Charles Beare – violin expertise ‘not the real thing’
At first I thought this New Yorker article about the Carpenter family by Rebecca Mead was going to be a puff piece, but it turns out to be a pretty thorough exposition of the high-end stringed instrument market, quoting many of the big names in that world.
The article alludes to some of the underlying issues in the business, without necessarily focusing on them. You get a sense of the fierce ambition and sales skills required to try to sell instruments at this level – usuallly to investors rather than players. Hearing the 'Macdonald' Strad described by Sean Carpenter as 'the ultimate trophy piece' offers some insight into the psychology required. To balance all the talk of hyper-inflated prices for Stradivarius instruments, Mead does at least mention the Stradivarius blind tests, which indicate many players can't tell the difference between Strads and modern instruments, although this evidence is dismissed pretty quickly.
Most fascinating is to hear Charles Beare emphasise the importance of experience and of a lutherie background when dealing with classic instruments. Beare trained as a restorer and went on to become one of the world's most esteemed experts – as the article points out, one of the last of a generation. He describes how since the 60s more and more musicians have entered the field: 'Seeing what a profitable business it could be, all kinds of people decided that instead of sitting in a seat for a long evening, playing, it would be more fun to be dealing.' He suggests that these people might be acting without the necessary years of experience that defines them as experts and says, 'There is nothing I could possibly have against it – except that it’s not the real thing.'
What do you think? Do you have to be a luthier to be a good violin expert?