Collectors are a funny breed, sort of human packrats. Their interests can vary from beer bottles to fine art. Often this becomes an obsession, and serves no practical purpose. Just think of your typical wine cellar owner; is he/she really going to enjoy all those more or less expensive bottles by drinking their contents, or is the quantity and value on the collection the main factor?
Instrument collectors are an interesting subspecies. There are some who buy stolen string instruments, especially in the Far East, knowing that they will never be able to share their loot in public. The same is true with paintings. Where have all those stolen masterpieces ended up? Somewhere someone must be admiring a painting in secrecy that couldn’t be displayed even in the privacy of one’s home. A well known violin collector was recently sentenced to jail for fraud. There might be others whose business practices are not exactly exemplary. Where, for instance, is late Erica Morini’s beautiful violin that was removed from the case by one of her trusted people, while she was in the hospital?
On the positive note, I want to remember a wonderful patron of the arts and a great connoisseur of violins and bows, Richard Colburn. His foundation has helped so many young string players with instrument loans. Just about everyone in the Heifetz class was playing on a violin from him. My first wife and I had a beautiful Strad from his collection for a couple of years (insured value in 1969 $12,000!). I managed to back a car over a double Jäger case which had both this instrument and a fabulous Vuillaume in it; the cover for the case was demolished, but nothing else was ruined and the instruments were perfectly in tune after the incident.
After moving back to Los Angeles in 1977, we would visit Mr. Colburn quite frequently, most often for some chamber music. He didn’t insist that anyone use instruments from his collection, but was usually pleased if we asked to. I remember a time when he couldn’t get his instrument safe open and I had to unlock it for him, with the combination he gave to me. He played the viola himself and every so often would yell “man overboard!” when he got lost. Everyone had a lot of fun, and he would serve dinner in the little dining area by the kitchen, always very simple but tasty food. His house was beautiful, close to the Sunset Strip area and was situated on a large hillside lot. As he was also a patron for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, we would sometimes hold parties for all the musicians, board members and friends.
One of the things close to Richard Colburn’s heart was music education and he started a pre-college level music school, at first in connection with USC and later becoming its own entity. Today it occupies a building near the Walt Disney Hall, has a college division and is quickly becoming sort of the Curtis Institute of the West Coast. Inside the building is Heifetz’ studio, from the master’s former house in Beverly Hills. How nice that someone took the trouble to preserve that precious structure from demolition.
I was saddened to hear about Mr. Colburn’s passing away less than a year ago. We need more people like him. I feel truly honored to have known this most interesting man. He would never have misused his influence.