Buying your first instrument at auction...

Buying your first instrument at auction can be a nerve-racking process. In this short article our Managing Director, Simon Morris, gives some tips to a student on the kinds of things to look out for at a viewing. 

My first suggestion is that you find a professional violin restorer or a trusted auctioneer to give you some guidance. Here is a short list of points to ask yourself and your advisor: 

The neck

Is the neck crooked or overly long or short? A new neck would be a major expense!

Cracks and repairs

As well as checking for cracks on the outside, take a look inside and see if there are patches - and, in particular, how well any past repairs have been executed. 


Is the instrument abnormally long or short? Does it have particularly wide upper bouts, making it difficult to move to the higher positions (something one may not notice with a five-minute trial)? 

Stop length

Is it normal? This is particularly crucial for cellists. A bridge placed particularly high or low might be an indication of a problem. 


Is the instrument easy to tune? If not, perhaps it requires the pegholes to be bushed and new pegs fitted. 


How is the quality of the varnish? If repairs have been polished or varnished over, then proceed with care. 


Check to see whether the bridge is warped; the fingerboard rutted; the fingerboard too short (this can particularly apply to cellos) - and if anything else seems unusual about the set-up. 


How much would it cost, if anything, to get the instrument into good shape?


August Wilhemj and the Dressel Tubbs bow

    August Wilhemj, German violinist and                              teacher

   August Wilhemj, German violinist and                              teacher

August Wilhelmj (1845-1908) was a German violinist and teacher, said by some to be the greatest player of his time. Considered a child prodigy aged seven by Henriette Sontag, Franz Liszt later joined her in hailing Wilhelmj as a ‘future Paganini’. From the age of 40 he devoted his time to teaching and was appointed Principal Professor of Violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1894. Among Wilhelmj’s pupils was Dettmar Dressel, aged about 16 at that time. 

Wilhelmj had close contact with bow makers, who sometimes altered their bows to his specifications. This explains the distinctive feature common to many bows made for Wilhelmj and his pupils: having the nose of the frog slanting down. Not simply a result of wear and heavy use, this is a wholly intentional design feature, seen on the world record auction price breaking bow that James Tubbs (1834-1921) presented to Wilhelmj in 1885, and on this Dressel Tubbs. The Pfretzschner family of German bow makers even made a distinctive style of bow called the “Wilhelmj model”, in which the frog is based very much on a James Tubbs and also has the slanting nose.

                               James Tubbs

                              James Tubbs

Rather than pearl, which is normally used for the slide in the frog, several James Tubbs bows were made with a metal slide, and then engraved with part of their history. There are two reports of a Tubbs bow being presented to Dressel by Wilhelmj: according to The Tatler (12th November 1902) Wilhelmj gave one to Dressel a few months after starting training with him, and Dressel spoke of a bow presented to him by Wilhelmj after his debut at St. James’ Hall in November 1897.

    Dettmar Dressel, one of Wilhemj's pupils, to             whom this Tubbs bow was given 

   Dettmar Dressel, one of Wilhemj's pupils, to             whom this Tubbs bow was given 

- Derek Wilson

Derek Wilson has worked in the bow workshop at J & A Beare since 2000 but began his career at W.E. Hill & Sons from the age of 16, learning bow repairing from fellow Hill bow maker Matthew Coltman and John Stagg. He is co-author of The Hill Bow Makers which is due to be published by the BVMA in April 2016.

Lot 6 - Violin Bow by James Tubbs, c.1894. Engraved: Wilhemj to his pupil Dettmar Dressel. Nose of the Frog originally made in this "filed" style by J. Tubbs especially at Wilhemj's request.  Estimate: £11,000-£18,000. BIDDING CLOSES 30 March 2016, 2.40pm.

Simon Morris discusses the musical past behind Lot 14: Cello by Andrea Guarneri, c.1695

The best musicians rely more and more on sponsors and foundations to lend them great instruments. This is a result of the consistent upward price pressure on the finest violins and cellos. This cello is one such instrument, having been owned by a foundation for some years and lent to deserving musicians. Previously owned and played by the noted German cellist Ludwig Hoelscher, it has a rich musical past and is in fine playing order. 
These great eighteenth century Cremonese cellos made during the golden age of violin making still have a tonal quality that is unmatched. The voices of these instruments combine projection and power, as well as a palette of tonal colours that can be heard at the back of the largest concert halls.  The cost for these great examples is high of course and sadly beyond the reach of many musicians.  But it is difficult to put a value on quality.  
This instrument is smaller and more manageable for the cellist than the large models being made in Cremona some years earlier.  This reflects the trend for a model of cello more suited to the florid and virtuosic repertoire that was beginning to emerge at this time.  It would still be some years before Antonio Stradivari adopted his own ‘forma B’ pattern, and it was these cellos, from the workshop of Andrea Guarneri working with his son Joseph, that helped to lead the way.  

