You may dream of finding a valuable antique in the attic, but James Buchanan loves it — especially when that antique is a rare musical instrument.

"It's the best feeling on Earth," says Buchanan, who runs Amati Auctions and values instruments, from violins to cellos.

"It's visceral, in the same way as falling in love with somebody. A whole load of synapses fly and you just know it's beautiful."

Buchanan is in Vancouver as he travels down the West Coast, offering free valuations to anyone who thinks one of their old instruments may be worth more than meets the eye.

He insists his zeal for rare finds isn't about the money.

"It doesn't happen very often, and it isn't the money. Often these people who turn up with them know exactly what it is, and they're not interested in selling it. But it's very lovely when something turns up and it's just glorious."

'Most labels are fake'

In Vancouver, Buchanan says he has already found a cello made by a "fairly rare French maker." He valued it at $420,000.

But, he says, it's not always like this. Often, he must find a way to break bad news when mislabelled instruments give their owners the wrong impression.

"Most labels are fake, nearly all labels are fake. Ignore them on principle," said Buchanan. "They're all over the place and they cause me serious issues. I feel like an oncologist, I'm always breaking bad news.

"For the obvious fakes, you're trying to work out a way of breaking the news gently, so you do try and find out how they got it. If they paid a lot of money for it, you have to dial it back a bit."

Buchanan was introduced to musical instruments by his great uncle, who made violins and his father, who made and plays them. He doesn't play or make instruments, but he did share some of his own tricks.

  • The case
    "You can tell a lot by the case. If the client comes in with a good Jaeger violin case, it's often a sign. The instruments themselves, you tend not to look at the label until you really have to. So form an impression... It's the workmanship — and then you wait to see if it corresponds with the label."
  • The size
    "You very rarely see Italian violins that are over 14 inches in the back ...You should always measure the back length. French instruments are often slightly large."
  • The varnish
    "The varnish is always a good giveaway, so you'll see me walking over to a window or a bright light just to see. The quality of the varnish gives a lot away."

Over the years, Buchanan says, he has come across cases of rare instruments devalued by the bad treatment they have received.

"It's quite heartbreaking, because you think these things need a bit more love than sometimes they get. But they've managed for centuries, and they'll carry on for another few."

In the end, he says, perfection is not everything.

"There are a few instruments in the world that are perfect, almost as if they've come straight from the workbench. We've got enough of those. We've got examples of perfect. I think the others should be played."