Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to sell a cello

Short answer: With great difficulty.

Long answer:

I had owned my Italian cello for about 25 years by the time I went about trying to sell it. People had always expressed admiration for this instrument, and even some envy. I had it appraised every few years for insurance purposes, and the value went up every time. My parents paid around $8,000 for it in 1979; the last appraisal was for $35,000.

I was surprised, then, when sometime in the 1990s, I took it to one dealer who flatly refused to sell it for me. He seemed suspicious but didn't give me any concrete reasons for his suspicions -- at the time, I thought it had something to do with the condition of the instrument -- and I didn't pursue it. I hadn't entirely made up my mind to sell it at that point, so I put the idea back on the shelf for a few more years.

In 2004, I contacted an online auction company that had been holding some well-publicized successful auctions of large numbers of stringed instruments, getting good prices. Selling an instrument like this on consignment from a shop usually takes many months, or even years, whereas an auction is a way for many people to see the instrument in a short time. The auction company physically collects the instruments and puts them on display for a week in a rented showroom; they also issue an online catalog. People can come and play the instruments and then, when the auction begins, bid online.

After I contacted them and explained what I had, one of their people arranged to stop by my office downtown and look at the cello. He was impressed, and went back to his office in New York and wrote up a contract. In it, he described the cello as "Italian," and suggested a value of between $30,000 and $50,000. A month or so later, he came by my house to pick up the cello.

The week before the auction arrived. I looked up the catalog, and my cello wasn't in it. I had not heard anything from them, so I called to find out what was going on.

The same person who had met with me twice and who had written up the contract very calmly told me that their experts had been unable to authenticate the cello, so they had decided not to sell it. I was shocked -- both at this pronouncement and at the fact that they hadn't seen fit to even drop me an email to let me know. If I hadn't called them, what would have happened?

Apparently, the cello was decidedly not characteristic of the maker whose name was on the label. Several of the experts doubted that it was even Italian. I did a little research and found that a member of the labeled maker's family was still in the luthier business in Italy, so I emailed him some photos of the cello. He agreed that it was probably not made by the person named on the label, and that it was possibly German.

Now, this does not have the same implications as, for example, a cello labeled a Stradivarius  being exposed as a fake. The maker on the label of my cello was considered fine but not at the highest levels of the art. It's like someone who always thought they were John Smith finding out that Mr. Smith wasn't his father and that his father might possibly be Mr. Jones instead. John Smith still has all the same talents and attributes, just another name -- and oh, yeah, he won't inherit Mr. Smith's estate after all. So my cello wasn't a Smith but possibly a Jones, and wasn't worth $35,000 but maybe $15,000.

The dealer who originally sold the cello to us had died a number of years before, but his son had maintained the business and happened to be at the auction checking out the instruments. Because his shop's name was on many of the appraisals, they had consulted with him, and the upshot was that he volunteered to bring the cello back from New York. I eventually talked to him on the phone. His only explanation for the poor ID on the cello was that it was a long time ago and they didn't have the resources available now to check things out. Um, yeah, okay.

He obviously felt some responsibility, because he said he would fix the cello up for me (clean it up, put new strings on it, etc.) and would sell it for me without charging a commission. He did say, though, that it was a really fine cello and that he thought I should just keep it. I decided to bring it home and see how I felt about it.

Fate seemed to be checking to make sure I really wanted to go through with this. There I was, with the two cellos side by side. I didn't even have the incentive of making a big profit on selling it -- and in fact, wasn't even sure I wasn't being scammed about this whole thing. In the end, though, I still liked my new cello better than the old one, and still didn't like playing the old cello anymore. I had moved on.

I eventually took it back to the shop, and six months later, someone bought it. I used the money to pay for most of the cost of my new piano. I still consider it more than a fair exchange.

No comments: