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Violin maker brings traditions of Italian masters to Tokyo

Work is a lifelong labor of love for craftsman, teacher, dealer and appraiser Louis Caporale

by Richard Solomon

Born in Nebraska, Louis Caporale started playing the violin at the age of 4. By 14 he was building violins. At 18, he was the youngest student enrolled at the Chicago School of Violin Making.

In time, he became a respected maker as well as teacher of the craft, and an expert appraiser/dealer of modern Italian violins from the Turin School (dated from the late 1800s to the early 1900s). Today, Caporale divides much of his time between his Yoyogi and Hachioji workshops, doing what he enjoys most — making violins and teaching violin making.

Caporale’s mother was a violin teacher who instructed the young man in the Suzuki method from a tender age. (For those unfamiliar, the Suzuki method was developed in Japan by Shinichi Suzuki in the mid-20th century specifically to teach young people to play the violin by ear.)

Caporale’s grandfather was a carpenter from Naples, Italy, and his father also liked building with wood. The younger Caporale soon came to realize he had inherited this passion for working with the material.

Caporale fondly remembers what started him on the road to making violins. “I finally got the chance to buy an adult-sized violin when I was 12,” he recalls. “My mother took me down to the violin shop. There was an old man, like (Tim Conway’s character) from ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ who would take about 20 minutes to walk across the room to pull out each violin. I looked inside and saw the label. It was a label of someone who lived 200 years ago!

“It was my first exposure to understand that people made old instruments. I started thinking, 200 years from now, someone was going to pick up a violin, look inside, see my name, and have the same ‘wow’ reaction. That’s when the spark hit.”

By the age of 14, Caporale had made his first violin using tools given him by his first teacher — a World War I vet who served in Italy and later passed down to Caporale his knowledge of the great Italian makers. Caporale still uses some of those tools, now close to 100 years old, today. He then spent four years formally studying violin making under the tutelage of Tschu Ho Lee and Brian Derber, both at the Chicago School of Violin Making.

After graduating in 1988, Caporale moved to Japan, a place he had visited at age 16, when his mother brought him here on a trip related to work.

Caporale was impressed with life in Japan. It was easy to find work during the bubble era, and Caporale took a job at Gengakki Duo, a well-known Japanese violin maker and dealer.

His boss, Muneyuki Nakazawa, gave Caporale the opportunity of a lifetime. “The reality is that violin makers are a dime a dozen,” says Caporale. “Dealers make their money from selling old violins, not from working in the shop making new ones.”

Nakazawa sent Caporale to look for and buy rare instruments. “That was the best opportunity of my life because once you pass a certain point in your violin making, holding a Stradivarius or a fine Italian master make in your own hands, feeling it, looking into it — that is your best teacher.”

Caporale had the chance to study old instruments and hone the ability to distinguish the real from the fake — an essential skill given that 70 to 80 percent of violins Caporale sees are imitations. “I really got to know old violins,” he says.

Caporale had many unique experiences. When he was 21, Nakazawa flew him to the U.S. with $100,000 in cash to look at a bow collection owned by an old man in Texas. The retiree thought the man he was to meet was going to be Japanese. Instead, Caporale walked into the room with his briefcase of cash.

“He heard my Italian name and became scared. He brought another guy into the room, who pulled out guns. In Texas, people carry guns! He must have been worried about the possibility of my stealing from him. In the end I spent about $60,000.”

The story ended on a positive note: One of the bows he bought that day for $40,000 is worth $375,000 today.

After working for Nakazawa for five years, Caporale set up shop and started making violins on his own.

Caporale is a violin maker first and foremost. “In violin making, you use every part of your body,” he explains. “You use much strength. You need artistic skills. And you need to think, ‘If I touch this, it is going to affect that part of the violin.’ Every part of the violin affects some other part. So you have to use your mind. It’s not just about using your hands.”

Caporale enjoys making handmade violins. “Many parts including the purfling (the decorative stripe around a violin’s edge) can be made by machine. But when you take a thin knife and make it yourself, it’s a good feeling. I can make a violin faster and more efficiently if I used more machine equipment. But I don’t want to. There’s no fun in that.”

Today, most private labeled violins used by concert violinists are made entirely by hand. This differentiates them from machine-tooled commercial brands like Yamaha or Suzuki.

