Hey, all. So, in between creating and launching books, I’ve taken a little time to lean into my violin hobby. Knowing that I have a knack for finding things, my instructor, Ryan, asked me to find a good violin for a student who needs a quality instrument but isn’t long on cash.
I was happy to oblige. I loaded up on Friday morning and cruised to the local flea market, hoping to find something. I usually do, but sometimes what I find isn’t worth having. This can be a shame; on my last visit, I found a good Strad clone for reasonable. However, someone had “repaired” it with wood glue and hadn’t done a very good job. It wasn’t worth the eighty dollars the seller was asking. If it hadn’t been “repaired,” eighty dollars would have been a steal. As it was, the value was close to zero.
By the way, never glue a violin back together with wood glue. It makes the instrument very difficult, if not impossible, to disassemble for maintenance. These things are designed to be taken apart for periodic repairs, and modern wood glue works too well- you won’t get it apart without ruining the instrument. The wood will break before the glued joint lets loose. This is undesirable.
If you must glue a loose spot on an instrument, spend a couple of bucks for proper, old-fashioned hide glue. But I digress.
I arrived and stepped out of my vehicle with some cash in my pocket. The junk man doesn’t do plastic. I prefer junk dealers, guys who tear shit down and could care less about what they sell. Or, fellas who frequent estate sales and want to turn a quick buck. Homeowners can be a pain, frequently they have an inflated idea of the value of their junk, or they have some emotional attachment to what they sell. So, I look for the junk man.
You can tell those dudes at a glance. They usually have some shitty vehicle and a very wide range of stuff, most of it old.
The “antique” dealers are usually not worth looking at. They’re there to rip off city people. The “theme” dealers aren’t worth looking at, either. They know damn well what their stuff is worth. No- I want the utter mercenaries who would gladly sell you something they got for nothing for a few twenties.
I walked about two minutes when I happened upon my first deal. A guy was selling an old, hand-stitched 48-star flag for twelve bucks. I’ve been looking for one of those for years. His price was twelve because he fully expected me to talk him to ten. Those are usually fifty, so I didn’t feel like haggling. It was a good deal. I put it into my backpack and kept walking.
Three minutes later, and bingo.
An obvious junk man, and an obviously old violin. Usually, the case is the tell. Typical early twentieth pressed-paper. What was inside, I wondered. I asked if I could open the case. He waved, “Sure!”
I opened it and saw the above. Horsehair everywhere, like usual, and a neglected instrument. It had real purfling, a tentative sign of quality manufacture. I looked closer and took it from the case. I flipped it to look at the belly.
YASSS. Excellent quality maple- this wasn’t a cheap instrument when new. I flipped it back over and looked at the tag inside.
Whoa- this was different. This violin was a del Gésu clone- an instrument made to the rough pattern of an old master by the name of Guarneri. Almost everyone is familiar with the Stradivarius violins, and no, a tag that says “Stradivarius” does not mean it’s a real Strad. Just put that out of your mind. You will never find one. Period.
Almost without exception, most old violins you find at flea markets are Strad clones. There’s nothing wrong with this- they are great violins if you pick the right one. So, finding a del Gésu pattern was unusual. My holy grail is finding an individual luthier violin, but it hasn’t happened yet and may never.
A quick note- the violins you find range from beginner stuff to professional grade. Beginner stuff is usually Chinese or older Japanese. Don’t bother with used. If you’re after this, go to Amazon and get a Cecilio. They aren’t great, but for a starter violin, they work, and the case and accessories are useful.
The flea markets are great for intermediate violins- this del Gésu clone was a fine example. Individual luthier violins are usually low professional grade, even high grade, but I’d have to have serious luck to find one of those. By “individual luthier” violin, I mean hand-made and proudly labeled as such by a master craftsman.
The violin I found was about a century old and it was hand-made, but probably by a team of craftsmen in a shop under the direction of a master. In contrast, the Cecilio violins are a total factory operation and they are CNC milled.
The del Gésu clone was what I was after, a serious upgrade for Ryan’s student. It was an advanced student violin.
It had a few small defects but nothing fatal. A couple of hairline cracks on the upper plate, whatever. Maybe a couple of hundred dollars in repairs (BTW, I may teach myself how to disassemble and repair these things. But I need a MUCH worse violin than this for my first repair project!). This one needed some new strings, maybe pegs, a new tail gut. Whatever. So, I asked the question.
“What’ll ya take?”
I said the hell with it and handed him ninety. I wouldn’t quibble over five bucks, and the violin was worth much more than that. I had a winner. I took it back to my truck and re-examined it, pleased by the deal. Of course, junk-man probably paid five for it, or got it for free, but so what? This was a win-win.
I left. I hadn’t been there more than ten minutes. Why stay longer when the mission was accomplished? It was an amazing day.
I cleaned up the case and dusted the instrument when I got home. Also, to my utter shock, I used one of the bows when I trimmed about half the rotten hairs from it. Put on some rosin and played! I’ve never seen that before- usually, the bows are ruined. Even the pressed paper case was nice- usually, they are JUNK. Not this one- I didn’t immediately chuck it in the trash, which is rare.
Not bad for a half-hour’s work, really.
Also, I laid the del Gésu out next to Rose the Strad, and you can see the clear difference in body shape, although the wood on both is nice. Both of these fiddles cost less than 100 in initial outlay! Sweet.
It was a very good day, and I can’t wait to see how this latest purchase shapes up- I estimate that this violin will probably cost about 500, total, to be completely ready and playable. A real deal, IMO.
Love me some flea markets.