Exquisite strings: Some of world's finest instruments are owned by Northwest collector

Every string player knows his name.

But David Fulton may be the Northwest's best-kept secret: the man Money magazine calls "the world's greatest violin collector."

Locked away safely in a fireproof vault at an undisclosed location is Fulton's treasure trove of some of the finest historic instruments by Stradivari, Guarneri, Guadagnini, Amati, Bergonzi, Montagnana and da Salo, among several others.

Quietly and without fanfare, Fulton periodically brings some of these instruments into circulation, as he did last month for the American Viola Congress in Seattle. Friends, aspiring players and top artists make his Northwest home a place of pilgrimage. Over the years, violinists from Isaac Stern and Midori to Cho-Liang Lin, Elmar Oliveira and Vadim Repin have found their way to his home, often staying overnight in Fulton's beautifully appointed guest house next door.

His Steinway, in the enormous living room of the main house, awaits pianists who accompany the lucky violinists in sonatas, for practice or for house concerts. And once a week, three members of the Seattle Symphony arrive on his doorstep to play string quartets with Fulton on instruments from his collection.

"It's an inducement!" laughs Fulton, 58, of the tremendous drawing power of these instruments, which he calls "catnip for artists." He's a happy man, a violinist who may not have made a concert career but who enjoys the very best of that world as an insider.

Not all the instruments from the 22 in his collection are loaned or even played. A few are in such immaculate condition that Fulton considers them "a real trust for the future. I take it as a personal challenge, that instruments like those leave my hands in the same condition as they entered them."

A work of art

Fulton opens a violin case and carefully lifts out a 1709 Stradivarius named "La Pucelle," or "the maiden," and places it in my hands. Before you hear a note, you know this is a work of art. The striped wood, especially on the back, glows like a polished tiger's-eye gemstone. The intricately carved pegs were added by the famous 19th-century French violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who was said to have exclaimed, "It's a virgin!" when he first saw the beautifully preserved instrument. The tailpiece is carved with an image of "La Pucelle" (Joan of Arc, commonly called the Maid of Orleans).

The instrument is practically weightless. How could anything so delicate survive so perfectly for more than three centuries?

"La Pucelle has no cracks, no retouching, no worn-down corners or edges," marvels Fulton.

"It has new fittings, but otherwise it's just like it left Antonio Stradivari's hands. The sound is very pure. That should be preserved."

He takes the instrument and plays a few lines, from a Beethoven sonata to a phrase or two of Brahms. It's exquisite. The sound is pure, radiant, almost lambent. It boggles the ear.

"This is one of my finest," Fulton says afterward. "It's the finest Strad not in a museum, the finest one in the U.S." Don't ask him where he got it (it had been hidden away "in private hands" for the past 50 years, and Fulton actually is bound by contract not to reveal the identity of the seller for a decade).

Don't ask him what he paid for it; the collector carefully skirts this issue, as he does the question of the total value of his holdings. But Strads, especially top-quality Strads, don't come cheaply; good ones command an estimated $1.2 million to $6 million. It's not hard to imagine that the immaculate "La Pucelle," considered one of a half-dozen of the finest Strads, is worth a figure on the high end of that scale, somewhere short of the estimated $10 million the world's most perfectly preserved Strad (the "Messiah," in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford) would likely command.

A sacred trust

And with an instrument like "La Pucelle" comes a great responsibility for the owner. Of the estimated 1,100-1,200 violins made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), only about 500-600 remain, according to Fulton's estimates. Every war, every cataclysm has reduced their numbers. Some have disappeared, either stolen or acquired in mysterious circumstances; that's why the precise number of remaining Strads is not known.

And of the remaining instruments, a lot of them have a great deal of wear and tear: repaired cracks, patches, other repairs that inevitably affect the sound. Instrument repairers have over-polished some instruments, a practice that softens the top layer of the varnish and wears away its layers over time. Corners get nicked and knocked off; edges get blurred; human sweat and extra-aggressive playing all exact a toll. It isn't difficult to see why Fulton believes he has a sacred trust in keeping his top-tier instruments in great condition.

Fulton's road to "La Pucelle" and his other gems is a long and interesting one. There's a photograph of him as an adorable 2-year-old, holding a large book under his chin and sawing away at it with a ruler. His parents, who enrolled him in violin lessons thereafter, imagined that one day he would be beloved of audiences the world over.

"Instead, I am beloved of violin dealers the world over!" Fulton quips.

