MUSIC has been Jason Price’s life. A violinist’s apprentice at 14, he bought his first cello a year later and spent his days in the music shops of his home town of Alexandria, a few miles south of Washington, the American capital.
“Music was an instinct, something I had to do,” said Price. “I knew I was never good enough to be a great cellist but I always had a fascination with instruments.”
He spent his school holidays in Ithaca, New York, working in the violin restoration shop of Christopher Reuning. Master and student became friends and, through him, Price met Dmitry Gindin, a violin expert and author, in 1997.
With a common passion and a combined personal investment of $9,000, the trio founded Tarisio, an online auctioneer of fine stringed instruments and bows.
The business, set up in Boston in 1999, moved to New York in 2000 to attract collectors. Its projected turnover this year is $12m (£7.4m).
In 2007, a London branch was opened in Marylebone. It had sales of £4.3m and a profit of £320,514 last year. It expects to report revenues of more than £5m when accounts are filed next month.
“For 150 years London has been the centre of expertise for the violin business,” said Price. “It’s where people come to learn and has more auctions than anywhere else, so it made sense to expand here.”
Price is now sole owner, having bought out his partners in 2009. He believes Tarisio’s success is down to its original aim — to create an online bidding system, modelled on eBay, for musicians, collectors and traders of fine stringed instruments.
“We thought internet bidding would be a more efficient experience, avoiding the ordeal of raising hands in an auction room, which can be intimidating,” said Price, whose competitors Christie’s and Sotheby’s only allow buyers to bid online alongside live auctions, not independently.
“If you are going to buy one violin in 20 years you may feel self-conscious. So we let people do it wherever they are, at whatever time works for them.”
Tarisio’s online platform imitates a live auction in a saleroom so, unlike eBay, bids made minutes after the scheduled close will be acknowledged and the bidding time extended for 15 minutes, a process that can continue indefinitely. “Bidding wars can go on for hours and people are up until 3am,” said Price. “But our contract is with the sellers and our duty is to get them as high a price as possible.”
In 2011, Tarisio sold the 293-year-old Stradivarius violin “Lady Blunt” for £9.8m in aid of Japan’s tsunami relief fund, more than four times the previous auction record for an instrument made by the 17th and 18th-century violin master Antonio Stradivari. Another Stradivarius, stolen from London’s Euston station in 2010 and discovered by British Transport Police last July, will be sold by Tarisio in December. It is expected to fetch more than £2m.
“When Tarisio came to London it was David against Goliath in a trade dominated by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. We are not the scrappy underdog any more, we are the market leader.”
Price, 37, was born in Connecticut and grew up in the suburbs of Washington where he attended high school. His mother runs a nursery school in Washington and his father works for a non-profit organisation supporting minorities in engineering programmes. Price, who has a younger brother and sister, said he inherited his musicality from his aunt, a cellist.
“As a boy I learnt how to play instruments and then to make them. I realised my interest lay with older violins — how they go together and how to sell them.”
In 1994 he enrolled to study English literature at Williams College, a private liberal arts university in Massachusetts, but dropped out a year later to join the violin-making school in Cremona, Italy. “I lasted two weeks in Cremona. The style of teaching wasn’t for me.”
Instead, Price became an apprentice to the Italian instrument maker Renato Scrollavezza in Parma for two years. In 1998 he decided to return to Williams College, finishing his degree to appease his parents.
“They were freaking out, thinking I couldn’t make any money on violins,” said Price. “I made them happy, put my degree behind me and had the springboard to make a success of Tarisio.” His company now has seven employees in New York and four in London.
Price moved the London office from Islington to Marylebone 18 months ago to be nearer competitors. “We put on our fancy clothes and became the alternative to Sotheby’s across the street. It’s a big responsibility.” He moved to London himself in 2011 after meeting his English wife, Sarah Beaty, a clarinettist.
He advises budding entrepreneurs to be creative and take lots of risks. “Creativity has a huge place in business, particularly the arts,” he said. “Be innovative and always try to do something different.”