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Sour notes emanate from Christmas gift in Southeast

by: DAVID F. ASHTON FILE PHOTO - In this 2010 photo taken at the David Douglas High School Holiday Bazaar, the vendor mentioned in this story, William €sˇÃ„úBill€sˇÃ„Ã1 Mehess, who said he was with €sˇÃ„úThe Music Project€sˇÃ„Ã1, showed off a violin.When she headed for the “Scrooge Lives” Holiday Bazaar at Mt. Hood Community College on December 4th, Woodstock resident Nancy Gilius was hoping to pick up a couple of bargains to complete her gift list.

“My husband works at the school,” Gilius told THE BEE, “and he said that among the fifty or so vendors that filled the Student Union, he saw a man selling ‘restored’ violins for as little as $100.”

She sought out that vendor, William “Bill” Mehess, and his display of musical instruments.

“He showed me an old violin that was really beat up,” Gilius continued. “He said that he reconditioned old violins in his workshop. He showed me a photograph of his workshop. And then he said the three violins he had sitting there were ones that he had reconditioned.”

With pricing at $100, Gilius purchased a violin, thinking it would be great gift for her 11-year-old daughter, who was already a violin student at the Community Music Center. “Even though it was too large for her, I thought it would be wonderful for her to own it when she grew into it.”

Later, before she wrapped the gift, she took it out of the case to admire it. “My first suspicion the something was wrong was that I noticed that all of the strings had gone slack. Then, when I tried to tune it, a string broke.”

Gilius took the instrument to the renowned David Kerr Violin Shop on S.E. Holgate Boulevard at 28th, where a violin technician looked at it and told her the violin was “really not playable”.

On January 9, violin technician Steve Banchero, who has worked at the David Kerr Violin Shop for the past 22 years, agreed to meet with Gilius and THE BEE, and evaluate the instrument in question.

Looking it over carefully, Banchero said, “This looks to be a very inexpensive commercially-made Chinese violin; it was produced in a factory.”

Banchero turned and took an $11,000 Chinese-made violin down from a rack. “We have, and sell, some great Chinese-made violins. There are some very good, and some horribly-made, German violins, too – and the same is true with Romanian violins.” He pulled down another violin: “This is an example of a really an expensive one, made in one of the many factories in China that make these.”

The main problem with the “bargain” violin that Gilius brought in was the “playability”, Banchero explained. “The sound of the violin comes mostly from ‘the box’, the wooden back of the instrument.”

Banchero went on to point out the “really poor quality strings”, adding that the “bridge” wasn’t the correct height and curve, that the “nut” that holds the strings off the fingerboard was poorly shaped and placed, and that the tuning pegs didn’t functionally work.

He started adding up the cost of a new set of strings, nut, bridge, and tailpiece. “It would easily cost from $300 to $500 simply to make this playable. Our least-expensive violins are about $500, and are way better than we could make this one.”

It turned out that this wasn’t the first “restored” violin that they’d seen at the store, Banchero added. “People will bring us a violin to evaluate, telling us about how the man they purchased it from at a fair or bazaar represented it to them. The first couple of times, we thought the buyer must have misheard what the seller said, about how the instrument came to be.”

There’s no way now to know exactly how William “Bill” Mehess actually represented the instrument he sold to Gilius. There’s nothing wrong with selling a $99 violin, Banchero said – as long as it’s properly identified. “In reality, this isn’t a violin musical instrument, it’s a ‘violin shaped object’. The cost really makes no difference, if the instrument isn’t playable.”

After learning the true nature of her purchase, Gilius considered sending it back to the seller – but it would have cost $25 for packing plus $31 for shipping, she said. She did put the transaction “in dispute” with her credit card company, though. “I’m really glad I didn’t pay cash.”

“The gentleman who sold this may have a grant,” Banchero commented. “He may work with an organization that restores instruments, and may have a workshop. But this violin was not restored; it was made in China.”

The lesson learned from this experience? It’s an old and always-relevant one: “Buyer beware”!