Updated: Dec 28, 2018
By Jayson Kerr Dobney
From April 4th until June 21, 1975, a selection of 93 musical instruments representing five centuries of European and American craftsmanship were exhibited at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York City. “Collectors Choice” was an exhibit drawn completely from private collections in the United States. The exhibition was presented under the auspices of the American Musical Instrument Society and according to the Society’s June 1975 Newsletter it was organized by a committee led by the violin dealer Jacques Francais along with a committee that included Lawrence Witten, Eric Selch, Friedrich von Heune, Edwin Ripin, and Robert Rosenbaum. The exhibition coincided with the fourth annual meeting of AMIS in New York City, and the committee also produced a detailed checklist of the instruments included in the exhibition. AMIS is pleased to announce the digitization of this checklist, an interesting document from the early history of the society. A digitized version of this checklist is now available and can be found on the Publications page of the AMIS website.
According to Carolyn Bryant’s 2007 article, “In the Beginning”—The Early Days of AMIS (JAMIS, 2007, pp. 190-191), collectors were asked to nominate instruments that they would be willing to loan to the exhibition. Collectors were also required to organize and pay for the packing and shipping of the instruments to the venue, while the gallery then took care of the insurance, mounting, security, etc. while the instruments were on view. Perhaps because of these guidelines, the vast majority of the instruments came from collectors in and around the New York City area. The AMIS meeting, exhibition, and profiles of collectors Robert Rosenbaum and Eric Selch appeared in a New York Times article from April 5th of that year.
Knowing that collectors such as Rosenbaum, Selch, and Witten were on the organizing committee would indicate that the exhibition would have some seriously extraordinary instruments. A brief scan of the checklist reveals sixteenth and seventeenth century bowed stringed instruments from Brescia, Cremona, and Venice. A selection of rare seventeenth- and eighteenth-century woodwind instruments. A nice selection of American brass and woodwind instruments from the 19th century and a few representative harps, tromba marinas, and small keyboards.
A significant number of instruments came from the Witten collection of New Haven, CT. Perhaps highlighting that group was “The King” cello made by Andrea Amati in the middle of the sixteenth century. This famed instrument was but one of a trove of pieces from Witten’s collection in the exhibit, which also included a viola da gamba by the Venetian master Francesco Linarol, a viola by Gasparo (Bertolotti) da Salò, and a theorbo by Magnus Tieffenbrucker the younger. These instruments are all now well known, thanks to the acquisition of the Witten collection by the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota in 1984, where it has been exhibited and published extensively.
Just as remarkable were a major loan of objects from Robert Rosenbaum. Treasures from his collection included some particularly choice woodwind instruments such as a treble recorder by Johann Christoph Denner (ca. 1690), a fagottino by J. Krause (ca. 1700), and a flute by Johann Joachim Quants (ca. 1750). Rosenbaum also loaned a bentside spinet by Stephen Keene of London, a slide trumpet by Charles Pace, a cornet by Graves and Co., and a keyed bugle by E. G. Wright. The renowned Rosenbaum collection would later form the core of the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments, Hamamatsu, Japan.
The aforementioned Eric Selch was another important lender to the exhibition. These included clarinets by William Whiteley, E. Baack, and Asa Hopkinson; flutes by Firth, Pond and Company and Rönnberg; and a Yankee bass viol by Abraham Prescott. The Selch collection, as most AMIS members are aware, now resides at Oberlin College.
Jacques Francais was the driving force behind the exhibition. Indeed, the checklist actually reads “Jacques Francais Presents under the sponsorship of the American Musical Instrument Society.” It therefore makes great sense that instrument dealers and even a couple of makers participated by lending instruments to the exhibition. In addition to Francais, there were pieces from Wurlitzer-Bruck, Lillian Caplin, and Henryk Kaston.
It’s a testament to the quality of items included in this exhibition that so many of them now reside in major museum collections. In addition to the Witten, Selch, and Rosenbaum collections listed above, William Maynard lent several important clarinets, which are now a part of the collection housed in Vermillion, South Dakota. Many of the items exhibited by dealers have also ended up with Museums, for instance a Voboam guitar dated 1697 lent to the exhibit by Lillian Caplin is now a part of the collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. So too is the beautifully carved American folk fiddle made in Maine by P.H. Holmes that Francais presented in the exhibit. Surely there are many other objects within the pages of this checklist that can now be traced to public collections.
Folk Violin by P. H. Holmes, Gardiner, Maine, ca. 1880. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Reading the checklist more than forty years after the exhibition took place is fascinating for any musical instrument scholar. The exhibition was limited to instruments from Europe and the United States between the sixteenth and nineteenth century. In the Foreword, it is clearly stated that the exhibit included rare and valuable instruments of "western art music." It reveals the interests (and collections) the founding generation of AMIS members and museum professionals. What would a similar exhibition look like today? Presumably it would be a much broader exhibit featuring vintage American instruments of the twentieth century, experimental electronic instruments, and perhaps instruments from outside of Europe and American traditions.
The checklist functions not only as a time capsule of what was deemed important by the organizers at the time (and what were some of the greatest American collections of the time), but it also shows what is unusual and valuable about AMIS as an organization. The Society has always included musical instrument lovers of all types, providing a rare place where collectors, dealers, university professors, museum curators, instrument builders, students, and enthusiasts can interact and learn from each other. This diversity of interest and knowledge is an important part of the DNA of the society.
The digitization of this publication will be of interest to many AMIS members and useful to many researchers. Maybe, as the Society nears our fiftieth anniversary in a few years, its time to imagine what an exhibition dedicated to instruments from private collectors could look like in the twenty first century!
Jayson Kerr Dobney is the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He currently serves as the President of the American Musical Instrument Society.