Tips on finding a good-quality stick for under $5,000
by Phillip Kass
If you want to buy the best French bow, be prepared to spend a lot of money. Bows by François Tourte, the creator of the modern bow and the standard by which others are measured, long ago surpassed the six-figure mark. Bows by the best of his French contemporaries are all now well into five figures. Bows by the best English makers, while not as expensive, can run over $20,000. The best of the German makers, however, such as Knopf, Bausch, and Nürnberger, can still be had for $5,000 or less—often for less than fine contemporary bows.
That makes an older German bow a tremendously good value in the market today.
Many a concert artist has had a fine German bow in his case. Jascha Heifetz and most of his classmates from Leopold Auer’s studio in St. Petersburg played on Kittels, made in many cases by members of the Knopf and Bausch families. Fritz Kreisler used Pfretzschner and Nürnberger. David Oistrakh and Oscar Shumsky both had Nürnbergers, along with their other bows.
Consider These Market Factors
Various factors can determine values of instruments and bows: nationality (think Italian violin), the reputation of the maker, and the reliability of the attribution, among others. What helps keep German prices so low is the basics of economics—supply and demand. If you make twice as many of anything as anyone else, and more than the market requires, your prices will be lower.
The Germans’ reputation suffers from their phenomenal success in commercial instrument manufacturing during the past two centuries. Millions of cheap violins and bows emerged from workshops in Saxony and Bavaria and were sent all over the world. As a result, most people associated Germany with the cheap stuff, so that “German violin” became a term of contempt and even ridicule.
Some of the greatest German bow makers opened workshops that employed apprentices to make bows intended to sell at varying prices and in volumes adequate to produce large earnings. While fattening the bottom line, that practice did not display the master’s best abilities. Also, until well into the 20th century, many of the finest German makers either did not brand their bows or sold them to other dealers, confusing the issue of who made what and when.
Consider the Maker
High-quality bow making arose in the 1830s, later in Germany than in other parts of Europe. The names that come to the fore are familiar, including the aforementioned Bausch, Knopf, Nürnberger, and Pfretzschner. These makers opened active and productive workshops, making bows of varied quality, suitable for artists, professionals, amateurs, and students, and using the finest woods and materials. There is a legend that the Germans gained the best trade routes to Brazil as a French concession after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871—apocryphal, perhaps, but reflecting Germany’s superior wood selection in those years.
Let’s start with the Knopf family—14 bow makers, spread over five generations. The best craftsman in the family was Heinrich (1839–75), an excellent bow maker by anyone’s measure. He apprenticed with his father and later with Ludwig Bausch, for whom he continued to supply bows throughout his career. Heinrich is also believed to have worked for the Russian maker Nikolaus Kittel of St. Petersburg, an anecdotal connection reinforced by the bows themselves. Heinrich’s workshop, large enough to employ several workers, but small enough to permit oversight by the master, was in Markneukirchen, and later in Berlin. Heinrich’s son Hermann Richard (1860–1939) emigrated to the United States in 1879, settling in New York and working for many years as a violin and bow maker.
Identifying works by the Knopfs is difficult: the lack of brands and their tendency to work for others and for one another clouds the process. This ambiguity has hindered the prices of their bows in the resale and collectors’ markets. Nevertheless, we have made great strides in pairing the makers to the bows. The best of Heinrich’s works are branded H. Knopf Markneukirchen or H. Knopf Berlin (in capital letters), depending on where they were made. His son’s bows, many of which are excellent, were stamped H.R. Knopf New York (also in capital letters).
Ludwig Bausch (1805–71) of Leipzig gained considerable international repute for bow making. He also is believed to have made bows for Kittel. His bows (mostly his own work, though some were made by Knopf) are generally branded L. Bausch or L. Bausch, Leipzig (in capital letters) below the frog, a brand his sons used as well. His sons both died shortly after their father, but the business continued for some decades in the hands of former employees. In the 20th century, Bausch’s reputation was spoiled somewhat by the use of his name on scads of lower-quality student bows, which usually are stamped Bausch in small letters.
A few years later, Hermann Richard Pfretzschner (1857–1921) became one of the preeminent makers of his day. He spent about half of 1874 working for J.B. Vuillaume in Paris, and upon his return introduced many French ideas into German bow making. Like the Knopfs, he often sold unstamped bows to other firms, so one can find his bows under other names as well. In 1901, he was named purveyor to the king of Saxony, after which time his frogs were stamped with the king’s coat of arms.
Pfretzschner counted many of the finest musicians among his clients, and was sensitive to their tastes and styles of playing. The bows he produced reflected that sensitivity. They were graded and priced according to their quality: the skills of their maker, the degree of ornamentation, and the cost of woods and metals used. The family maintains a workshop to this day.
The Nürnberger family came to prominence at the end of the 18th century. Violin makers for many generations, and bow makers for the last six, they added to the rich confusion of identity in German bows. Franz Albert Sr. (1826–94), the second bow maker in the family, is thought to have never stamped his bows. His son, Franz Albert II (1854–1931), built the business into a preeminent one in German bow making. It still exists in the capable hands of his great-grandson. He was the first in his family to mark his brand with stars on either side of his name. It was Franz Albert II’s son and successor, Carl Albert (1885–1971), who, working with his brother Philipp (1882–1946), perfected the so-called Nürnberger bow. But just to complicate matters, these bows are branded with their father’s name.
There are many others: the Schuster family, still active today, was among the few German bow makers to supply bows to a French company, Silvestre and Maucotel; and Otto Hoyer (1889–1966) and Hermann Prell (1875–1925), both students of Sartory in Paris, often captured Sartory playing qualities in their own work.
These German bow makers—and many others—left legacies of great bows. Still, it would be wrong to say that these bows are completely unrecognized. They have long been considered a great unrecognized resource by dealers and players. Major orchestral musicians, including those who already owned the best French bows, needed no persuasion to purchase a German bow.
So, if you’re looking for value, think with your bow arm, and give those old German bows a fair shake.