What makes a person invest tens of millions of dollars in dozens of fine violins, violas and cellos?
"Looking back at it, frankly, it's a kind of madness that seizes you," violin collector David Fulton told me in an interview last month. "When I bought my first good violin, I thought that was going to be it. And in fact it was, for 10 years or so. But always had the idea in the back of my mind, 'Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have a Strad, if I was able to do that...'"
A co-founder of Fox Software who eventually served as Microsoft’s Vice President for Database Products until his retirement in 1994, Fulton collected 28 of the finest violins, cellos and violas in existence over a period of 40 years, as well as dozens of bows. Among them were eight Stradivaris, eight instruments by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, and an assortment of other fine instruments by great makers: Bergonzi, Guadagnini, Amati, Montagnana, Pietro Guarneri and more.
Then, over a period of 12 years, Fulton sold all but four of the instruments, keeping his very first fine violin, a 1698 Pietro Guarneri ("my little Petrus"); his first Strad, the 1715 "Baron Knoop"; a Voller Bros. copy of the D'Egville del Gesù; and a 1793 Guadagnini viola.
What is left is an amazing story, documented in a new book, The Fulton Collection: A Guided Tour by David Fulton ($150, Peter Biddulph Ltd), as well as a website, DavidFultonCollection.com.
Fulton's new book reads like a humorous conversation that just so happens to cover a considerable amount of history of fine violin-making. While it contains gorgeous photos of every instrument from his collection at every angle ("violin erotica," as Fulton calls it) as well as database reports documenting each instrument's full history - the fun part is Fulton's personal accounts, which read like a novel. He talks about why he bought each instrument, tells fascinating stories about previous owners, shares his adventures in acquiring the instruments and describes his encounters with the dizzying array of fine artists who sought to play the fine instruments in his collection (or sought to sell him an instrument).
The list of artists includes Nathan Milstein, Ruggiero Ricci, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Eugene Fodor, Midori, James Ehnes, Lynn Harrell, Elmar Oliveira, Jimmy Lin, Augustin Hadelich - and many more. (He also welcomed at least one violin-playing journalist - I visited, in 2017!)
Born in Eugene, Oregon, Fulton started playing the violin at age eight, at his elementary school in Dayton, Ohio. "In those long-ago days, schools were much less sensible than they are today. All students were required to take a daily hour-long class in music as part of the normal curriculum," he wrote. "Furthermore, all students were encouraged to play a musical instrument."
Later, as concertmaster of the student orchestra at the University of Chicago, two crucial things happened to Fulton. First, he played his first fine violin, a 1733 Testore owned by the school. That gave Fulton a taste for fine fiddles. Second, he met Dr. William Sloan, a fellow violinist who was studying medicine while Fulton was studying mathematics. Years later, they met again while both living in Toledo, Ohio, and they became lifelong friends.
"I've known Bill Sloan since 1960 -- he is responsible for the madness!" Fulton said.
Back in 1981, when Dr. Sloan was considering buying a Stradivari from Chicago's Bein & Fushi, he asked Fulton if he'd like to come along for the ride. Fulton was thus delivered, in his words, "straight into the slavering jaws of a violin dealer."
At the time, Dr. Sloan was getting his first Strad, the 1727 "Holroyd." Dr. Sloan eventually traded that one in - he currently owns the 1714 "Jackson" Stradivari and the 1742 "Sloan" del Gesù. Fulton started looking for a good violin for himself, eventually ending up with the 1698 Pietro Guarneri or "Peter of Mantua." At the time, the fiddle cost more than the price of his home.
Before long, Fulton also wanted to obtain his own Strad, and so he did - the 1715 "Baron Knoop." Then he wanted a Guarneri del Gesù.
"My idea had been to get a del Gesù to go along with the Strad that I had bought, which I had in a double case, because I'd heard Heifetz had a Strad and a del Gesù in a double case," Fulton said. He'd picked out a del Gesù, and he was going to trade it in for that first violin, the "Peter of Mantua."
"But I couldn't do it. It was my first good violin!" Fulton said. "That's when I realized, I'd become a collector."
As it happens, now he has come full circle - he has sold off all but four instruments that were part of his vast collection. And he still has that Peter of Mantua.
"Let me put it this way, if I'd had only the Peter of Mantua, my first good violin, it would not have restrained my career, not by a millimeter," Fulton told me. "For example, I lent it to a young woman by the name of Bin Huang, who used it to win the Paganini Competition. Then later, it (was used by a violinist who came) in second in the Menuhin Competition. Actually that violin was used to win the Menuhin Junior Competition at one point. So my point is that, that fiddle certainly would have been adequate for any kind of career I could have imagined."
