Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Old Flute Economics

Hmm. Just noticed the date of the last blog! I think I'll have to change my approach to this, since the blog I've been meaning to write since then...the one about the cost of old flutes...keeps on retreating into the future. ( Can you use that expression? I read somewhere recently that there's a society somewhere who see the future as behind them and the past in front, logic being that you can't see the future, but can see the past. Makes sense to me)

I had written before about the cost and economics of the new flute, but as someone who is passionately interested in old flutes, both as a restorer and a collector myself, I really wanted to talk about the price of old flutes, vintage flutes, antique flutes, what ever you want to call them.
One thing that I have often remarked upon is how the emphasis among players shifted very quickly away from old flutes and towards the new in a short period time.
When I began making in 1979, and I was among the first, the vast, vast, majority of well known players played old flutes (I suppose to be more precise here I should say that what I have in mind when I talk about "old flutes" are generally English simple system flutes from the 19th century) By the late 1980s that situation had completely reversed, largely I believe because the quality and design of new flutes made them superior for the type of music being played.
This in itself had an effect on the price of old flutes, in a relative sense at least, as top quality new flutes began to be at least, and often more, expensive than the best old ones had been.
But there has always been something distinct about the market for old flutes, that sets it apart from the general area of antique musical instruments. Looking through the sales records of the major auction houses that have musical instrument sales, one of the most striking things, for me at any rate, is how with stringed, keyboard, and many other types of instrument, the price is controlled by such factors as age, rarity, and quality. We're all aware of the fabulous prices that Italian violins fetch, for example. Part of the reason for this, and one of the distinguishing factors between strings and woodwind is that the strings still have a musical functionality. Old Italian violins still feature largely in the hands of orchestral musicians worldwide. Since the advent of the Boehm flute the simple system flute has become very largely the concern of museums and collectors in general. It’s role in Irish traditional music and in the early music movement is a very small one overall, and as with Irish music, in early music modern copies nowdays have a bigger role to play.
Even given their bowing out to the modern flute, this does not quite explain how factors such as age, rarity, and quality seem to operate differently in this field. Antique firearms, for example have no practical modern role and yet the oldest and rarest, of the finest quality command very high prices.
Before I go any further it should be pointed out that from the buyer’s point of view there are two distinct levels of price…that of the auction and that of the dealer. A little consideration establishes that the auction price depends on the number of buyers who are interested in a particular flute, which can vary widely from day to day and place to place. The dealer on the other hand has a fixed price which is almost always higher, based on such factors as immediate availability, the availability of fully restored instruments, and often the ability to see and try the flute before buying.
The advent of the new flute has had an effect on the prices of old flutes simply because of the forces of supply and demand, as has the current economic downturn, to use a euphenism. And yet, the major element controlling the price of old flutes seems to be whether they are made by Rudall and Rose or not. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but as a generalisation it certainly works.
I would emphasize that, contrary to what most people think, the auctioneers, even those from prestigious houses selling high end instruments, have a very limited level of knowledge and expertise. So, I think that one way to look at what’s going on is to realise that a lot of people in the area (these days encouraged by internet boards), buyers, sellers, auctioneers, have latched onto the idea that flutes by Rudall and Rose ( and of course the other combinations of the firm with Carte) are the epitome of the 19th century simple system flute, and this idea is perpetuated to the exclusion of anything else. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, as long as it keeps going, it just gets bigger and bigger. One of the strongest points supporting this approach is, of course, that the flutes made by this firm are wonderful instruments, and truly deserve a central role. But the converse of this is that it diminishes the wonderful work done by many other makers, whose reputations in modern times lie in obscurity in the shadow cast by the promotion of Rudall and Rose.
In terms of the criteria mentioned above which normally determine the price of antiques, flutes by R & R certainly don’t score highly on the rarity front…with somewhere in the region of 7000 8 key flutes made between 1821 and the end of the century they are among the commonest of the type. In terms of age, all the flutes I’m talking about here are from the same period so that doesn’t really enter into it, and in terms of quality, doubtless though the quality of Rudall & Rose’s output is, it is easily matched, and often surpassed by the work of contemporaries.
Although the market for old flutes has fallen quite a bit in recent years, the large numbers of flutes made by Rudall and Rose ensures that they still come on the market frequently, and despite the fall in the market generally, appear to realise an average price of somewhere in the region of £stg2500. This will be for what we might call a standard R & R 8 keyed flute.
At the same time instruments of much greater beauty, rarity, and significance to the world of the simple system flute in general often change hands for around a third of this price.
Remarkable and confusing, but true.
I suppose one advantage, looking at it from a collectors point of view, is that it allows someone of restricted means to buy high quality instruments, and a large part of the fun of collecting anything is the satisfaction of discovering and buying something for a fraction of it’s real value.
And just to show that it’s dangerous to deal in generalities, or perhaps it really is the exception that proves the rule, consider this;
Within the last year a bog standard “German” flute was sold on ebay for $2000 and an absolutely mint Rudall, Rose & Carte 8 keyed flute in original case was sold at auction for £180…


  1. Hi, interesting thoughts. I'd like to know more of those "undervalued" makers and flutes. Are these singular flutes of different makers or are there makers with a consistently high level?
    Who should one contact for further information, tips for buying etc.?



  2. Hi Moritz,
    Thanks for your comment and as usual sorry for the delay in responding. I hope to tell a lot more about the undervalued makers, and they are makers of a consistently high level and not just " once offs"
    As a start I hope my next post will be about a very good example of such a flute that I'm just finishing restoring at the moment, and it will serve as a good example of the type.
    I'll also try and guide you about buying, but it is largely a matter of experience. A major problem is that auction house descriptions are often woefully inadequate....
    All the best and Happy New year to all my readers!