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.

At age 11, Des was ready for his first full-size cello. It shone with a bright yellow varnish and had been made by Canadian George Friess. Des paid $1,000 for it, prize money from the national finals of the Kiwanis Music Festival. When he played the Friess at Juilliard, buddies dubbed him the Mellow Fellow with the Yellow Cello.

Des's connection with Mellow Yellow intensified as he played it. It grew to be an extension of his own voice, the tuneful piece of his soul. Before he graduated, he and the yellow cello won a number of contests. The best was a $5,000 purse from Canadian Broadcast Corporation's Search for the Stars, a variety show where he beat out a rock group and a couple of dancers by playing Chopin's Polonaise Brilliante.

In 1984 Des won a coveted post as the Montreal Symphony's associate principal cellist. He realized it was time to retire Mellow Yellow: He was on his way to the big leagues, and Mellow Yellow wasn't up to that level of play.

Des had $15,000 in contest winnings to use as a down payment, and with that grubstake he went cello shopping in New York. At Jacques Francais, a large instrument shop owned by one of this century's most venerated violin experts, he spotted a chocolate-brown cello. Made in Turin, it was designed by Antonio Guadagnini, a descendant of G.B. Guadagnini II, who was reportedly Stradivari's pupil. Today, a G.B. Guadagnini cello can fetch half a million, but cellos by Guadagnini's descendants cost less. Jacques Francais's Guadagnini -- a mere 119 years old -- is considered "modern" and was priced at $40,000.

Des took it home to Montreal for a long test-drive, the extended trial period that's standard operating procedure among cello buyers. Instrument sellers know that a musician won't buy until he gives an instrument a good workout in a concert hall with listeners he trusts. Not only do instruments sound different in such a large space, they sound different to the audience than to the player. Italian cellos, for instance, sound bright and scratchy directly under the ear, but to an auditorium listener, their tone is rounded and focused.

Des loved the Guadagnini's richness -- a huge improvement over Mellow Yellow. After three weeks, he phoned a dealer at Jacques Francais and told him he was ready to buy. Excited, the dealer asked Des the price of the instrument.

Des hesitated and for some reason fibbed: "I'm not really sure. I don't remember." He remembered perfectly -- $40,000 is a lot of money.

Back on the phone, the dealer gave him the store's asking price: $35,000.
Silently, Des did the math. The first salesman at Jacques Francais had tacked on $5,000 more than the store's actual asking price -- perhaps, Des thought, because he had looked young and inexperienced, an easy mark. Des vowed never to be taken again.

Des's career continued to prosper. In 1991 he became the Houston Symphony's principal cellist. The job was both prestigious and satisfying: He got to work with conductor Christoph Eschenbach and to lead one of the best cello sections in the world. But the chocolate-brown Guadagnini didn't seem up to the task. Des began to notice the darkness in its tone, the muddiness that didn't allow him to achieve the effects he wanted. It wasn't enough anymore to have an Italian cello; Des wanted one of the old Italian cellos, the best of their kind.

Realistically, he aimed for the tier slightly below the pinnacle. Even superstars can't afford the most expensive instruments: Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, owns only one-third of the Strad he plays; a consortium of banks owns the rest.

Four years ago Des connected with a Maryland dealer who'd acquired a 1786 Lorenzo Storioni cello made in Cremona. The instrument was numbered 1,019, but only six others like it still existed. A paper trail traced its ownership back to December 8, 1945, the date of its earliest known certificate of authenticity. Des thought it had an unusual, beautiful design. Covered with a red-brown varnish, its maple sides had a small curl. A plain scroll adorned its neck, and its top was crafted from medium-grain spruce.

When testing a cello, Des relies on a handful of listeners, people he trusts to assess how the instrument's voice sounds in the concert hall. One of those listeners is Peter Shaw, a violin restorer and the owner of Amati Violin Shop near Rice University. When Des and other cellists in the orchestra are trying new cellos, they usually go to Shaw. He's happy to tinker with the instrument a little to make it sound right: He can change out strings, reposition the bridge, maybe even adjust the inside sound post.

To Shaw, it seemed only appropriate that Des should play an old Italian cello. Shaw estimates only 10 percent of Houston Symphony string players perform with "modern" instruments such as Des's chocolate-brown Guadagnini. More than 80 percent, he figures, play on pre-1880 designs, and about 5 percent own a rare Italian violin or cello that dates back to Italy's golden age of violin making, the era between the 17th and 18th centuries that produced the master, Antonio Stradivari, and others nearly as good.