"But the fact is, it's not as good as a Strad or a del Gesù," Fulton said. "Now, there is no 'best violin,' there's no such thing. I've had the experience, many times, of having great violinists want to come in on one day and demonstrate conclusively that this violin, with that bow, is the best in the world. And then the next day, another virtuoso comes in and demonstrates, no, it's really this violin, with that bow..."
"Well, they are both correct, -- for them," Fulton said. "The violin makes a heck of a difference, but there is no question that you have to be simpatico with it. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand how to deal with a particular violin.
While conventional wisdom has it that a fine violin must be played in order to retain its value, Fulton's experience has given him a different perspective.
"The quickest way to turn a great violin, that's in wonderful condition, into an average Strad or del Gesù, is to give it to an enthusiastic artist who then goes around the world playing it for 50 years," Fulton said. "The idea that great violins are improved by being played upon is a little like suggesting that a wooden floor is improved by being walked upon."
"The thing is, you put it under your chin, you get rosin on it, you sweat on it -- one famous violinist sweats so profusely that the sweat runs across the top of the violin as he plays. That does no good for the varnish," he said. "Also, violins can be mechanically damaged. They are fragile, they're made of wood. If you don't think they're fragile, drop one on a concrete floor sometime - they'll shatter. It's a horrible thought!"
While the value of a violin might not improve by being played, the actual sound of the instrument does improve.
"If a violin has not been played upon for a long period of time, it takes it a while to wake up -- it might take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to wake up," Fulton said. "I've seen this again and again. But the fact is that exposing them to constant wear is not the way to preserve them. They're not immortal, and they are being used up. It's a good thing there are good violin makers today - it's essential."
"There are many Strads that might have started out great, but that have been damaged, and they are not good any more," Fulton said. "A poor Strad is not going to be superior to a fine modern instrument."
"Let's talk about modern instruments for just a second. In their great book (The Violin-Makers of the Guarneri Family (1626-1762)), in Chapter 5, the Hill brothers wrote that they felt that a violin did not come into its own, and its actual tone is not known, for 80 years after its creation," Fulton said. "That had been their observation. So if you take a violin that has just been made, you have no idea what it's going to sound like in 80 years. You and I will never know."
"So it's quite possible that in 80 years, certain violins that are being made today are going to be highly, highly valued," Fulton said. "Fashion changes in these things. In Mozart's day, nobody wanted a Strad or del Gesù. They wanted Amatis! And in fact, there is an extant letter, I'm told, by Leopold Mozart to his son Wolfgang, telling him, 'If you get one of those screechy Cremonese fiddles, take them to the Mantegazza brothers, and they'll fix it up for you.'" (He laughs.)
What made Fulton decide to sell most of his collection?
"The thing is, you come to the end of the road," Fulton said. "My objective always was to get the best instruments that were possible to get. So there are dead ends. For instance, the great 'Landau' Guarneri viola (1676) is as good a viola as exists on the planet. I gave up on a Strad viola because they wanted $45 million for it. I already had the best Guarneri del Gesù violins - for me, the 'King Joseph' (1737) or the 'Lord Wilton' (1742). 'King Joseph' was my favorite del Gesù."
"So, what are you going to get that is better? There's nothing better. There's no better Stradivari than 'La Pucelle,' it just doesn't exist," he said. "The best cello in my view, and in Lynn Harrell's view, and in many other cellists' view, is the 'Bass of Spain.' So they are dead ends. There are no more mountains to climb. You come to the end of it. That's one part of it."
"The other part of it is, at one point I had 28 instruments. You lay them all out, and let's say a violinist comes, wanting to try out del Gesùs," Fulton said. "Is the 'Kemp' del Gesù going to get played? The 'Kemp' is a wonderful violin, a fabulous violin. But if the "Lord Wilton' and 'King Joseph' are sitting there, who is going to play the 'Kemp'? To some extent, it seemed kind of unlucky. I never wanted to have a museum, I just wanted to share them with musicians and play them myself. But there were too many, the collection was kind of indigestible in that sense."
Fulton also wanted to make sure his heirs weren't saddled with having to sell the collection after his death. To sell violins at this level requires time, knowledge and the right connections. "As a practical matter, it took me 11 years to disperse the collection," Fulton said. "They're hard to sell! The market for the instruments of the sort that I had -- there might be as many as six buyers in the world, at any point."
With the collection now mostly dispersed, "from my point of view, it's like it was a dream. Writing this book was a way for me to reassure myself: Yes, it really did happen," Fulton said. "I really did sit there, playing chamber music with Oscar Shumsky. It wasn't a dream."
"I'm quite sure that if my name is pronounced aloud in 100 years' time, it will be because I owned those instruments," he said. "It's all reflected glory, of course. But it's kind of cool."
* * *
So to reiterate: Fulton's book is a great read, and a fantastic resource on violins. To order The Fulton Collection: A Guided Tour by David Fulton, click here.
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