What is it Really Worth?

"There are so many old musical instruments that are found in attics, closets or old estates, or some that have been passed down from generation to generation. Most of these instruments are, to say the least, not in very good playing condition; some have almost completely disentregated due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics."

These relics pop up during routine house cleanings, re-locations, estate and yard sales everywhere. When these items are brought to my shop, I will hear the same type of questions asked each time: Is this worth anything? Are you able to fix this? Looking at and restoring these old instruments have become the better part of my business and is one of my favorite things to do. A lot of time is spent researching vintage instruments and assessing their values. It's rewarding to see the shock on people's faces when they find that 'Grandpa's old violin' is actually worth way more than they had ever expected. Even though each situation is unique, there are some basic things that everyone should know when they are considering what to do with these space and dust collecting relics.
You will sometimes see these items at yard sales, or at an online or estate auction in their rickety old cases selling from anywhere between $15 and $75, and depending on their condition, this is exactly what they're worth. However, if the same instrument is restored to a solid, well adjusted playing condition, it may be worth many, many times as much. The fact is, an old instrument that is repairable (and most are) is more sought after by performing musicians than new, 'fresh from the factory' ones for many reasons. Here are some important ones:

  • Many of he materials used back then were of better quality; i.e., some of the woods that were cheap and common back then are all but extinct today.

  • Better craftsmanship: less automated, more integrity in structure.

  • It has stood the 'test of time': wood is more aged, making a more 'mature' sounding instrument.

  • If it had been played regularly for a number of years, the 'natural conditioning' that comes from doing what it was created to do had already occurred. There is less likelihood of needing as many future adjustments.

Old Instruments are like Old Cars:
...worth very little when sitting out in a field rusting, but when restored, they have great value. But, just like old cars, they will need consistent attention thereafter. People who invest in vintage cars, know that they increase very little in value when they are just put away in storage.
They know that these cars need to be taken out and driven on a regular basis, always being 'well-lubricated'. It is no different with vintage instruments. When I lived near Washington, D.C., I would visit the Smithsonian Museum to view the cases of old Stradivarius era instruments. The museum actually has a staff of musicians who play and perform with these instruments on a regular basis. They know if they do not do this, the instruments will very rapidly begin to lose integrity.
So, this is the bottom line: The future of Grandpa's broken old violin can go two ways: 1.) Put it back in the closet, and don't do anything. The result will be that the instrument will continue to deteriorate until it looks so bad that you will want to throw it away, or sell it at a yard sale for $5. -OR- 2.) Bring it to me to find out the true restored value of it. Make the investment, and have in your possession something that will actually
appreciate in value more than most stocks or CD's. But here's the catch: If your newly restored instrument does not get put in the hands of someone who will PLAY it and MAINTAIN it, then it will rapidly begin to depreciate in every way. So please consider who will take on this responsibility BEFORE you bring it in to me.

Here are some of my notable recent projects:             

  • A violin with an authentic label. Owner didn't think it was worth anything because the label said 'Copy of Stradivarius'. I told him it was worth at least $3500 after $145 of work. With tongue in cheek, he agreed to the job. Comparisons with ten other instruments with the same label showed that it was valued at between $5000 & $8000. Customer was happy as a lark.

  • A fiddle with no name, but a repair label from 1921, and geared tuners was brought to me. The style of case it came in indicated that it was made around the time of the Civil War. Needed a total re-assembly. The investment will be $450 - $650, and the resulting instrument will be worth $1800 base value.

  • A guitar was brought in for stringing, and a crack in the top. It was missing the pickguard, and the owner didn't think it was worth putting one on. Turned out to be a 1972 Harmony guitar with a solid wood body worth over $200. I'm putting one on anyway.

  • Another heirloom violin someone unfortunately tried to refinish. Setup will cost around $275, and the instrument will be worth over $800, even though I will not do much with the finish.

  • Recently, an unlabeled 12-string Bowl Back Mandolin was brought to me. It was probably made by Oscar Schmidt between 1900 and 1915. Needed minor repair. The investment will be about $150. I have seen these for sale at around $1000.

Yes, It Can Be Done!                                                                       
hether it be a pile of splinters that was once a fine instrument, or a good ole' guitar that just needs re-stringing, Hewn from the Mountain can do it all. So go ahead and get those relics out of the attic. It probably won't be one of the 'missing Stradivaris', but . . . you never know unless you try! Either way, you'll most likely be making a good investment.

Come Talk to Me!

Tom McShane, luthier
Crestwood Music Shop
6421 W HWY 146, Crestwood KY 40014
(502) 265-5048