Legendary luthier Vuillaume is known for his bows, but he never made one
by Erin Shrader
The top price paid at Bonhams’ March 11 auction sale in London was not for a fiddle or even a cello, but for a violin bow—handsome, but tattered, with an unfortunate mark on the cheek and a cracked head plate. Like countless bows in violin cases around the world, it was stamped Vuillaume à Paris. It sold for £25,200. It was one of several noteworthy bows sold at the spring sales that were connected, by name or association, to the influential 19th-century luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. But those connections can be hard to make.
Vuillaume (1798–1875) was a prolific and gifted violin maker with a keen talent for business and a connoisseur’s eye for great instruments and bows. He arrived in Paris in 1818 as a simple craftsman from the musical city of Mirecourt, France, and went on to establish the most storied violin shop in Paris, from which he dominated the business for nearly 50 years. Vuillaume’s clientele included the great musicians of the day, including Nicolò Paganini and Delphin Alard, and his collection included many great Strads and Guarneris. His shop employed the best craftsmen available, often imported from Mirecourt, and became regarded as a destination for high-quality restorations, instruments—and bows.
Vuillaume, however, was not a bow maker. His name is closely associated with bows for two reasons. First, Vuillaume employed, trained, or bought bows from the most significant bow makers of the 19th century. As a group, their work spans from Vuillaume’s auspicious first hire, Jean Pierre Marie Persoit, whose early career overlapped with F.X. Tourte, into the 20th century with Jean Joseph Martin, who died in 1910. Their output charts the development of bow design from Tourte, who is credited with defining the modern bow, through the slender, rounded, elegant bows of Francois Nicolas Voirin in the 1870s.
Secondly, Vuillaume was a tireless innovator and bows did not escape his attention. Some of his ideas left something to be desired. For example, the hollow steel bow, produced for about 15 years, didn’t sound good and was easily dented. The self-rehairing bow (“self” being the musician) was a good idea in theory, but didn’t catch on—most of surviving examples have been retrofitted to the standard configuration. Other innovations, such as picture bows and frogs with rounded edges and ferrules, are still associated with Vuillaume, though not much in use by contemporary makers.
An excellent selection of Vuillaume-school bows was sold in London this spring, including those built by Pierre Simon, Dominique Peccatte, Nicolas Maline, Joseph Henry, François Nicolas Voirin, Joseph Fonclause, J.J. Martin, and Nicolas Rémy Maire.
As for that aforementioned tattered violin bow, “Peccatte/Simon is a reasonable opinion about the bow’s origins,” notes Bonhams’ specialist Philip Scott. “It was a discovery in the UK, neglected and not suspected by the vendor.”
In other words, a nice windfall for the seller.
One day earlier, another bow stamped Vuillaume à Paris sold at Sotheby’s for £32,450, this one in better condition and with a name firmly attached: Dominique Peccatte.
Peccatte, the son of a wigmaker in Mirecourt, was apprenticed to Persoit in 1826 and worked for Vuillaume for years before establishing his own successful business. He returned to Mirecourt in 1847. The bow at Bonham’s features the strong, hatchet-shaped head characteristic of Peccatte’s work. His bows are the most highly prized after Tourte’s and can sell at auction between £30,000 and £50,000, depending on certainty of attribution, quality, and condition.
Two Peccatte bows were sold at Sotheby’s: the one made for Vuillaume, and another stamped Peccatte. “Generally, aPeccatte stamped Peccatte will be more highly prized than one made for Vuillaume,” says Tim Ingles, head of Sotheby’s musical instruments department, “but again the quality of the bow itself will be a more significant factor in the selling price than the brand.” As if to illustrate the point, the bow made for Vuillaume sold higher, for £32,450, compared to £22,500 for the one stamped Peccatte. Meanwhile, Tarisio sold a Peccatte bow with the frog and button originally from a different Peccatte stick, for £27,500.
The identity of a gold-and-tortoiseshell-mounted cello bow at Sotheby’s, described as “circle of Vuillaume, ca. 1860,” remains a mystery. “There is not a great deal I can tell you about lot 139, except that it is a lovely bow of the Vuillaume school, which attracted quite a lot of interest,” says Ingles. “I worked with bow experts here before the sale to identify it, and no one seemed to be sure. We looked at [Pierre] Simon, J.J. Martin, etc., but no one seemed sure. My personal theory is that it could be the work of Nicolas Simon, known as Simon Frébinet.”
The bow sold for £12,500. To put the price in perspective, the only gold-and-tortoiseshell cello bow sold at auction in recent decades by any of these makers was a Pierre Simon, which brought £17,600 in 1989.
The difficulty in identifying the origin of a bow is not surprising. For one thing, use of a brand stamp was inconsistent—claiming authorship was simply not as important as it is today. For another, many of the makers were closely connected: Most were from Mirecourt. They were often trained by the same people or by each other. They worked together, sometimes for Vuillaume or another shop such as Pajeot, Gand, or Chanot, or occasionally in partnerships, as did Simon and Henry. Others, such as Maire, Maline, and Fonclause were good friends who served as official witnesses at each others’ important family events, as Philip Kass writes in a lecture on 19th century French bow making.
Vuillaume the Innovator
The cello bow in question sports one of Vuillaume’s most recognizable innovations: a frog with softened edges and a round underslide that travels along a round, recessed track in the stick. Normally, the underslide has three flat sides corresponding to three facets of the octagonal stick. Vuillaume encouraged his bow makers to use this method, designed to minimize wear and tear, though not all did. This feature is also seen on some older commercially made bows, often stamped with Vuillaume’s name.
Vuillaume was enthusiastic about new technologies, including photography. He fitted the pearl eyes of some of the bows from his shop with microscopic photographs, usually of Vuillaume, which were set behind a tiny magnifying lens called a Stanhope. The source of these “photographic jewels” was probably their inventor, photographer and chemist René Dagron, whose shop was not far from Vuillaume’s. These Stanhopes were fitted into all kinds of novelty items, reflecting the Victorian fascination with miniatures.
Two of Vuillaume’s “picture bows” came up for sale this spring: one by Simon sold at Sotheby’s for £9,375,; the other, by Martin, sold at Tarisio for £3,000. Two more Simon bows followed: one selling for £12,500, and another, stamped Gand, selling for £21,250. “The Simon picture bow had been thinned a bit at the handle, which is why is did not go mega high, though it sold well,” Ingles says. “Otherwise picture bows are generally very popular, but the playing characteristics are more important, of course, and the other two Simons both played very well.”
The Mysterious Maire
The other bow highlight of the spring sale, also at Sotheby’s, was by Nicolas Rémy Maire, whose connection to Vuillaume remains unclear. Maire spent most of his life in Mirecourt, where he probably worked with Pajeot. Their work is close enough in style to be frequently confused. He opened his own workshop, Maire-Contal, in 1826 and by 1844 the shop employed 15 workers who produced 4,000 bows a year. But by the late 1840s, Maire had fallen on hard times. Thanks to the economic climate in Paris, the market for his bows declined. After Peccatte’s return to Mirecourt in 1847, Maire’s work shows Peccatte’s influence. The two must have had some working relationship, as violin expert Philip Kass says that Maire made frogs for Peccatte. Maire moved to Paris in the late 1850s, where he died in 1878.
On the basis of work stamped Vuillaume, Maire is thought to have worked for Vuillaume, but employment records are curiously absent. Kass speculates that Maire may have made bows in Mirecourt for Vuillaume or for Peccatte, who then shipped them to Vuillaume. This handsome bow, made after Maire’s move to Paris, sold this spring for £32,450, a significant leap from the old record of £27,447.