Don Reinfeld, Bow Maker
The Physical characteristics of a bow:
How appearance, damage and repairs affect value - and how you can maintain the worth of your bow
by Mark R. Reindorf (Strings Magazine, November 1995)
When asked to assess the value of a bow, your first impulse is probably to see how it plays. Only afterward will you give it a closer examination. Perhaps you'll see a nick, a worn area on the stick, even a missing or damaged silver part on the frog. Can you say how such imperfections alter the value of the bow as a whole? What about more subtle or undetectable repairs? Dealers, appraisers, and collectors do this routinely. In fact, they measure a bow's value according to several criteria: the skill and reputation of the bow's maker, the bow's current physical condition, and its playing or handling characteristics.
The system is hardly perfect, since reputations fluctuate and even physical condition can be a matter of dispute. But there is widespread agreement on the relative importance of a bow's various physical attributes. If you would like to understand better why one bow is worth $5,000 and another by the same maker only $500, which kinds of damage can render a bow nearly worthless, what makes one bow a good investment, and how can you protect the value of the bow or bows you have now, you would do well to learn more about how the marketplace judges bows. Reading alone won't help make you an expert, but it may help you find your way through the thicket of terms and criteria the experts use and enable you to ask the right questions when looking at a bow from a strictly financial angle.
THE MAKER'S INTENTIONS
How do experts arrive at an actual valuation of a bow? As with any work of art or craft, they begin with the maker's original productions and the intent they embody, which are considered paramount. They look at the aesthetic integrity of the bow as a whole. Has any part been reformed or reshaped? They consider its component parts, such as the stick, frog, ferrule, ornaments, wrappings, and screw button. Have these elements been changed, repaired, or replaced? They look at the physical integrity of the bow. Has it been weakened through wear, cracks, breaks, or other damage?
The expert usually expresses the impact of each change as a percentage of the current value of an actual or hypothetical perfect specimen by the same maker. The value of all bows by a given maker will fluctuate over time, of course. The value of one particular bow, however, should be measured against the current value of that perfect specimen by the same hand - now a bow in comparable condition by a different maker.
Our next job, then, is to examine more closely the individual components common to all bows. We need to find out what can go wrong - and then try to measure the relative impact of these flaws on the bow's overall worth
Any change to the form of the bow shaft - the carving, tapering, placement of head/butt mortises, and cambering - diminishes the value of the bow. Similarly, the value declines when the component parts of the stick are disturbed, whether through damage, repair, or replacement. Some bow shafts do show inherent defects. While such problems as lack of strength, insufficient flexibility, incorrect weight, or improper distribution of mass are the result of poor wood selection not mistreatment, they still adversely affect the bow's value.
A good bow stick is a marvel of strength and flexibility, but it must be meticulously cared for. And even a lovingly protected bow will show some signs of wear if it is being used. The most prominent area of wear is the handle, which starts out with crisp and clear facets that are worn away through rubbing and perspiration. Severe wear of the handle can diminish the value of an otherwise well-preserved bow by upto 35%. Sometimes a worn handle/butt area is rebuilt through the application of clear or colored expy resin. While this gives the illusion of fresh facets and a crisp octagon, the underlying damage is merely camouflaged.
Wear can also be considerable in the thumb area, especially on cello bows. Again, it is not uncommon to find a filler such as colored epoxy resin masking this damage. Filling in merely disguises worn and damaged wood, however, and a bow with serious damage could lose as much as a third of its value.
The screw button is another point of wear. Over time, it can damage the butt end of the stick to require a bushing (insertion of a small tubular piece of pernambuco to replace severely worn wood surrounding the screwbutton shaft). If skillfully installed, the bushing has no serious effect on the bow's overall value. But a bushing add to reinforce a longitudinal crack will subtract at least 10% from the bow's value - even though the original structural strength of the bow may have been restored.
Other cosmetic defects in the stick, such as scratches, nicks, bumps, burns, and knots at stress points, detract from the overall appearance, and likewise from top value. But any major repair to the stick - a graft, splice, or repaired head when it has been clearly broken - radically diminishes the bow's value. When the bow is the work of a major maker, the frog alone can sometimes be salvaged. By itself, it may be worth from 25 to 30% of the bow's total value. A well-preserved frog can be fitted to another bow by the same maker, provided a stick in good condition is available. Reputable dealers will generally specify that such an exchange and refitting has occurred, provided they are aware of it. Often, such tinkering is neither obvious nor easy to detect.
