It's an old story: wife walks in on husband looking at embarrassing things on the computer. It happened to me this week. I caught my husband, author Ross Gresham, looking at ... violins.
Ross is addicted to comparing violin prices on eBay, even though our daughter already has a perfectly good violin. (I have also found him checking local real estate prices even though we have no intention of buying or selling a house, and shopping for hideous Jeff Jones wall art he knows could never cross our threshold.)
After the recent surprise walk-in, Ross told me about some detective work he was doing on a particular eBay violin. Anyone who bids on eBay items knows to check a seller's reputation: it's right there for all to see -- percentage of positive feedback, how many sales, more. But sometimes reputable-looking sellers ... aren't. (He put it this way: "So the seller in these cases plays folksy and ignorant, luring you to swoop in for a good deal. It's probably not even immoral. You're trying to rip them off; they rip you off."
Scammy violins are fairly easy to spot on eBay -- the sellers will say things like "Label states 'Stradivarius ... 1716' but it's probably not really that old." Yeah, probably not, dude, because you put the fake label in it yourself. (Reputable sellers will quote the label but also state clearly that the violin is a Stradivarius reproduction.) That said, there are good violin bargains to be found.
Ross recently found a violin that looked like it might be dramatically underpriced, so he began the usual detective work. The seller's reputation was good, and she hadn't made a lot of sales, so it might make sense she'd underprice a violin. The description was amateurish, but the pictures suggested the violin was old and high-quality.
BUT. Ross then checked the seller's ID history, and it turned out she (or he) operated on eBay with a few different IDs. With one ID s/he was selling a single old-looking violin (starting bid $300) and a few antiques, but with another ID s/he had bought a dozen Chinese violins for about $100 each. With that same ID s/he had also bought varnish, presumably to fake-age the violins!
If you lack violin street-smarts (is that an oxymoron?), Ross recommends Toolhaus, a free database of eBay feedback. It allows anyone with an eBay login to see feedback removed by a user, mutual-positive-feedback arrangements, and other tricks. You can also read up on violin fakery at various sites such as this one (which starts by saying "So, you think you found a Stradivarius? Unfortunately you probably didn't") or this one (which offers a little spot-the-fake quiz for Stradivarius labels).
If you're a scammy violin seller and I just foiled your plans, well, here is the smallest violin in the world playing just for you.
(With sound: http://youtu.be/q5ODhIFawfs?t=1m20s)