Right after Thanksgiving in 1981, David Fulton, to his astonishment, took possession of a Pietro Guarneri violin made in Mantua in 1698. This “little Petrus” turned out to be the unexpected beginning of a matchless collection acquired over the next two decades: 28 historic Cremonese instruments, which Fulton gathered into an assembly arguably unrivaled among contemporary private collectors around the world.
Other collections have been more comprehensive and far-ranging, even more flamboyant. But Fulton was never interested in merely accumulating as many rare instruments as he could. “I just wanted the best,” he says, with the conviction of the practical perfectionist, during a recent afternoon visit to his home in Bellevue, Washington.
The waterfront property commands spectacular, cinematic-quality views of Lake Washington and Mercer Island (with Seattle situated on the opposite shore). This is the home where Fulton and his wife, Amy, avid travelers with a penchant for sailing, have anchored since the early 1990s. And it is here that the Fulton Collection has lived and breathed, watched over by two Chagalls and numerous other works of art.
A vast, open-air living room, fitted out with an attractive Tiffany-blue sofa, doubles as a performance space boasting superb chamber-music acoustics (a matter of luck, since it was never planned as such)—the setting for countless evenings, hosted by the Fultons over the decades, of live music and discussion of the instruments.
As Fulton elaborates in his richly illustrated new book, The Fulton Collection: A Guided Tour: “What moves me more than anything else is human genius… I’m like Salieri in Amadeus: I have just enough talent to appreciate and worship genius when I see or hear it. This trait informed my approach to collecting. I was always seeking the very best, the finest, the closest to perfection.”
Guided by a close circle of experts who advised him over the years—and, of equal importance, by his own intuition and judgment—Fulton acquired these tokens of perfection through a combination of tenacious research, serendipity, gut instinct, astute psychological perception… and not a few maneuvers worthy of a high-stakes spy novel.
The zenith was reached in March 2001, when Fulton made his final purchase: a “golden period” Stradivari known as “la Pucelle” from 1709, its tailpiece distinguished by a carved image of Joan of Arc, “la Pucelle d’Orléans.” The only instrument Fulton ever decided to buy sight unseen—at a price tag of $6 million—and, according to him, “perhaps the greatest of all Stradivari violins,” la Pucelle remained in what thereafter was a slowly dwindling collection until shortly before the pandemic. Fulton sold it in December 2019, in keeping with his decision to part with everything save four instruments (and five bows).
“When these instruments were with David, they were as happy as violins can be,” says violinist James Ehnes, who last fall was named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year. His signature instrument is the 1715 “Marsick” Stradivari, which Fulton loaned him for 11 years until Ehnes was in a position to purchase it from him. “These instruments were kept in perfect shape and still being played by the best players from around the world. Dave saw himself more as a custodian than an owner.”
The Fulton Collection memorializes the adventures involved along the way—not just of how Fulton brought these instruments into his life, but of actively living with them and sharing his passion for music with the top echelon of string players that they attracted “like catnip”—and then of letting them find new owners. Fulton—now 77 and deaf in one ear—philosophically grew to accept that “you can’t take them with you. The fiddles are very unsentimental. At the end of the day, they’re objects—and you’re just one of a series of owners who have paid a big price to be a curator.”
Published by Peter Biddulph—a leading dealer in fine stringed instruments and one of the three experts whose counsel most influenced the collection—this exquisitely produced tome may suggest a coffee table book in its dimensions and abundant, high-resolution photographic suites devoted to each instrument, but it offers much more than that. Fulton writes in an appealingly clear style, sporting a trademark wry humor and synthesizing elements of memoir with useful advice about the art of collecting.
Legendary musicians, many of whom have been houseguests at chez Fulton, appear in cameos that, once read, cannot be forgotten—and that shed real light on their personalities and artistry. The portraits of Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman alone are worth the price of admission. The backbone of the book comprises a series of acutely observed character studies for each instrument in the collection, supplemented with pertinent excerpts from the diaries and notes of the brothers Arthur and Alfred Hill. These are presented according to the chronology of their acquisition by Fulton, which keeps the personal thread of his journey front and center.
Readers learn, for example, how long and patiently Fulton waited before he started collecting in earnest. Passionate about the violin ever since his youth in Oregon, he even played second violin with the Hartford Symphony in the 1960s for three seasons soon after graduating from the University of Chicago. But it wasn’t until his early 1980s reunion with a fellow fiddle-phile he had known in college that Fulton, then based in Toledo, took the plunge to purchase his beloved “Petrus” from the shop of Robert Bein and Geoffrey Fushi in Chicago. The $120,000 price required him to take out a loan bigger than his mortgage; not surprisingly, he put on the brakes for another decade before his next acquisition.
In the interim, Fulton grew enormously successful as a tech entrepreneur. The company he founded, Fox Software, was bought by Microsoft in the early 1990s—hence the move to the Pacific Northwest. His computer expertise, incidentally, also underlies a significant contribution to the field of strings: Fulton played a key role in creating the Great Violin Database that incorporates data from the archives of the major dealers and is, according to Biddulph, “the single most valuable trove of violin dealing history.”
By 1992, Fulton found himself on an entirely new level of financial security, one that allowed him to purchase his first Stradivari: the 1715 “Baron Knoop” (formerly in the hands of one of the most impressive string collectors in history, the eponymous German Baron who endured a “riches to rags” reversal of fortune).