What makes antique Italian instruments so special remains a mystery. To the trained ear, their sounds are noticeably colorful and open; they possess a core that's not too focused; they're able to project. Other old cellos simply aren't as good: Antique French cellos tend to sound bright but nasal; antique German ones sound sweet but soft.

Some musicologists say the secret lies in the varnishes, some of which were concocted from oil thinned with wine, with a little bee glue mixed in. Others believe Stradivari carved the belly and the back with a special touch. One legend had it that old masters knew how to tap live trees to find the most resonant wood.

The scientific community persists in putting Stradivari's designs under a microscope, but Shaw prefers to explain their magic in architectural terms. "There's not one single element that makes a great violin," he says. "It's a combination. If you're not 100 percent on a few details, you still have a good violin. The better you do in all of them, the better the instrument."

The Storioni dated from that magical period, and to Des it seemed like a contender. He brought it to symphony rehearsals of the opera Der Rosenkavalier. But finding a stringed instrument is a bit like finding a mate: A good pedigree helps, but it's more important that the musician and the instrument be compatible. Des's gut told him the Storioni wasn't right. It didn't respond to his vigorous style of playing. He feared he might eventually break it.

But even as Des was deciding the instrument wouldn't work, the cellist who sat behind him was falling in love. Bob Deutsch, a friend of Des's, loved listening to Des's solos on the Storioni. Bob hoped Des would buy it, but he could tell his friend wasn't that keen on it.

So one day at rehearsal, Bob made his move. He told Des, "If you ever decide you don't want the cello, I'd like to try it out." Des agreed.

When rehearsals finally moved to the orchestra pit, Des tried the Storioni in its real element. To Des, it sounded no better in the concert hall than in the practice room. He confided to Bob, "I'm not sure this is the cello for me."

Bob secretly rejoiced. He tried hard to be discouraging. "Des," he said, "don't settle for second best. Keep looking."

Des rang up the dealer and got permission to let Bob give the cello a whirl. Bob, who'd been playing a 19th-century French cello, grew only more smitten with the Storioni. By comparison, it made his French cello sound sterile. And the traits that had bothered Des worked in Bob's favor. In Bob's supporting position in the symphony's cello section, he didn't need an instrument with a commanding presence. And he also often performs in string quartets or piano trios, where he needs something that doesn't bark louder than the other chamber players. He bought the Storioni.

Bob, at least, had found his perfect cello.

A year after Des passed on the Storioni, he got the chance to buy a late-18th-century Tononi. He took it for acoustical spins in Jones Hall and concert halls at Rice University, and asked his usual suspects to listen: Shaw and symphony cellists Chris French and Jeff Butler.

His colleagues loved the Tononi's colorful overtones. Its palette was so rich with hues and tints that the tone of Des's chocolate-brown Guadagnini, by comparison, resembled a canvas awash with nothing but reds.

But Des lost faith in the dealer. The cello's owner, who lived in Vienna, needed to make a quick six figures on the sale to pay for another cello, and conservative Des disliked the dealer's high-pressure sales tactics. He also felt uneasy about the price -- inflated, he thought, by at least $100,000.

But what scared him most was the dealer's eagerness for Des to trade in his chocolate-brown Guadagnini as part of the deal. "All my personality and all that I'd done were in this cello," says Des. He worried that the Tononi might somehow not work out -- and that his trusty Guadagnini would be gone before he could rectify matters.

Certainly, the stakes were high enough to make anyone nervous. At 37, Des has attained the tier of success next to stardom, but this cello would require a huge fraction of his income. Last year Houston Symphony cellists earned a respectable base salary of $63,700 a year. Des makes more as first chair and earns a bit more by teaching cello performance at Rice's Shepherd School of Music. But still, a quarter of a million is a huge amount of money to him; his cello will likely cost several times more than his house. And the more expensive it is, the more costly a mistake could be.

Des said no to the Tononi, and the dealer quickly sold it elsewhere. Des now thinks he made a mistake: The Tononi was one worth keeping.

Three years ago Des met fellow Canadian Alison Hendry in Houston, after a mutual friend introduced them. They were married in a year. At 34, the gregarious, fair-headed Alison is abandoning her former career as an obstetrical nurse to design costumes for the theater. Fittings and rehearsals keep her busy while Des does solo concerts out of town. In the living room of their one-story ranch home in Knollwood Village, she giggles when she discusses her former life with Julian Armour, a cellist who runs the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. She and Julian learned the pitfalls of cello shopping firsthand when he dragged her searching all over New York before settling on a $40,000 English model.

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?

