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History in Your Hands

Okay, I know this is a parenting website and not a forum about violins.  But not every parenting lesson comes directly from dealing with your kids.  Parents have identities beyond that one label, and I’m proud that when I ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up they have lists of things they want to do, which include being a parent.  My daughters always say, “Well, I want to be a mom of course, but also….” and words like scientist and singer and teacher roll off their tongues.  I feel that my job and my life outside the walls of our home shapes their sense of the possibilities out there.  That makes me happy.  I miss my children when I can’t be with them all the time, but I have no guilt about working.  And my work is all about violins.

Violins are complicated objects.  They are functional, but good ones have an artistic component.  They are delicate sculptures that are meant to be touched and performed with.  They have stories.  Many cheap violins lead short, tragic lives.  Some are hundreds of years old and are more famous than the people who play them.  Each violin is as unique as the trees that were cut to build them.  There are violins that are abused or forgotten, but many that are cherished and handed down for generations.  I work on violins in my store every day that are worth little in the general marketplace, but that were loved and used by someone’s grandmother or favorite uncle or dad, and that makes them priceless.  Violins are dependent upon their relationship and interaction with their owners for them to have any meaning.  They have a voice.

When I was in New York with my family over spring break I had the opportunity to look through dozens of violins that were coming up for auction at Christie’s.  My sister-in-law, Deepanjana, who is a specialist in Asian art there (although her official long title is Specialist  Head of Sale/AVP South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art–whew that wears me out as much as it impresses me), was able to get me in for a viewing a few days before the public showing so I could take my time and look at things quietly.

(Front door of Christie’s auction house in New York)

What an incredible opportunity!  There were a few mandolins and guitars to look at, but what I spent my time looking through were the violins and the bows.  I read the catalog carefully before I got there and made two lists:  One of things in my price range that I might bid on, and one of things that were impossibly expensive but was hoping to examine in person just because.  The violins valued at under $10,000 were simply laid out on long tables:

Some of them needed a great deal of work, others were ready to play.  The one I was most interested in I actually won over the phone during the auction.  (Although, ‘winning’ in an auction means I get to pay the highest amount offered for the item, so I’ve always thought that was an odd term for it.  But, hey, whatever you call it, that instrument is now mine!)  It’s a violin built in France in the mid 19th century that I thought was just lovely:

But it does need some work.  I will have to bush the pegbox, which essentially means plugging the holes the pegs fit into and creating new ones to go with new, smaller pegs.  All old violins need this at some point because the pegs work their way through the box over time making tuning more difficult.  See how fat and stumpy the shafts of the pegs look?  Once I bush the pegbox and fit it for new pegs it’s going to look and work much better.  (Plus it needs a new soundpost and bridge and the fingerboard needs planing….  Can’t wait!)

During the auction I was also able to get a couple of really nice bows that I’m excited to have in my store.  I’m often surprised by how many musicians don’t even realize how important the bow is to their playing.  Different bows not only handle differently, but they make different sounds.  A good bow is important, and I’m glad to have a couple of new ones for players in Milwaukee to try.

The people at Christie’s were unbelievably nice.  This impressed me because the place is elegant and everyone is dressed impeccably, and I, frankly, in my rumpled yoga pants, fleece jacket and sneakers looked like I’d been sleeping on the street.  I’m not a snappy dresser anyway, because there is no point when everything I wear just gets covered with sawdust and glue (sort of like the baby spit up years when you’re just asking for trouble by putting on a nice shirt), but combine that with living out of a travel bag that week and I was not a pretty sight.  The Christie’s people pretended not to notice and still handed me some of the rarest instruments and bows on the planet to examine as long as I liked.

It’s an incredible thing to hold a piece of history in your hands.  The jewel of this particular auction (and the instrument that graced the cover of the catalog for it) was a Guadagnini violin from 1740 that wound up selling for more than half a million dollars.  They had no qualms about handing it over to me simply because I wanted to see it.  The remarkable thing is that not only do the specialists at Christie’s care for these objects, but that they so readily recognize and encourage the enthusiasm of others for them.  They didn’t just let me hold this violin, they wanted me to hold this violin, even though they were perfectly aware that I would not be bidding on it.  Here are a couple of my own photos of the Guadagnini in the viewing room:

Non-violin people out there may not be struck by it, but the grace of those curves is unusually beautiful, and that maple back makes me swoon.  I got to look at that violin closely enough to appreciate how expertly those f-holes were cut and to marvel at the elegance of the corners and to be thoroughly envious of the varnish work.  I hope its new owner loves it and gets to play it in some amazing halls.

When all is said and done, with the commission and the shipping and the labor, I don’t make almost anything on the items I pick up at auction.  I need to make sure that anything I pass along to my customers is priced fairly, so I price things enough to cover my own costs and then tack on a tiny bit more so that at least the whole thing isn’t a wash.  From a business perspective I know this is not particularly savvy, but this is not a business anyone enters in order to be rich anyway.  I don’t care about being rich.  I care about being fulfilled.  I run my business well enough that I can afford to keep doing it and that’s what matters to me.  So the thrill of acquiring these pieces has less to do with any real good it will do my violin store’s bottom line, and more to do with having really interesting things to offer people, so they can also hold a bit of history in their hands.  The violin I bought at Christie’s is beautiful and old, and I can’t wait to fix it up.  I get to be the one to make it sing and find it a home.  That’s exciting, and it makes me glad I do what I do.

And that’s the kind of feeling I hope my kids will enjoy in whatever lives they grow up to choose.

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