Roots musician and violin dealer David Bromberg’s collection of vintage violins is legendary
“I have been called for information on American violins by nearly every shop in the world. I have the collection and I guess I became the default expert,” says violin dealer David Bromberg.
You mean, that David Bromberg? The supernaturally talented bluegrass and blues guitar player? From his first guitar lessons with bluesman the Rev. Gary Davis in the early 1960s through thousands of gigs fronting his own band and a hundred recordings as a sideman for the likes of Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr, Bromberg’s musical career is legendary. And in violin circles, so is his collection of 270 American-made violins and the story of how he traded in a high-profile performing career to enter the violin business in 1980.
“Welcome to the week from hell,” he says by way of a greeting. Bromberg is a big, energetic man in his 60s, conservatively dressed—a marked contrast to photos from his early years on the folk and blues circuit. As he puts it, no one spending thousands of dollars on a violin wants to buy from a slob.
“He’s a bit distracted: Bromberg’s week includes giving a presentation and acting as host shop for the Violin Society of America Convention, which was held that November in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware; a reunion and concert tour of his Big Band with his wife, Nancy Josephson’s, Angel Band; and preparing to open his home for an exhibition of the collection once they leave town.
“I had a little personality crisis,” says Bromberg, launching into the story of his career change 27 years ago. He’s told the story many times. “Playing music for a living, I got burned out. At one point I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. I didn’t recognize it as burnout. Instead I thought I was no longer a musician. And I didn’t want to be one of these guys who phones it in because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.”
Captivated by violins, Bromberg spent a lot of time in the shop of northern California violin maker Bob Scoville. “I was so taken up with fiddles that when I went on the road I’d bring along a suitcase full of bows and tools, and between one and three in the morning you might find me in a hotel room rehairing a bow.” Realizing he wanted to do something with violins, Bromberg figured that learning to make them was the first step. So, in 1980, he enrolled in the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. “The thing that had always fascinated me was how someone could pick one up and look at it and tell you when and where it was made, and perhaps even by whom. That’s what I wanted to learn more than anything else. Mr. Warren, Sr., was a wonderful guy and a great violin and bow expert. He’d bring in fine violins or bows and he’d lecture to us about the maker.
I lived for those lectures and I got to see some very good instruments.” In order to see as many fine items as possible, Bromberg became a wholesaler, buying and selling fine instruments and bows within the trade. “I got to visit many shops all over the country,” he explains, “and I started going to Europe to buy French bows. I saw lots of things, thousands, and I started to gain a little knowledge.
“I still do that, and I’m still studying,” he says earnestly. Twelve years ago Bromberg and Josephson tired of the harsh Chicago winters, so they settled in Wilmington and opened a retail violin shop.
Vintage American violins are a small fraction of Bromberg’s retail business—he deals in everything from a child’s first Chinese-made instrument to the fine violins and bows he handled as a wholesaler. But the American collection, which focuses on violins made between 1850 and 1950, has been a personal passion since he took up the fiddle at age 25.
“It’s the largest collection of American violins you’ll see anywhere in the world by a long shot,” says VSA board member Philip Kass, also a longtime American-violin enthusiast. “If you’re really curious about violin making in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the only place you can go to start to understand the amazing variety and artistic depth is David’s place in Wilmington.”
Settling into the corner of big leather couches in his home, upstairs from his retail shop, David Bromberg Fine Violins, we’re surrounded by fiddles. The impressive American collection lines the walls of the apartment, cheek to jowl with vivid, sequin-covered, voodoo-inspired artwork created by Josephson, a well-known authority on Haitian art.
“The first fiddle I got was a Massachusetts fiddle,” Bromberg recalls. “I thought, that’s really fitting: I play American music, I have an American fiddle.”
Being a collector by nature, Bromberg began visiting violin shops around the country as he toured with his band, searching for good American violins.
“As often as not, the violin maker would literally laugh in my face and say, ‘Come on, there are no good American violins.’ It was common knowledge. It was conventional wisdom. And then he’d say, ‘You know what? There was a guy lived around here who wasn’t too bad. I got one in the back I’m never gonna fix up. You can have it for a hundred bucks.’
