The Instruments of the Norman Rosenberg Collection

Instruments of the Norman Rosenberg Collection

Few fine instrument dealers hold onto so many violins, violas, and bows. But Rosenberg loved his instruments, probably because he understood them so well.

“Do what you love and the money will follow.” So goes the advice of some parents to their children who look for direction on their career choices.

Something similar could be said about the fine violins, violas, and bows in the collection of Norman Rosenberg. The English player and collector really spent the bulk of his 95 years studying, collecting, and selling instruments he loved. He bought and sold many violins, but dozens were with him when he passed away in 2022. Some people did not consider him a “dealer” in the traditional sense – and the fact he died owning such an extensive collection, which included at least one Stradivarius and one Guarneri, attests to that. He simply loved violins by fine violin makers and the sounds they produce.

Rosenberg was himself a self-taught violinist, born in Liverpool, England the son and grandson of antique dealers and the nephew of a violin collector. His own musical abilities were sufficient for him to lead two orchestras (the Wembley Philharmonic and the Ben Uri orchestras), and he was offered a seat to tour with the London Philharmonic. But he did not want to travel. His focus was on beautiful, finely crafted instruments.

The writer of one of his obituaries speaks of his enormous skill in identifying great stringed instruments – and bows, and books about instruments – and yet his being relatively unknown outside of the world of fine instruments (“he leaves barely a trace on Google”). The obituary continues:

“Norman could spot the make and authenticity of an instrument across a crowded room, just as most of us recognize faces. A good expert notices every tool mark, shade, curve and measurement and be able to attribute those details to a specific maker and even year. An expert such as Norman was able to put that information in the context of every instrument they’ve ever seen and the entire history of violin making.”

As the Rosenberg collection came to auction in 2023, the anticipation was palpable. Under the auspices of Ingles & Hayday, the first of two online auctions comprised of 96 lots (including the circa 1685 Strad) brought in £4.7 million, with many items fetching twice their pre-auction estimate. Rosenberg loved each of these items and did not live to cash out (in other words, his heirs got the money that follows, not him).

Sold were a Bernadel violin (£36,000), the ex-Willy Hess Balestrieri violin (£144,000), a Sgarabotto violin (£72,000), a Pajeot bow (£66,000), and a Dominique Peccatte bow (£120,000), among the many others, each far above estimates. The auction also included an extensive book collection, Rosenberg’s extensive library that contributed to his considerable knowledge of violins.

Says Tim Ingles of the auction house: “It was the most competitive auction I have seen since the Menuhin Collection in 1999. Norman’s reputation as a shrewd collector and discerning musician brought in a huge crowd, and we have been busier in the past week than ever before, with viewers from as far afield as Japan, New Zealand, California, and beyond.” Ingles goes on to say “it was a fitting tribute to him as a collector and a musician.”

The second half of the Rosenberg collection will be auctioned on June 6, 2023.