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.

Alison quips that if Des ever manages to buy his perfect cello, he'll be denying her a new house and college for their future kids. Des motions at her to get serious. Her voice still sunny, Alison explains that really Des's goals and hers are the same. "I want him to play something he wants to play. The happier he is, the more fun he is to live with. He's an artist."

Sometime after Des refused to buy the Tononi, he found out that its scroll -- the carved piece of curled wood above the peg box over the neck -- had been fashioned by someone other than Tononi. A cello's scroll can make up 20 to 30 percent of its value; though it makes little difference to the instrument's sound, the original scroll adds significantly to the cello's value as an antique.

Des later discovered that the cellist who ended up buying the Tononi had the mismatched scroll removed and had a genuine Tononi scroll pieced onto the neck. Since then, Des has learned the instrument has been reappraised at around $400,000 -- nearly double the price he first thought was too much, even when he believed the scroll to be the original.

That knowledge has made Des even more cautious. "I could buy an instrument that one expert tells me is a Stradivari, get all my friends together, buy the thing for a few million dollars and try to sell it four years later. And someone can say, 'That's not a Strad. That's worth $100.' Who's right?"

Des has heard from his friend Jeff Butler what can happen when experts squabble over a cello's origins. Last November a Midwest rare-instrument dealer turned Jeff on to a fine 19th-century Italian model selling for 80,000 English pounds (about $130,000) in a London shop. "It would be worth the plane ride to see it," his friend told him. Jeff valued the friend's judgment, so he took a chance and flew to London to check it out. When he got there, he liked what he heard.

Back in the U.S., Jeff agreed to trade in his own cello -- a 1905 William Hill & Sons valued at $30,000 to $40,000 -- and wired the rest in two payments to the UK. His symphony schedule was tight, so he sent his wife, Wendy Smith-Butler, a cellist in the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera orchestras, to retrieve the new purchase. The couple spent $800 on two round-trip tickets: one for Wendy and one for a cello. She rode with Jeff's old cello from Houston to London.

When the London dealer laid eyes on Jeff's cello, he didn't like its weathered varnish, among other things, so he demanded more money in addition to the trade-in. Having renegotiated the price, Wendy carried Jeff's new cello back to the U.S. to a well-reputed shop in Chicago to have it appraised.

To Jeff and Wendy, the Italian cello's papers looked impeccable. Two experts in Chicago took a good look. Then two others at a different shop examined it. All three had bad news. They felt Jeff's cello was of German, not Italian, origin. Instead of $130,000, they valued it at less than $40,000. Even when Shaw first saw it, he said, "It looks like a German cello."

Jeff and Wendy were devastated: Besides having their money, the shop had Jeff's cello, too. Though the English expert stood by his initial opinion, Jeff begged to renege on the deal. By this time, the London expert who had authenticated the instrument was livid. The shop proprietor feared for his reputation, so he agreed to refund the money and return Jeff's cello. All Jeff had to do was burn up one more round-trip ticket. Two weeks later -- and another $850 poorer -- he could have kissed his old cello.

Des, like every other serious cello shopper, is painfully aware of a similar controversy surrounding an instrument more far more notorious than Jeff's. A violin called the Messiah, supposedly crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and believed to be his masterwork, has recently been labeled a fake.

Last century, violinist Delphin Alard coined the instrument's name after asking its owner, Luigi Tarisio, if he could lay eyes on it. Tarisio had bragged of the violin's beauty but wouldn't bring it out in the open. Alard likened the fiddle to a messiah we all wait for but never see.

The instrument still sits behind sealed glass in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, and hasn't been played in 100 years. But last March, Stewart Pollens, an associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City told The Wall Street Journal that he'd stumbled onto an inconsistency in the violin's f-holes while scrutinizing it two years ago for a book he was writing. His questions, and a wood analysis by expert Peter Klein, led Pollens to discredit the Messiah's pedigree. Not surprisingly, the Hill family of violin dealers, who loaned the instrument to the English museum, have called in their own experts.

The moral of the story is obvious: When even the Messiah is in doubt, how can Des possibly know whom to trust?

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