For now, Des treats his chocolate-brown Guadagnini with care. After symphony gigs, when he drives to the restaurant Tasca, the Guad sits in the front seat next to him. Transporting it in the trunk or back seat is a no-no. Fellow cellist Bob Deutsch recoils in horror at the thought: "I'd sooner put my guest in the trunk than my cello."

Likewise, most symphony cellists fly with their instruments in the seat beside them. (Stories abound of student musicians, too poor to pay for the extra ticket, who checked their cellos and saw them splintered by baggage handlers.) Des figures that 80 percent of the time toting the Guadagnini to concerts is a hassle. Although FAA rules on carrying large instruments are standard for all airlines, most employees don't have a clue what they are. He has even been told, on his way to a concert, that regulations prevent the cello from going on the plane -- and has had to exchange his tickets for last-minute seats on another airline.

For the most part, the Guad also stays indoors, out of the Houston humidity. Des, Bob and the rest of the cello section keep throw-down cellos for playing outside, or for hauling around in their car trunks. Des inherited his backup cello from wife Alison, who paid $250 Canadian dollars for it, the bow, the case and a stack of sheet music. Bob's second cello is an orangish Chinese number that looks exquisite but sounds as if it's talking through its nose. Chris bought his second cello for $250 at a pawn shop.

Backstage recently at a Pops rehearsal in Jones Hall, several string players saw Arlington, Texas, violin shop owner Wayne Burak show off a carbon-fiber cello. It's perhaps the epitome of American instrument making: tough, cheap and high-tech, made of the same carbon-fiber material as F-117 fighter jets ("the Stealth cello," the symphony guys call it.) It retails for a minimum of $2,500, comes in a variety of colors (nail-polish red!) and can withstand far more than humidity. Burak, showing off, intentionally dropped one on the ground. The cellists were impressed. For a delicate wooden cello, the fall could have been fatal.

To help string players protect their instruments, the orchestra pays part of their insurance premiums, covering the instruments for damage up to $40,000. Des kicks in several hundred more every year to protect his Guad against normal wear and tear. It has been repaired a couple of times since he has owned it, once after a prop man knocked it over in the Wortham Center orchestra pit.

Instrument insurance also covers the Guadagnini for loss. Des doesn't know what its current value is, but he suspects it's several times what he paid for it in 1984. "Prices have gone crazy," Shaw explains; Japanese and Korean investors entered the market in the 1980s, and prices soared when the dollar weakened against the yen.

"When you have a cello worth the price of your house, you want to make sure it's not suddenly gone," Des says. He knows one cellist at the symphony who stows his 1786 Carcassi in a 300-pound gun case bolted to the floor of his house. Des doesn't think he's crazy.

Des took his most recent test-drive this spring, on a 1655-vintage Amati. He was playing a spring concert with the University of Saskatoon Symphony in Saskatchewan when the symphony's music director asked him, during a master class, to warm up the instrument, which had been sitting in the university's closet for a year.

Des quickly agreed. It's unhealthy for a cello to go unplayed, and besides, he was curious how it would sound. Amati is the oldest violin trademark in Cremona, the magical instrument-making area, and Stradivari was reputedly a disciple of Nicolo's, the family's most prominent shop owner.

The cello lived up to Des's hopes. He found it easy to play, even more open than the Tononi. Pleased, he played it at the concert then tried to get permission to leave Saskatoon with the old cello for a few weeks of solo concerts. But the academic board that oversees its use felt a little uneasy about letting go of the Amati. Des hopes that in the future he can fly to the university periodically to visit it and that, someday, the board will come around.

But even if Des ever gets the Amati on short-term loans, he'll still need another cello, for the times the Amati isn't available. Recently he began checking out another hot prospect. For about a year Peter Shaw, of the Amati Violin Shop, has heard about an Italian cello from colleagues who own a shop in New York. Dominicus Busan, a Venetian maker, designed it around 1750. Shaw wasn't sure of the asking price -- somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 -- but he says the instrument was hyped almost as much as the Messiah Strad. He couldn't wait to see it.

Shaw flew to New York to borrow it, and last week, Des tried the Busan in Shaw's shop. Figuring out the cello's value is even more complex than usual: Because Busans are so rare, one seldom comes on the market, and Des and Shaw suspect the asking price is inflated. And the cello's papers are so old, and thus so unreliable, that Des needs to find experts to confirm the instrument's authenticity.

But Des is the expert on sound, and almost in spite of himself he allows that the cello was "interesting" and "kind of cool." He quickly adds that the shop's acoustics are forgiving, that the real testing has yet to be done, and that even if the sound were perfect, the cello might not be worth the price.

But maybe, he admits, just maybe he has finally found the right one.

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