Instrument auctions for the digital age

Jason PriceFri 21st June 2013

Tarisio Auctions have redefined fine stringed instrument sales for Internet users

Jason Price, director of Tarisio Auctions, discusses the ways in which the advent of Internet auctions has affected the traditional world of stringed instrument sales.

Tarisio was born in 1999 with the aim of creating a more efficient, accessible and transparent forum for buying and selling stringed instruments. Traditionally the stringed instrument world had been rather closed, with knowledge held by a relatively small number of experts. Our idea was to open up the market by offering high-level expertise combined with an online bidding platform. Tarisio sales would be of top quality, but in an environment that allowed many more people access to bid.

People adapted very quickly to buying online. One of the major advantages of Internet sales is that clients have more time to consider their bids and feel less pressured than in the traditional live auction environment. If any bids are placed in the last 10 minutes before a lot closes, the ending time automatically extends for 15 minutes, and this continues until all bids have been placed, allowing everyone time to respond to last-minute bids.

In addition to increasing efficiency, the Internet has caused the entire string instrument business to become much more transparent about practices and compensation. In the past, retail transactions have rarely disclosed the seller’s margins, but at Tarisio the buyer knows what the seller receives and everything in between. This is very much the model of the future. Transparency has meant ensuring a high level of catalogue accuracy, and from the start we offered a comprehensive authenticity guarantee, which is something no other auction house had done before. We have also concentrated on providing high-quality photography and condition reports for all lots. It is important to make sure that buyers feel confident in their purchases.

I also believe that the market as a whole will benefit as buyers become more and more informed and I want Tarisio to lead this trend. With that in mind, in 2012 we bought Cozio, the world’s largest archive of instruments and bows with photographs of over 30,000 instruments. We’ve spent the past year organising this data and developing an online interface to allow clients to access this information and use it to make more informed decisions. An informed clientele makes for a stronger and healthier marketplace for all.

One of our early successes was a Brothers Amati viola from 1616, which sold in our second sale for twice the previous record for a viola at auction – an astonishing $775,000 from a starting bid of $250,000. We took the consignment from a retiring musician in the San Francisco Symphony, brought it to market and sold it through the roof. That made people look our way.  

Tarisio is a young company in all senses, with most of its employees aged under 40. This can raise scepticism in a business typically served by white hair and wizened experience, but usually this changes from the moment we engage with the consignor or the buyer. It helps that we have always paid attention to the needs of musicians and provide well-adjusted instruments in a friendly, receptive environment.

As we have grown, the traditional auction houses have withdrawn from the string instrument market. In November 2012 Sotheby’s announced that it would cease to hold sales of musical instruments and earlier in 2013 Christie’s followed suit. It’s been remarkable to see the market experience so many changes and react to new technologies and new ways of doing business.

Since our first sale in 1999, Tarisio has grown to become the world’s largest auction house of stringed instruments, with clients bidding from computers, tablets and smart-phones around the world. We hold eight auctions a year (five in New York, three in London) and average an 80 to 90 per cent sales rate. We currently hold the record for the highest price paid for a musical instrument at auction, $15.9m for the ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivari of 1721.

Jason Price's picture

Jason Price

Jason Price played the cello from the age of eight, which sparked his interest in fine instruments. He studied violin making in Cremona and co-founded Tarisio in 1999. Tarisio’s June London sale is online now at www.tarisio.com.

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