Inside the World's Greatest Stringed-Instrument Collection
Reuning, Christopher, Strings
One man's passion for violins built the Chi Mei Culture Foundation collection of violins and bows
This past spring, I arrived in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan with four violins by rare Italian makers after an exhausting, nearly 24-hour journey from Boston. Dai-Ting Chung, an American-trained violin maker and curator of the Chi Mei Culture Foundation's stringed-instrument collection, met with me and a German dealer to see if the carefully selected instruments we brought were worthy of being considered for the collection.
After a lunch of barbequed eel, we ventured to the vault in the Chi Mei Museum to await the arrival of Wen-Long Shi, the foundation's 84-year-old president. The museum, which the foundation established in 1995, houses hundreds of the collection's 1,750 instruments. I studied some of the recent acquisitions while we waited and filled up several pages of my notebook devoted to the extraordinary assemblage. This was my sixth or seventh visit to Chi Mei and there is always something new to learn.
Soon enough, a buzz of activity heralded the arrival of the president as a half-dozen people trailed in his wake. The diminutive octogenarian is a wealthy, yet humble, man who lives in a modest house and goes fishing most days. Years ago, he founded the Chi Mei Corporation, an industrial powerhouse in Taiwan, but Shi's true passion is the violin collection he built from the ground up. He checks in on the company about twice a week and never fails to visit the Chi Mei Museum, which is located in the same gritty, bustling industrial park as the company.
Communing with the instruments is the true highlight of his week.
That day, after politely greeting his guests, he listened as Chung described in detail the newly arrived violins. Shi himself has played each one. When he was satisfied, the museum director, Fuchi Hsu, asked the German dealer and me to await the verdict outside the vault.
A short time later, I was invited back in to make a formal request of the president. Hsu translated and conveyed my invitation for Chi Mei to exhibit eight violins from its collection at the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) May 2012 meeting in New Orleans. The president nodded his approval and exited with his entourage to complete his tour of the museum's other departments. After he left, Chung gave us the good news that the museum will purchase all the violins we had brought.
BUILDING THE COLLECTION
Now a billionaire, Shi grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, before World War II. He came from a poor family, but was enraptured by the sound of the violin from an early age and taught himself to play. In those days, strings were expensive in Taiwan, so Shi resorted to making his own, reportedly stripping the wiring from Japanese fighter planes downed by US forces. He turned this hobby into a cottage business that later produced millions of strings, though he earned his vast fortune manufacturing plastics for cars and computer cases.
An avid collector of fine paintings and sculpture, he began collecting violins in 1990, when he purchased for $1 million the 1707 "Dushkin" Stradivari from Cho-Liang Lin, a Taiwanese-American violinist and renowned soloist. "A big question for me was how to assess a violin's worth and authenticity," Shi recently told Forbes. "Lin wanted to get a new violin and approached me. Slowly I accumulated a collection."
Over the next seven years, Shi purchased 23 instruments made by the leading classical Italian makers, including six by Antonio Stradivari and several violins by Giuseppe Guarneri "del Gesù." In 2004, Shi engaged Chung and Hsu to dramatically expand the collection.
It quickly became apparent that the president had chosen two highly capable men, who not only possess discerning eyes and ears, but who also are willing to put in the legwork to consult with the world's leading experts and dealers to help them objectively verify the authenticity and prices of instruments they short-listed. …