These fine instruments have also proven to be fine investments.  A growing demand and a diminishing supply mean that prices of these great instruments have increased steadily.  They are the only fine works of art that also function as a 'tool of the trade' and this 'need' continues to drive the market.  

- Simon Morris, Managing Director of J & A Beare for Beares Auctions

To find out more about this cello and the maker, please visit the relevant Lot page on our current catalogue. 

Lot 14: Cello by Andrea Guarneri, c.1695. Bidding starts on 26 March 2016, 2pm. Bidding ends on 27 April 2016, 2.30pm.

A new deal for instruments

J & A Beare is one of the longest-standing established dealers and connoisseurs in the fine stringed instrument industry. In 2014, they founded the online auction house, Beares Auctions in response to the ever-changing market. Managing director Simon Morris takes IAM behind the scenes and explains the changing role of the instrument dealer in the 21st century.


In the past fifteen years, even something as esoteric as the elite violin trade has come under the influence of modern times, necessitating creativity and reinvention in order to maintain a competitive edge and to serve the expanding market for high quality, rare instruments. Since 2014, we have addressed this need by branching out into online auctions.

Many of the big auction houses, like Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams, have gradually abandoned their violin departments. This has created a gap in the market that new start-ups, and older companies like ourselves, can help fill.

Auctions have always stood at the core of the market – serving as indicators that constantly measure its temperature, test pricing and stimulate public interest. They can also add a touch of glamour to the business by occasionally bringing record prices for some high profile pieces, usually when their initial price is within the market’s grasp. Beare’s are no strangers to auctions, having monitored and bought at auctions for decades – but now we are involved from the other side as well, running our own online auctions.

In creating Beares Auctions, and most recently our ‘Moto Perpetuo’ platform, we have devised a most contemporary auction with a huge potential for further development. Our continuous selection of fine instruments and bows come up for competitive sale as soon as they are consigned to us, with independent bidding periods and often an initial ‘Buy Now’ option, giving our buyers access to new stock around-the-clock. This is particularly suitable for dealers and investors, who want a quicker turnaround or more interesting pricing, yet it still offers as many of the shop’s services as possible for the musicians. While some instruments are suited for successful auction sales for both buyer and seller, not all are, and neither do all owners or buyers see an auction as a viable way to sell or buy. This is where Beare’s right hand can help its left, so to speak.

We wish to give a facelift to a business that has been operating under a veil of mystique and secrecy, historically leading to unnecessary controversies amongst its various competing entities. We also want to do away with the ‘buyer beware’ aspect often associated with auctions: the small number of select items offered at various times means that we are able to customise the presentation of each lot.

We provide many quick references to help buyers make informed decisions; for example, for lots that require it, we provide a brief dendrochronological synopsis by a world-respected expert in the field. Dendrochronology has been found to be effective in the authentication process, indicating a probable construction date for tables of instruments, as well as showing provenance of the wood used by the makers.

Once items are sold, we protect the privacy of the buyer and seller by not advertising the achieved prices unless authorised to do so by the previous and new owners. It is easier for a small auction house to offer this kind of service, rather than one loaded with dozens, if not hundreds, of lots of varying qualities and price levels.

Simon Morris is managing director at instrument dealer J & A Beare. Established in 1892 in London, the company now offers an online auction service in addition to its traditional shop.

Featured in :  International Arts Manager, March 10th 2016


Beares Auctions launches new perpetual service

Through the online company’s new ‘Moto Perpetuo’ platform, a constant selection of instruments and bows will be offered for sale.

Beares Auctions today launches ‘Moto Perpetuo’, a new 24/7 online service offering a constant selection of fine instruments and bows all year round. 

The firm will offer an ‘open-house policy’, accepting consignments at any time, rather than restricting sellers to the traditional set consignment periods. Buyers will therefore have access to a continuously updated selection of items – each treated individually with its own auction period, including Buy Now options on certain instruments prior to the bidding phase.

The company is also introducing a new ratings system for each lot – where instruments are judged by experts ‘according to specified criteria’ – and an updated price guide, including past auction records and ‘fair retail prices’.

Among the instruments on sale from today are a 1691 Andrea Guarneri cello, an 1860 Giuseppe Rocca violin, a Eugene Sartory violin bow and a James Tubbs viola bow.

Read: Stradivarius violin is top lot at Beares’ first online auction

Read: Violinist Marta Kowalczyk receives J&A Beare bow prize

Written by The Strad Magazine, 23rd February 2016