Tarisio just burst on the scene and had immediate success. I now consider them our major competitor – not for sales, but for consignments. Fortunately, they are on the other side of the ocean’.

Not for long however: Tarisio next plans to open a London office.

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