One man’s passion for violins built the Chi Mei Culture Foundation collection of violins and bows
by Christopher Reuning
This past spring, I arrived in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan with four violins by rare Italian makers after an exhausting, nearly 24-hour journey from Boston. Dai-Ting Chung, an American-trained violin maker and curator of the Chi Mei Culture Foundation’s stringed-instrument collection, met with me and a German dealer to see if the carefully selected instruments we brought were worthy of being considered for the collection.
After a lunch of barbecued eel, we ventured to the vault in the Chi Mei Museum to await the arrival of Wen-Long Shi, the foundation’s 84-year-old president. The museum, which the foundation established in 1995, houses hundreds of the collection’s 1,750 instruments. I studied some of the recent acquisitions while we waited and filled up several pages of my notebook devoted to the extraordinary assemblage. This was my sixth or seventh visit to Chi Mei and there is always something new to learn.
Soon enough, a buzz of activity heralded the arrival of the president as a half-dozen people trailed in his wake. The diminutive octogenarian is a wealthy, yet humble, man who lives in a modest house and goes fishing most days. Years ago, he founded the Chi Mei Corporation, an industrial powerhouse in Taiwan, but Shi’s true passion is the violin collection he built from the ground up. He checks in on the company about twice a week and never fails to visit the Chi Mei Museum, which is located in the same gritty, bustling industrial park as the company.
Communing with the instruments is the true highlight of his week.
That day, after politely greeting his guests, he listened as Chung described in detail the newly arrived violins. Shi himself has played each one. When he was satisfied, the museum director, Fuchi Hsu, asked the German dealer and me to await the verdict outside the vault.
A short time later, I was invited back in to make a formal request of the president. Hsu translated and conveyed my invitation for Chi Mei to exhibit eight violins from its collection at the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers(AFVBM) May 2012 meeting in New Orleans. The president nodded his approval and exited with his entourage to complete his tour of the museum’s other departments. After he left, Chung gave us the good news that the museum will purchase all the violins we had brought.
Building the Collection
Now a billionaire, Shi grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, before World War II. He came from a poor family, but was enraptured by the sound of the violin from an early age and taught himself to play. In those days, strings were expensive in Taiwan, so Shi resorted to making his own, reportedly stripping the wiring from Japanese fighter planes downed by US forces. He turned this hobby into a cottage business that later produced millions of strings, though he earned his vast fortune manufacturing plastics for cars and computer cases.
An avid collector of fine paintings and sculpture, he began collecting violins in 1990, when he purchased for $1 million the 1707 “Dushkin” Stradivari from Cho-Liang Lin, a Taiwanese-American violinist and renowned soloist. “A big question for me was how to assess a violin’s worth and authenticity,” Shi recently told Forbes. “Lin wanted to get a new violin and approached me. Slowly I accumulated a collection.”
Over the next seven years, Shi purchased 23 instruments made by the leading classical Italian makers, including six by Antonio Stradivari and several violins by Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù.” In 2004, Shi engaged Chung and Hsu to dramatically expand the collection.
It quickly became apparent that the president had chosen two highly capable men, who not only possess discerning eyes and ears, but who also are willing to put in the legwork to consult with the world’s leading experts and dealers to help them objectively verify the authenticity and prices of instruments they short-listed. Chi Mei was clearly on the right track.
The result is a remarkable 1,149 instruments by 904 makers and 603 bows by 300 makers, and still counting. It is undoubtedly the world’s most comprehensive collection, in both breadth and depth, under one roof. While virtually every notable Italian instrument maker is represented, alternate geographies and obscure makers are included as well. English, German, French, Eastern European, Low Countries, and American makers are well covered, as are bow makers from all of the important schools. The collectors didn’t stop at just one example from a given maker. Many makers are represented by multiple instruments, which allows the inclusion of violas and cellos, as well as the opportunity for modern makers and experts to study the progression of styles and working habits of the pantheon of instrument makers.
Sharing the Wealth
While Chi Mei’s treasures are an incomparable historical resource, they are not reserved for academic inspection only. The loan to the AFVBM meeting in New Orleans was the sixth time Chi Mei officials have generously loaned instruments at my request. They loaned important violins to the 2008 AFVBM meeting in Seattle and made invaluable contributions to several exhibits I worked on in Italy, including the June 2007 exhibit in Brescia and three Cremona exhibits: “Andrea Amati, Opera Omnia” in 2007, “Cremona 1730–1750, nell’Olimpo della Liuteria” in 2008, and “Carlo Bergonzi, alla Scoperta di un grande Maestro” in 2010.
In addition, Chi Mei itself mounted an impressive exhibit of Cremonese and Brescian instruments in 2009 at the National Museum in Taipei.
As much as the foundation reveres the past, it is likewise embracing the future. It lends instruments, for free, to promising young musicians of Taiwanese descent living all over the world. At present, nearly 200 violins, violas, and cellos are helping to develop the next generation of string players.
Perhaps most exciting, though, Chi Mei will be moving its small museum into a new purpose-built facility that will open in 2013. This magnificent building will house the museum’s holdings as well as a research center and large concert hall. At that point, Shi’s dream to share his life’s work with the world will be fully realized.
One of two violins by Gasparo in the Chi Mei collection. The Droubi is also one of only two known violins by this early Brescian maker that has an original head by the maker—though its head is from another Gasparo.
The “Mendelssohn, Armada” Amati is an exceptionally pure “Brothers Amati” violin, which retains its original label. It is dated 1588, which happens to be the year the brothers divided their paternal legacy. This violin was previously in the Robert von Mendelssohn collection.
Although nothing is known of Bussetto’s biography, he was a highly skilled maker of the Amati school who was clearly trained in the Cremonese method. We know of less than ten existing violins, of which this is one of the finest. His violins are easily recognized by their unique outline with an extended upper bout.
Though rarely encountered, Antonio Casini violins are of exceptional quality. They are often mistaken for works of more recognized makers such as Andrea Guarneri. This violin, in very pure condition, displays a varnish of very fine quality and a compelling, rustic style of workmanship.
This interesting violin bears Cristofori’s original manuscript label and may be the only identified work by this maker. A person of the same name appeared in the 1680 census of the Amati household, so it is likely that Cristofori had brief training there. Nevertheless, this violin is more reflective of the German modeling that seemed to be preferred in Florence.
The important Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti purchased this magnificent golden period Stradivari about 1810. About 100 years later, the British violinist Marie Hall purchased it. It resembles, in many ways, the other 1709 Stradivari owned by Viotti which is displayed at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Made during Carlo Bergonzi’s best period, the “Perkin, Burnford” is notable for its exceptionally pure condition and is certainly one of the finest four or five violins by this maker.
This Guarneri, dating from 1733, is an early example of the maker’s work after he established his style independent of his father, Giuseppe Guarneri “filius Andrea.” It gains its name from its first known owner, the great French violinist, Charles Phillip Lafont, who owned a pair of violins by this maker.