Searching for a Cello

In school, Des Hoebig learned to play an instrument. Now, out in the shady world of big-money dealers, he's learning to buy one.

Desmond Hoebig took a seat on the old man's couch and, for the next two hours, took the 200-year-old cello for a test-drive. He started with a plain C-major scale, his left fingers clambering four octaves up the neck while his right hand wielded the bow. In the cramped room, just north of New York City, the sound was overpowering.

The cello's voice grew big and mournful, like a cow lowing directly under Des's ear. He ran through the opening cadenza of Brahms's E-Minor Sonata to test the C-string. He shifted into the Brahms Double to hear the cello at full volume. He sailed into the Haydn D Concerto to test the upper registers -- and that was when he fell in love. This cello, a Guarneri, came from the shop of an Italian master and sounded beautifully clear on the high notes. Better still, its baritone notes lacked the muddiness he heard on the cello he played every day.

As Des warmed the cello's strings, he felt a newfound power. Each time he varied his usual vibrato or put a different tweak on a familiar eighth-to-quarter-note phrase, the Guarneri responded with a sensitivity he'd never before experienced. To Des, it was like switching from a Honda Civic to a Lamborghini, or like painting with high-quality oils instead of gloppy cheap ones. For the first time in his 22 years of playing, he understood what made old Italian cellos so special.

And so hard to afford. The old man wanted nearly $300,000 -- a large sum now, and an even more formidable sum then, in 1989. A cello's price is determined by two things: the quality of its tone and its value as an antique, a collectible work of art. The two spheres often overlap. Musicians and connoisseurs generally agree that the finest cellos were made two centuries ago by families in Cremona and Venice, the same makers who crafted the world's best violins. Those instruments are rare, and contemporary makers have never replicated their sound quality.

The old man's cello had been made by Andrea Guarneri, a famous violin maker from Cremona and a peer of Antonio Stradivari's. The instrument wasn't at the peak of the cello hierarchy -- those can command prices upward of $1 million -- but it was firmly in the upper tiers: below the notice of Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps, but out of reach for a player in a midsize city orchestra.

Des was 28, and his future looked bright. Since graduating from Juilliard he'd cut three CDs with pianist Andrew Tunis. His concerts with the Orford String Quartet brought in a comfortable middle-class living. But to afford the Guarneri, he'd have to spend 60 to 70 percent of his income paying the cello's mortgage. He was footloose and single, but he wasn't sure he was willing to live like a student for the next 25 years. No house, no nice car. And he'd have to say yes to every student who wanted lessons and to every two-bit classical venue that invited him to perform as a soloist.

But after a couple of hours playing the Guarneri, of hearing how good it made him sound, he was ready to commit, to sacrifice deeply to own the right instrument. For Des, it was a big step. But as it turned out, deciding he was ready was only the beginning. Finding and buying the perfect cello would be harder than he'd ever dreamed. Over the next ten years, he'd get married and become the principal cellist for the Houston Symphony. And still, he'd continue his search for the perfect cello.

The old man eventually told Des that he wasn't ready to sell, but he and the dealer gave Des right of first refusal. Among the tiny, rarefied community of string-instrument buyers and sellers, "right of first refusal" carried a commitment as solid as a handshake between a small-town banker and the farmer who depends on him year after year for loans: The owner promised not to sell the cello to anyone else before giving Des a chance to meet the price.

Des couldn't get the Guarneri's voice out of his mind. Two months after playing it, he hadn't heard from the dealer, so he phoned him to ask whether the old man had made up his mind.

"I sold that cello over in Germany last month," the dealer said blithely, explaining that a buyer in Europe had offered more money.

Partly Des blamed himself for not keeping in touch with the dealer. But even so, he was shocked by the casual violation of their verbal deal. The high-stakes buying and selling of stringed instruments, he realized for the first time, wasn't entirely genteel and respectable.

Often, in fact, it can be downright shady. Like any professional musician, Des knows his craft, but the conservatory hadn't taught him how to tell a Guarneri cello from an Amati, or how to protect himself when cutting a deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What Des had learned was music. Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, he was five when his parents, both music teachers, thrust a tiny violin into his arms. He didn't warm up to it, so his father showed him how to play a half-size cello. That suited him better.

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