Living Legends: World on a String

Michael Selman manages the U.S. operations for the world’s largest appraiser, seller, and restorer of fine stringed instruments. A violinist once said that, if you’re ready, a great violin can change you. Selman probably has it.

If you’re ready, the right violin can change you. And Michael Selman has it.

 

Traveling with three-quarters of a million dollars in violins is a lot less trouble than I thought it would be. The case isn’t heavy; a careful child could pick one up. Traveling with cellos, however, is evidently a matter of sore arms, seat belt extenders, and unappreciative seatmates. You also have to buy a ticket for a cello.

“I used to put the name of the maker on the ticket,” Michael Selman told me shortly after our plane took off from DFW, the seatbacks in the row ahead suddenly lurching toward us. “Once I put the name John Betts on the ticket. I had to put something.” Selman paused to rearrange his knees. “When I got to the gate to check in, the agent said to me, ’You can’t check Mr. Betts’ ticket. He has to come here.’” Selman pointed the woman’s attention to a large black case at his side. “But Mr. Betts is a cello,” Selman explained. The agent squinted. “It was one of those times,” Selman concluded, “when you expect an ordeal and they say, ’Oh, okay.’”

Michael Selman manages the U.S. operations for J & A Beare Ltd. (pronounced “Beer”), the world’s leading dealer, appraiser, and restorer of stringed instruments, from a suite of offices overlooking Lee Park and Turtle Creek. Beare’s European offices are in London and are managed by Selman’s partners, including Charles Beare (who is, quite simply, the emperor of the stringed world). Once or twice a month, Selman delivers violins, violas, and cellos to customers and prospects. I recently flew with him to Seattle to show three violins to John Weller, assistant concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. Weller was in the market for a fine violin. He was, you might say, looking for a sound.

Although I didn’t know it when I boarded the plane, Selman is a model travel companion: he dresses casually, laughs easily, and will eat pizza twice a day. He was already in his seat when we met for the flight, a specially designed black instrument case resting on blankets in the overhead compartment. Inside were three Italian violins, worth roughly $250,000 each, including one made by the grandfather of Giuseppe Guarneri—known as del Gesu because he signed his violins with a cross. Guarneris are renowned for their ability to soar over orchestras. The New York Times recently reported the sale of an exceptional del Gesu, of which there are only 100 in existence, for $6 million.

  “My favorite instruments are the Cremonese, tonally and visually,” Selman said. (Cremona is a small city in northern Italy, home to generations of violinmakers, including Antonio Stradivari.) “I look for violins that in six months to a year I can still discover something new from. It should be a journey. In your quest for musical expression or perfection, the question is: will the instrument let you achieve it?”

 “Is that really possible?” I asked.

  “Yes,” Selman said. “That’s the quality of better instruments. Think of a painter. Even a child with an eight-color watercolor set gets tired of the limitations. A great artist can get to the ’tweeners.’ He needs a great instrument to get them. The goal is to bring the concert hall to the place where everyone is experiencing the same emotion.”

Great stringed instruments have grown so expensive that the artists who play them can rarely afford to own them. They are increasingly purchased by institutions, patrons, or even investor groups and then loaned to performers. Even renowned contemporary cellist Yo Yo Ma needed the benevolence of friends to purchase his Stradivarius—for a rumored $2.5 million—in 1987.

Selman’s company is the dealer of one of the world’s most famous violins: the “Gibson” Stradivarius. Not only was the violin produced during the golden period of Italian violin making (1710-20), but it was stolen twice during the 20th century alone—both times from the same violinist, Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time the violin was stolen, it was recovered within hours. Not so the second time.

In one of the most daring thefts in musical instrument history, the Gibson Strad was stolen again in 1936, during a performance by Huberman at Carnegie Hall. Huberman took two violins to his concert that night: a del Gesu and the Gibson Strad. He left the Strad in his dressing room while he performed with the other.

The thief, a cabaret violinist named Julian Altman, convinced by his stage mother that his unrecognized greatness required a suitable instrument, eased his way past a security guard using a box of cigars, entered Huberman’s dressing room, and put the great Strad under his coat. He waited for a break in the recital and simply walked out of the hall.

Perhaps a better player or worse crook would have been caught. Altman, however, played the violin in the obscurity of restaurants and bars for the remainder of his career. Only after his death in 1986—50 years later—was his theft revealed and the violin returned to Huberman’s insurer. The violin was ultimately authenticated by Michael Selman’s partner, Charles Beare. Even without the incredible history, the Gibson Strad is worth millions.