“They knew no one would ever want it—it wasn’t bad, but it was American.”
As Bromberg traveled, he encountered the same story again and again: There were good American violins everywhere, but conventional wisdom insisted otherwise. The contradiction intrigued him.
“The theory was that all the good makers were trained in Europe, and they could be better makers because they had the apprentice system, which we did not have here. And some people said there were no American violins anyway, they were all German or French or Italian.
So, I saw holes in these arguments. The argument that there are no American makers—in Italy they made violins in all the styles that you’ll find worldwide. The founders of the Italian school in Venice were Germans.
In Rome? Germans. But their instruments were considered Italian because they were made in Italy and were certainly influenced somewhat by their surroundings. As a matter of fact, the Italian makers in Florence were making German-model violins—they copied Stainer quite a bit. But if nothing else, they used the Italian ingredients. So, if these guys are considered Italian then a violin made in America is American. Now, the apprentice system, it’s a good system, but it if you look at all the European violin makers, the great majority of them made very pedestrian violins.”
That begs the question: What enables anyone, in any country, to make a really good violin? “Some talent with woodworking: Hands—people have to have good hands,” Bromberg says. “ And you have to have seen a great violin. That’s the secret. It’s true even in the town of Cremona. In order to make a really good violin, you have to have seen something great.”
The earliest violin on Bromberg’s wall was made in 1778 by a woodworker from Philadelphia named Peter Young. “What you see here is a very nicely executed copy of a pretty pedestrian violin,” he observes.
The colonial American makers were limited by the quality of the instruments on hand to copy. This began to change in the mid-19th century. “As the great virtuosi started to tour America, all of a sudden Strads and Guarneris started to show up.” Belgian violinist Alexander Artot was the first European virtuoso known to have visited the United States.
Boston violin maker Ira White recorded Artot’s visit to his shop. Artot was followed by the Norwegian soloist Ole Bull, who started a utopian society in Pennsylvania in 1853.
In general, the European virtuosi treated America as their piggy bank—if they were broke, they came to America to make money. Along the way, they made a valuable contribution to American violin making, thanks to the great instruments they carried.
“It’s possible that if you were able to trace the itinerary of these virtuosi, you’d see the lutherie improving behind them as they went,” Bromberg says.
“It got even better as Americans became wealthier and imported better violins from Europe. It reached a point where America was making things as good as anything found anywhere, but still the old idea was that you had to get something good from Europe. And that stuck with people.
“In my days traveling around the country I ran into more than one person who liked to play their violin to me and say, ‘This is my second violin. Would you believe it? This is American!’ It was like a talking dog . . . .”
The plethora of bad amateur-made US violins helped poison the reputation of the domestic instrument trade. “The Americans had the idea of, ‘Hey, if I can make a house, I can make a violin.’ Well, some could and some couldn’t,” Bromberg says. Amateur efforts ranged in quality from attempts that resemble folk art to immaculate copies of very good violins. Because he traveled around the country specifically searching them out, Bromberg was in a unique position to see the pattern: There were good American violins everywhere. “People didn’t know how many there were because American violins didn’t travel, with the exception of perhaps five makers. If you want to find a great French violin, go to any major city in America. If you want a great St. Louis violin, look in St. Louis.”
If current prices are any indicator, perceptions regarding American violins are starting to change. “Some people blame me for that,” Bromberg says. He laughs. “I’m a victim of my own success—it’s much more expensive for me to buy a new violin for my collection.” Asked to point out a few favorites, Bromberg balks; one couch is piled with instruments selected for the VSA exhibition. When the VSA asked him to give a presentation on a few of his personal favorites, Bromberg was able to narrow it down to 100, then 50, and finally, painfully, just 40 favorites. He picks up a slightly rough-looking violin by Walter Solan Goss, Boston 1876. “I like this one because it’s dangerous,” he says turning it over to reveal a knot in the back. “If the wrong people got hold of it they’d put an Italian label in it and it’d become Italian forever because it looks Italian.” For Bromberg, though, collecting isn’t about individual favorites.
“The thing that what I’m doing with violins has in common with my playing is that I know I’ll never reach the end of it,” he muses. “No one knows it all. No one ever will know it all. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”