Delivered in a red leather case that once belonged to Jacques Thibaud, the “Knoop” nevertheless needed considerable reworking by the acclaimed restorer John K. Becker before its “golden, sunny character” could emerge. It is, adds Fulton, “a very happy-sounding fiddle,” and one of the four mainstays of his “post-collection” life with which he will not part. Along with the Knoop, which he considers his “favorite violin of all,” the others are La Pucelle, an 1898 Voller Brothers copy of the “D’Egville” del Gesù of 1735 (the original of which he sold in 2006) that is “for use at sea,” and the 1793 “ex-Rolla” Giuseppe Guadagnini viola.
After his acquisition of the Knoop, Fulton allowed himself to be overtaken by the “ecstatic madness” of collecting violins, as this supremely rational, mental chess-playing Maecenas wittily puts it—though not ironically, for a profound, indeed transportive love of music pervades Fulton’s enormous store of anecdotes and memories gathered over the years from enjoying these instruments in action.
An especially moving example is the Transcendence Project he sponsored in 2014, featuring the Miró Quartet using Fulton’s ideal combination of instruments selected from all the strings he has ever owned to perform Schubert’s final Quartet in G major: two Strads (the Baron Knoop and the “Bass of Spain” cello of 1713) and two Guarneris (the Petrus and the exceedingly rare Andrea Guarneri viola of 1676 “ex-Landau”).
When the Austin-based Mirós were in town, they paid a visit to try out this combination of instruments. Fulton recalls immediately sensing that “something else had entered the room. Later they told me they would often struggle to get a coherent sound when working together but that this time it was effortless.” They decided to preserve that chemistry, “like a fly in amber,” with a special recording project and film. The website davidfultoncollection.com includes that Emmy-winning account, and also features James Ehnes demonstrating 12 violins and violas from the collection and Joshua Roman doing the same for the three cellos Fulton collected.
“I’d gotten to know all the violins reasonably well over the years,” explains Ehnes. “Anytime I was in Seattle, I would come by to play, and we would do little fundraisers using the instruments.” That familiarity inspired Ehnes to record the fascinating 2008 album and accompanying film Homage, for which he painstakingly matched a dozen of Fulton’s violins with specific repertoire. (Filmmaking and photography are other preoccupations that Fulton foresees taking increasingly prominent roles in the next chapter of his life.)
Fulton’s longtime friend Simon James attests to the transformative effect of being invited to mix and match the instruments. Over a 16-year stretch, James and other colleagues from the Seattle Symphony would join Fulton each week to play string quartets in the ample Belleville living room. One project involved playing every single quartet written by Haydn, to which the musicians then duly assigned grades.
“Switching around the instruments and trying different combinations was one of the funnest things we did,” recalls James, who left the Seattle Symphony last summer after a lengthy tenure as violinist to begin a new phase of his career teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory. “I’ve learned so much as a result of just hanging out with David. He’s always been the smartest guy in the room and had a very clear idea of what he wanted—the merits of his decision to buy one instrument and not to buy another.”
Indeed, what Fulton learned over the many years of his expensive passion resembles a Bildungsroman, from the initial naïveté of finding his way around what he portrays as at times “a very treacherous market” to the intense admiration he developed for the balance of qualities necessary to become a great violinist: “partly spiritual and partly artistic but also athletic—a matter of nerve and sinew and mind.”
He expresses gratitude for the role played by three “wonderful tutors”: Robert Sloane (the friend who persuaded him to try out his first rare instrument, the Petrus), Peter Biddulph, and Charles Beare. Eventually, Fulton had such success in assembling the best of the best that he came to realize a paradoxical corollary of his obsession: “It was also necessary to start dispersing this collection.”
Like the heart’s diastole and systole phases, Fulton’s treasury of instruments expanded to attain its maximum point—he calls it “a collecting dead end”—with the purchase of la Pucelle. Thereafter, the only possible next step was to contract. Fulton spent years selling off his collection—an effort that required as much attention and care as he had devoted to the initial hunt.
The reasons for this, as Fulton parses them, range from the emotional to the practical: a sense of surfeit, a desire to channel his musical passion into philanthropic good works, the need to close one door to open another—not to mention a canny understanding of how posthumous tax burdens can ruin a legacy. Especially compelling is what he terms “the wallflower effect,” whereby the pursuit of the most perfect instruments rendered their “great-but-not-supreme” cousins into unwanted objects, languishing in the vault and never chosen to be played. “It came to feel like wretched excess, unlucky, tempting fate,” Fulton concluded.
The “golden period” of Stradivari cast its irresistible spell over Fulton in part because of its rarity and unrepeatability. He also believes we’ve likely reached “the end of a golden age in terms of individual collectors”—an age that will not soon be repeated, since so many of the greatest instruments “have passed into the hands of museums, foundations, orchestras, financial institutions, or governments” and will thus remain unobtainable by private individuals.
The Fulton Collection is intended “to honor the instruments themselves,” some of which he considers “in no way inferior to the Pietà or the Mona Lisa or the other greatest works of art on the planet.” But, Fulton adds, one of his motivations was also simply to share “what I think is a good story. I wanted to leave behind something that future collectors could read to find out what kind of guy was behind this.”