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Do instruments have an objective value?

Donna Tartt's brilliant novel The Goldfinch contains insights into the antiques business that might apply to the violin business too


I’ve just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a brilliantly written epic with a compellingly fallible anti-hero, Theo Decker. I won’t say much about the plot, but it concerns the eponymous 1654 painting by Fabritius, which indirectly leads our protagonist into becoming an antiques dealer. There are a couple of passages in the book that seem to apply to violins and the violin business.

Decker’s mentor is an expert copyist and our narrator explains the difference between real and copied antiques, the way a beautiful antique varnish glows, and the histories such instruments hold:

‘He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands. To contemplate the lives of these dignified old highboys and secretaries – lives longer and gentler than human life – sank me into calm like a stone in deep water, so that when it was time to go I walked out stunned and blinking into the blare of Sixth Avenue, hardly knowing where I was.’

Later in the book, by which time our hero is becoming more expert, and more jaded, he offers an essential insight into the value of antiques, which probably applies to instruments too:

‘I also learned a lesson: a lesson which sifted down to me only by degrees but which was in fact the truest thing at the heart of the business. It was a secret no one told you, the thing you had to learn for yourself: viz. that in the antiques trade there was really no such thing as a “correct” price. Objective value – list value – was meaningless. If a customer came in clueless with money in hand (as most of them did) it didn’t matter what the books said, what the experts said, what similar items at Christie’s had recently gone for. An object – any object – was worth whatever you could get somebody to pay for it.’

What do you think? Do stringed instruments have an objective value?

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