The head of the bow is quite delicate, especially the extreme tip. Even though protected by an ivory plate, this tip can become cracked or split and require repair. Such damage can diminish a bow's value by about 10%. Damage to the ridge, chamfer, and cheek contours, whether in the form of file marks, scratches or dents, are not structural weaknesses. But they can take up to 10% of a bow's value for aesthetic reasons. A crack in the mortise area - where the block for holding the hair is inserted - is more severe, especially if the cheeks are split. Damage here will decrease value by at least 25%.
It is not unusual to find a bow shaft that has become slightly twisted, so that the frog is no longer perfectly aligned with the head. With an extremely valuable bow, it is considered imprudent to apply heat and lateral force sufficient to remove the twist, since a fracture or split might occur. In such a case the frog is often readjusted on the stick to produce a better alignment with the head. If properly done, this repair has only minimal effect on the value.
One final note on the stick: It is not unusual to find an older bow that has been coated with a heavy glistening varnish. This varnish does not necessarily reflect the original finish, and it may in fact hide some cosmetic surgery.
FROG AND SCREW BUTTON
Here are myriad small elements that figure in the condition of the bow: the carved ebony block, the silver ferrule, the pearl eyes and silver rings, the pearl slide and backing, the silver heel plate, the silver back slide or plate, the bottom slide, the eyelet, the pins or screws that hold things in place, and the screw portion of the button mechanism. Finally,m there is the button itself, which includes the internal core portion of either ebony or ivory, the silver rings, if any, the end pearl dot., if any, and the pins that hold the rings in place.
Particular care should be paid to the internal, generally hidden areas of the bow. The head mortise of the stick is sometimes repaired or altered to accommodate a bigger tip wedge. Similarly, the butt end mortise may be enlarged to accommodate a larger eyelet. This can make the [remaining] wood extremely thin and therefore fragile. Likewise the internal portions of the frog, since the tools and forces applied during repeated rehairings can exact a heavy toll on the condition of several vital parts. The area of contact with the spreader wedge [the tongue ]is especially vulnerable, since the ebony is quite thin and delicate at that point.
Of the frog's various silver parts, the most abused is generally the ferrule. Over years - not only decades but sometimes centuries - this small yet critical part is often squeezed, bent, split, scratched, and otherwise mistreated. Because accumulated rosin, dirt, and perspiration can greatly hinder the removal of the ferrule for rehairing, some damage is virtually inevitable. Bows entrusted to competent and qualified repairers, of course, show minimal damage and wear to this and other delicate parts of the frog.
The silver rings of the screw button are another problem area. When the ebony core absorbs excessive moisture, it is apt to push out and split the rings. They must then be resoldered or, if badly damaged or thinned, replaced. The heel plate and back plate (some bows have only one silver plate in this area, bent at a right angle and usually affixed with one or more small metal pins) are not subject to the same forces as the ferrule and screw button but are often scratched or banged. Finally, the silver rings encircling the pearl eyes in bows by such makers as Sartory, Thomassin, Fetique, and Ouchard are quite thin and thus fragile. They can split, bend, and occasionally even fall out.
The frog accounts for roughly 33% of the value of a bow by a major maker. The adjuster alone can count for 10% of the value. While all the many small parts of the frog do not individually account for significant percentages of value, they are all important and should be preserved.
Just as certain skillful repairs to the stick will only minimally affect value, there are many repairs to the frog and screw button mechanism that can do much to preserve the general condition of the bow. The insertion of a "cheval" is fairly common. Here an ebony piece is joined to the part of the frog that meets the stick, replacing a worn or splintered surface. Replacing the ebony center of the button when the old ebony is core is split or severely worn down, or the pearl eyes and slides when worn or eaten away by perspiration, minimally affects value. And when a bow is in a state of continual service, a bottom slide may be inserted, even when not included by the original maker. The is done to lessen wear on the frog.
MAINTAINING YOUR BOWS
What can you do to maintain the value of a bow you now own? While normal wear and tear is inevitable, you should take a few simple precautions.
A FINAL NOTE
The best repairs are undetectable to inexperienced eyes - and sometimes even to experts. Similarly, replacements of component parts can go unsuspected and thus unnoticed. When looking for a bow, you have two choices: If you choose a brand new bow, you avoid the problem of hidden repairs altogether, though the bow may have been tried out previously by other players.
But when looking for a fine used bow, you should avail yourself of the expertise of a dealer who is both experienced and ethical. He or she has the skill to determine what repairs have been effected on a bow and what role these repairs have in determining its overall value. And such a dealer will also discuss the bow's virtues an shortcomings with you frankly. By working with a highly qualified professional of this type, you may avoid the pitfalls of purchasing a bow with hidden repairs, and you can be confident that the bow you select has an actual value that reflects the purchase price.
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