The least expensive “usable” newly handmade violins produced by amateur makers, according to Caporale, sell for about $2,000. The most expensive newly made violins cost about $50,000. The average good professional maker charges about $15,000. A newly made Caporale retails for about $16,000.

Most makers, while they’re still alive, find the value of their used violins drops over time. Only a few makers’ violins rise in value.

“After a maker dies, almost always the price increases; it changes the game,” Caporale says. A Caporale, on the other hand, often goes up in price on the secondary market after it is about 10 years old. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe they think I’m already dead?”

It takes about a month for Caporale to make a violin, excluding the finishing. He learned early on to take time in applying the varnish.

When he was just starting out, Caporale took a tip from a respected violin dealer in Ginza who told him to make violins in the style of Fagnola. “I got a Fagnola, sat down at my bench, and made a copy. I made it as close to the genuine instrument as I could, but nobody wanted it at any price. This is where I started thinking more about varnishing,” he explains.

“You have to look at the big picture — the artistic view of the violin. I took off a little varnish here and there, added some edges to make it warm and make it the right color. I ended selling that violin for a much higher price than was originally asked for,” says Caporale.

“Three years later, it came back to me with a certificate from a European authority (falsely) stating that it was a genuine violin of a modern Italian make! But originally, nobody would buy it from me, not even for $1,000.

“The point is, it doesn’t matter how good you make a violin — if you don’t do that final step right, people are not going to want to touch it.”

So today, when making a violin, Caporale puts on a little varnish each day, depending on the type of varnish and the weather. The rest of the workday, he’s either working on a new violin and appraising or dealing in rare instruments.

Caporale also teaches violin making.

“The people who come here want to learn,” says Caporale. “It’s kind of more fun to teach a person who’s not very good. They have a real hard time, but then they improve. That makes me happy.

“The violin gets finished and they are playing it, or hearing it being played. I see the look on their face. I think I get more gratification seeing their finished violin than I do with my own — there is a little bit of me in their work. It’s a bit of immortality that I’ve passed on.”

Richard Solomon posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net. Louis Caporale is joint owner of Caporale & Ochando, 1-1-5-101 Yoyogi, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo 151-0053 (www.violinmakers.com). Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .


A fiddle worth more than gold: investing in strings

As an investment, rare violins such as those made by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu have consistently and dramatically outperformed both gold and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Between 1960 and 2008 the price of Stradivarii increased 26,083 percent. Gold, in comparison, increased by 2,529 percent and the DJIA by only 1,425 percent.

Even the financial crisis of 2008 did not affect the high-end violin market, with Stradivari and Guarneri violin prices continuing to rise during the turmoil.

One reason rare violins go up in price is that, unlike gold that is continuously mined, rare instruments are irreplaceable. Stradivari made 1,100 string instruments during his lifetime, Only 512 of his violins, along with 13 violas and 67 cellos, are known to exist today.

Another factor is that violins are iconic cultural works of art, passed down from generation to generation and played by the world’s greatest musicians. Large institutional buyers perpetuate high prices by acquiring trophy instruments that are then loaned by their patrons to performing artists. The cache these institutions earn as patrons of the arts lifts the prices of rare violins. The transition of vast numbers of people from developing nations into middle-class consumers with a growing wealthy elite provides yet another source of demand.

Time Magazine in 2009 reported the research of Brandeis University economist Kathryn Graddy, who found that violins valued $100,000 or more hold their value even in an economic downturn. Her research showed that between 1850 and 2009 the value of professional-quality instruments increased by 3 percent each year in real terms.

Louis Caporale, who has been buying and selling violins for 20 years, says, “I’ve made mistakes by investing in stocks and properties — things I don’t understand. Violins are what I know.” He adds, “Even if you overpay for a violin, as long as it is in good condition, of decent quality and of genuine make, it may take five years to return to its correct market price. If you grossly overpay, it will take 10 years. But since the market never goes down, it will continue to increase in value.”

An investment in violins, therefore, could provide an excellent hedge against future inflation. Even if sovereign states choose to inflate their debts away, a rare violin should preserve its value in real terms.

Still, investing in violins is not without its risks. Unlike gold, a rare violin can be forged. And of course, past performance never guarantees future returns.