As a dealer of fine instruments, Selman is accustomed to desire bordering on desperation. His customers include concert violinists from as far away as Japan. They sometimes show up in his office when a great instrument passes through. As for himself, Selman grew up in Tyler, the son of a doctor. He attended Indiana University for his music performance degree and then Yale for graduate school. Afterward, he toured Europe. He stayed in Norway for five years teaching music and performing with string quartets. All the while he collected violins. “It was really difficult to give up performing,” he told me on the plane. “But I was fascinated with instruments. Bows, too. Early on, I went in the direction of bows because you could buy a fine bow for about the price of a mediocre violin. Fine French bows exude elegance. They make you curious about the maker. You can still see the beauty and individuality in the piece.”

An hour after we landed in Seattle, Selman and I met John Weller at a marina on the banks of Puget Sound. For 15 years, Weller has lived aboard Poeme, a sailboat named for a violin piece written by Chausson. A sloop tethered nearby is less artfully named Apt. 5. “If you don’t mind taking off your shoes,” Weller said, as we stepped aboard, “we kind of go Japanese-style in here. It keeps the boat clean.” Poeme was spotless. Clocks were mounted on one wall, high-tech gadgetry on another; a bookcase behind the dining table was filled with sailing books.

Weller doesn’t look like a sailing man: his face bears no trace of the sun. He dresses in black jeans, black pullovers, and hard-soled shoes. He wears round-rimmed glasses. I took a seat on the stairway, near a stove gimbaled for stormy waters. Weller pulled each violin from its case and took its measure. Literally. He wanted a violin that was “small,” about a quarter-inch shorter than customary. He liked the feel of a 300-year-old Francesco Ruggeri. “Look at the scroll,” Selman said, the closest thing to a sales pitch I heard him make. “It’s beautiful.”

Weller is uniquely trained to test-drive a violin in the cramped interiors of a sailboat—growing up he practiced in the bathroom of his parents’ home. “Every time I go back,” he said smiling, looking up from the gleaming Ruggeri, “I see marks on the wall from where the bow crashed into it.”

For an hour, he slouched against the teak dining table and played Brahms. I kept waiting for him to knock the barometer off the wall with the bow. He sliced the air on either side like a surgeon. It gradually became clear, in snippets of conversation, that Weller was looking for a sound he’d heard himself produce 32 years earlier—when he was 17—and that he might be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hear it again.

After that first session aboard the boat, Selman, Weller, and I drove to Ray’s Boathouse, a dockside restaurant that looks west across Puget Sound toward the Olympic Range. The view is stunning. “I guess I’ve come to realize,” Weller said, when I asked him about performing great pieces of music, “that the audience is not coming to a performance to judge you but to experience the music. They want joy. Sometimes I play a piece of music and I wonder, ’Where did this come from?’”

The next day, Selman and I accompanied Weller on his usual rounds, first to a recording session where, accompanied by the Ruggeri, he was the belle of the ball. Selman seemed to know half the members of the violin section, including the man who walked up to Weller and offered a kind of blessing, “A violin like that will change you,” he said. “You have to let it.”

I’ve never sold a violin but I was gathering the impression that Selman would soon be drawing up a receipt, especially after the three of us drove to the University of Washington where Weller leads the violin section of the Seattle Youth Symphony. One by one, students filed into an impossibly cramped classroom—a sailboat with desks. “Before we start,” Weller began, “I want to say that you were superb in the Tchaikovsky concerto on Saturday.” The group had performed along with other regional youth orchestras. Students in the row ahead of me whispered about a solo performance given on a Stradivari violin.

Weller led the students through Wagner for 30 minutes or so. He stood in front of them and played as if on a great stage, his violin soaring above theirs. When the hour was done, one girl, with pigtails and pink cheeks, stayed behind the rest. She wanted to show Selman her violin. “Its name is Rudolph,” she said. “Because it’s red.”

 “May I look at it?” Selman asked. The girl walked forward and handed the violin to him. Selman knows red violins. His firm prepared the instruments used in the movie The Red Violin. Selman studied Rudolph’s scroll and outline. He turned it over and examined the arching of the body. “It’s lovely,” he said to her, handing it back. “Are you serious about playing it?”

“Not really,” she answered, putting it back in the case. “I don’t practice enough.”

“Let me tell you what’s going to happen to you,” Weller interrupted, pointing at her with his bow. His voice was soft but insistent. “You’re going to put that violin away and go on to something else,” he said. “And it will nag at you. And you’ll take it up again with a vengeance and spend the rest of your life trying to get back to where you were.”

It was hard to tell, as the pig-tailed girl gathered her things and skipped out, if the violin had entered her soul. It certainly has for Selman and Weller. A week after I left Seattle, Weller e-mailed me. I was surprised to learn that he had put the purchase on hold. Temporarily. Selman has seen such hesitation before. After all, great violins change people. They have to be ready for it.

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