Dream began with computers

He proved to be one of those brilliant mathematical minds that often accompanies musical talent. Raised in Eugene, Ore., Fulton was at the University of Chicago by age 16, studying mathematics and playing in the university's orchestra as concertmaster. He moved on to the University of Connecticut, where he acquired a doctorate in mathematical statistics and played in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra from 1964 to 1967. Then he became chairman of the nascent computer-sciences department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

It was the computer, which Fulton mastered at a time when a computer took up a whole room, that eventually made it possible for him to realize his musical dreams.

"I taught at Bowling Green for 10 years," he recalls, "but already while I was in graduate school, I started a consulting business. I had consulting contracts with the Air Force Global Weather Command, the Navy, MIT. I liked the computer stuff more and more."

Fulton says he was "a tolerable violinist who could struggle and sweat and achieve mediocrity. Then you hear a young guy like Vadim Repin, who comes in and can toss off things I could never consider achieving."

Instead, he focused on developing the consulting business into Fox Software, which was purchased in the early 1990s by Microsoft.

"Fashion is very important in the software business," he says, "and we had our 15 minutes of fame. I was brought out here, along with about half of our 300 employees. Microsoft behaved very honorably in this merger. I admire Bill Gates; he's as good as his word and better. All our employees either were offered a good job at Microsoft or else a generous severance."

He retired from Microsoft in 1994 because "it was a big company and I was used to small companies." Fulton bristles, however, at Money magazine's characterization of him as a "Microsoft millionaire," saying instead that the money came "rather before that. Fox had been successful for some time before the merger."

A collector is born

Fulton's life as a collector dates back more than 20 years, arising from his wish to have a good violin to play. When a friend was buying a fine instrument in Chicago, Fulton went along and asked the dealer what his own old German violin was worth. The answer? "Pay me $50 and I'll destroy it for you."

Instead, the dealer offered him an instrument by Pietro Guarneri of Mantua.

"It was worth more than my home," says Fulton. " 'Well, we know you aren't going to buy it, but why don't you just take it home with you to Toledo and try it out?' That was the line. It's just like a drug deal: Try a little, you won't be addicted.

"It's necessary to fall in love with an instrument before you confront its value. Well, I fell in love. I took out a loan, more than my mortgage."

From then on, the collection grew "like topsy." He acquired a Strad, then a Guarnerius del Gesu (they're much rarer than Strads, with only about 130-140 known surviving examples; Fulton has more of them than any collector). He had worked out a trade for the del Gesu with his original Pietro of Mantua, and then found he couldn't bear to part with it. "I knew I was in trouble from that point on," says Fulton, who still has the Pietro of Mantua.

When Fulton started collecting, a Stradivarius would fetch "a couple of hundred thousand." Those days are gone forever; Fulton says he is "at the end of the acquisitive stage" in his collecting, which took advantage of leaps in the stock market. Yehudi Menuhin's violin (see accompanying article), for instance, became available when the market was very high, which made it possible for Fulton to acquire it. If Menuhin had lived another five years, it'd be different, Fulton observes.

Is a fine-instruments collection smarter than the stock market as an investment? It depends, Fulton says; over time, instrument prices have risen like real estate, and sometimes they've been overvalued.

"Anyway, this is pure consumption, not investment," he says.

"They're only an investment if you're selling them — and I'm not selling."

Unparalleled collection

Replicating Fulton's collection today, he says, is something that would possibly be beyond the ability even of Bill Gates. It's not just money: So many great fiddles are no longer for sale, either in museums or the property of those who have no need to sell (like the Nippon Foundation of Japan, which has acquired many great instruments and loans them to players).

"No matter how much money you have, you can't buy a Leonardo painting," he explains.

Once, when Fulton was transporting two great violins back to this country in a double case, he began thinking about the tremendous loss if the plane crashed. Only later did he realize that if the plane went down, he also would be dead. Somehow that seemed secondary. And that gives you an idea of why Fulton is willing to pay so much and work so hard to acquire instruments of which he is only a lifetime custodian. He believes great violins are not dead; in some mystical way they call to each other, and they call to him, too.

Now he is working on a book, complete with his own stunning digital photographs and an audio and video CD showing the instruments demonstrated by outstanding players, including violinist James Ehnes and cellist Lynn Harrell. The book will definitively document the collection.

None of Fulton's five children (three by a 1966 marriage and two with his present wife, Amy, whom he married in 1985) is a musician, but that's OK with him. Fulton, who is still considering options for the instruments after his lifetime, is leaving behind an incomparable musical legacy.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com