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Death of a salesman

The death of violin expert Norman Rosenberg marks the end of an era and raises questions for the violin world

There are some people who pass through the classical music world discreetly and largely unknown, and yet their death leaves us intrinsically, even if imperceptibly, worse off. Norman Rosenberg, who died on 17 February at the age of 95, was one such man.

It’s unlikely most musicians knew who he was. He leaves barely a trace on Google. String players might have tried to borrow or buy an instrument from him – he encouraged many budding professionals over the years. Violin dealers and experts were used to seeing his slight figure wandering around London auction viewings. And astute buyers might have stood nearby to try to overhear his observations and catch a sleeper sale or other useful information.

Norman could spot the make and authenticity of an instrument across a crowded room, just as most of us recognise 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 is able to put that information in the context of every instrument they’ve ever seen and the entire history of violin making. They file each new piece of information for future reference so they can spot every substituted scroll, fake front or restored bass-bar crack that might stymie value. That’s why Norman’s evaluations were trusted by players and dreaded by competitors.

Where did he find his love of instruments? The biographical details I have come from the eulogy written by his wife, Rosella. He was born on 21 October 1926 in Liverpool to a Jewish family that originally came from Kovna in Lithuania (now Kaunas). His grandfather and father owned antique shops, his father sometimes selling violins, as did his uncle Willy, who was also a dentist. As a child Norman was taken round art galleries, which no doubt sharpened his visual senses. He taught himself the violin from the Carl Flesch system and listened to recordings of Heifetz and Kreisler. This may account for his good judgement of the sound of instruments (not a given with violin experts).

He already had the instrument bug as a child, as he told me when I interviewed him for The Strad in 2010: ‘As a provincial schoolboy on the 1930s, my main connections with the violin world were the Liverpool Philharmonic and three violin shops including Rushworth and Dreaper, where I bought The Strad with sixpence from my pocket money. In those days The Strad had a service called Answers to Correspondents. I wrote asking about a maker and received a most helpful reply.’

In 1941 the family moved to Bangor in Northern Ireland to escape the Liverpool Blitz, and Norman went to work at Short & Harland, making Spitfire parts. After the war, aged 22, he went to London, where his first port of call was The Strad office, then in Islington, under editor Eric Lavender. He used to tell me the story of how they had on their wall a picture of the ‘Balfour’ Stradivari, which was a notorious Voller fake. Norman asked Lavender about it and was told, ‘We’ve got that there to remind us about the hazards of the business.’ He was of course teaching me a lesson in my role as Editor, and it was duly noted.

Norman sold his first instrument in 1946, buying it at auction for £4, setting it up properly and selling it for £8. The obsession had become a profession. He married Rosella in 1977, and even on their honeymoon in Scotland, he managed to find some instruments to bring back.

I remember visits to Norman as a child, as my older brother Rafael spent hours trying instruments and bows. One would hear the same stories and Norman might sometimes play his own ‘Song of the Violin’, one of the few things that Google turns up about him (I think he would grin mischievously at that irony). Getting him to show you instruments or bows could be like pulling teeth, though – for an instrument dealer he seemed remarkably reluctant actually to sell anything. They were his friends and you had to bide your time in order to be introduced.

Eventually, when I contemplated going to the Royal Academy of Music and was in the market for an instrument that wasn’t my brother’s hand-me-down, I went to see Norman for myself. He handed me a Sebastian Klotz violin and said, ‘You’ll like this’, and I did. I still play it and love it, and Norman was absolutely right. A dealer who can match a buyer with ‘their sound’ in a decent instrument at a fair price is pretty much the Holy Grail for players.

As Editor of The Strad, I sometimes went round auction viewings with him, hoping for the inside scoop on instruments and dealers. He invariably kept shtum, his eyes twinkling as he pretended not to hear my questions. He knew the violin dealers’ Omertà. He was the perennial outsider, eschewing the agreements, deals, understandings, nods and winks of the violin trade (as far as I know, of course), but he wasn’t going to snitch.

The violin market has certainly changed since Norman sold his first instrument in 1946. There are more people around the world who think they can make a quick buck from dealing, and that didn’t please him. Maybe that diversity is a good thing, redistributing wealth and opportunities and forcing change within the boy’s club. It does, however, raise existential questions about expertise. After all, knowledge is not fairly distributed. It’s hard-won by hours of study, experience, obsession, discourse and time spent up close with fine instruments. There is also an element of native talent, whether that boils down to a photographic memory, and good eyes and ears, or something more intangible. Whatever it is, Norman had it, but how many of the newer entrants do?

On the positive side, scientific developments mean there are more objective measures – dendrochronology to pin down date ranges, scanning to analyse and compare materials at a micro level, and other new tools. But data still need to be interpreted and when these interpretations mean the difference between £100k and £1m in someone’s pocket, there are difficult decisions to be made.

The instrument world is certainly more transparent than it used to be – forced, perhaps by the amount of information and photography online – and collaborative decisions can be made quickly, which might help. Knowledge may be power but epistemologically speaking, the truth is that we never really know that we know the truth about any instrument. Having a group of experts debate and collectively conclude an attribution can lead to the most likely truth possible. But even that may be compromised if some or all of those experts stand to profit from the collective conclusion, and that is a fundamental tension in the violin world. That’s why it needs people a little outside the establishment, who have the knowledge, authority, trustworthiness and sometimes sheer obstinacy to challenge the consensus. Norman stood his ground and did so with a code of honour that always put him on the side of players over the business.

One of the strangest things about mortality is how a lifetime of knowledge such as Norman’s just disappears – it is a terrible irony that in his last years he had Alzheimer’s Disease. The loss is that of his family and those who knew him well. But it’s also a loss for the violin world and its history, too – as if an enormous computer server of institutional memory has been wiped clean. Who has that type of expertise now? The violin world is a lesser place without him – less knowledgeable, possibly less decent and certainly less charming.

Photo: courtesy Rosella Rosenberg


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