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Internationally renowned bow experts Paul Childs and Isaac Salchow have traveled across the globe in search of some of the world’s most exceptional bows. Kerry Keane, Head of Musical Instruments, recently caught up with them to talk about a highlight a little closer to home—a rare violin bow by François Xavier Tourte with gold and tortoiseshell mountings that will be auctioned at Christie’s New York on April 26.
Kerry Keane: Can you tell us about your backgrounds and how you became interested in bows?
Isaac Salchow: When I was 18, my grandfather (bow maker William Salchow) invited me to move to New York, work in his shop and learn the art of bow making. The passion was immediate—there was never a question of whether or not I wanted to continue. I had some experience with woodworking, though very little knowledge of classical music, but it didn’t take long for me to learn to love it.
Paul Childs: Although an early music teacher of mine sparked my initial fascination with bows, moving to New York was really the moment when that interest took off. I attended the Manhattan School of Music, where I quickly noticed that a lot of the better players at school had an interest in good bows. I heard that Wurlitzer’s was the firm to go to, but being curious, I went everywhere. And from there, it just blossomed.
KK: A lot of people outside the string world often make the statement, “I didn’t know the bow was so important.” As a player, a dealer and an expert, why are bows so essential?
PC: You can take a violin and play it with four or five different bows and you are going to get different sounds out of the instrument with each bow. Because different bows elicit varying tonal qualities, it is important to understand the construction of a bow—is it relatively pliable yet resilient, like a Tourte, or slightly heavier, as you’ll find with bows from the Peccatte school? I know some very fine players who consider bows to be even more important than the instrument itself.
KK: Many musicians and collectors seek out older bows rather than their modern counterparts. What might make them more interesting?
PC: That can be a complex question. There’s the antique value of a bow, which is tied to its rarity and historic importance. There’s also a certain beauty and originality to those sought-after early makers like Tourte or Peccatte. Having said that, I see fantastic bows being made today. In a way, I think that some modern bows are just as good an investment as older bows. I think they will appreciate over time.
IS: I would agree that their relative scarcity plays a major role. My hands still have epoxy on them from a Tourte head I just glued back together, so that’s one more Tourte that’s been damaged in a fundamental way. The numbers continue to dwindle.
KK: For those who are new to collecting bows, are there questions they should ask or a process they should follow in order to learn more?
IS: In terms of investment, the quality of the materials is important. When I look at a bow, I want it to be in good condition. That said, it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as the problems result from playing wear as opposed to cracks from accidents. It needs to be of reasonable weight, balance and strength, and it needs to play well. Finally, it should exemplify an era in a maker’s life.
KK: So like any great work of art, it’s about attribution, condition and quality.
PC: Quality is essential. Even within the work of a given maker, the quality of the bow can vary. It’s not as if all Peccattes are worth $100,000. Some are worth a little more these days, and some are certainly worth less.
KK: When you’re examining a bow for attribution, do you have a mental checklist that you follow?
PC: It’s a process of relating what you see to what you know. Let’s say that on a given bow you observe that the chamfers taper down approaching the ivory headplate, and one is a little bit different on one side than on the other. That observation prompts a series of questions. You have to ask yourself if that element aligns with any particular maker’s style. You can also approach it in the reverse—starting with a maker and asking if the bow in question displays any of the telltale signs of their work. It’s a system of checks and balances.
KK: Both of you have mentioned François Xavier Tourte—why is his work considered to be such a watershed moment in this field?
IS: Many of the French bow makers are known for their consistency and high quality of work. The Germans were also great, but even in 1850, they were copying Tourte. Tourte invented the modern bow, so it’s quite possible to say that he alone elevated everything else in French bow making during the 19th century.
KK: So really, he raises the bar.
IS: He created the bar.
KK: Let’s talk about the Tourte violin bow that we have coming up for auction at Christie’s. What were some of the specific details that led you to attribute this bow to him?
IS: One of the great things about Tourte is that his work is so immediately recognizable. The head tells you who made it in under a second. Of course, it’s important to second guess your first opinion because those first impressions can be so powerful. Just as Paul mentioned earlier, you go back through a mental checklist to either prove or disprove your initial response. For this bow, the wood is great, the work is great, it has everything. Kerry, what do you think about this bow?
KK: Visually, I think it’s spectacular. What strikes me is that the wood on the stick appears so “alive.” You can see how the grain is iridescent and reflects so much light. Did that result from a treatment to the wood?
IS: No, that’s natural. In fact, when you make a bow out of beautiful wood, there’s reflection and transparency, but no brand new bow will have that kind of dimensionality. It actually gains depth over time, resulting in the exceptional color you see here. As an expert, I appreciate this bow as a great Tourte; as a bow maker, it’s absolutely beautiful.
François Xavier Tourte