David L. Fulton – Letting Go of a Passion Project

PUBLISHED
March 27, 2024
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One night at the opera, Fulton saw a face he recognized at intermission. He approached the man and said, “Didn’t you use to be Bill Sloan?” Sloan, a urologist and avid violin collector, responded with, “Yeah, weren’t you David Fulton?”

Yeah, I used to be,” said Fulton, who had met Sloan in 1960 at the orchestra at the University of Chicago, where he attended as early admission with a dream of being a mathematician. As he remarked, neither of them looked the same.

 

That fateful encounter would thrust Fulton into playing string quartets with Sloan and marveling at some of the best instruments in the industry – which would later become part of his famous collection.

 

Raised in Eugene, Oregon, to Pentecostal minister parents, Fulton wasn’t allowed to do anything “fun.” No going to the movies, no dances, no rock‘n roll music, but he was allowed to play in the Junior Symphony. As his main outlet, Fulton discovered the unique competition that arises in the symphony, which is to play better than the person next to you.

As a sophomore in high school, Fulton got to sit in the Concertmaster chair at the last concert, thanks to two of his classmates who arranged the seating. To his knowledge, no one ever sat Concert Master as a sophomore, so it was his great triumph.

 

Not long after, Fulton gained early admission into the University of Chicago, skipping the last two years of high school. He was going to be a great mathematician, which was his fantasy that lasted until “the really serious math classes.”

 

That fantasy may have been dashed against the jagged rocks of advanced math, but he kept his soul alive by playing in the university symphony. He once again became Concert Master, which, in his words, is “not that impressive,” and continued in that role for his second, third, and fourth years.

 

In graduate school, Fulton gained a reputation for being involved in computer programs that “functioned properly,” giving him contracts with the US Navy, Air Force, and several small towns. At that time, the computer business was in its infancy.

 

The violin took a backseat as Fulton pursued his computer programming interests. He had started a company called Fox Software, which was a dBase II workalike but much faster. The company won the Best Product of the Year award in 1989 from PC Magazine.

At the awards ceremony, Fulton was seated next to Steve Ballmer, then VP of Microsoft, and Bill Gates. Unbeknownst to Fulton, his company would win the product of the year, beating out Excel, Word, and other competitors – while in the presence of Gates himself.

 

In June of 1992, Microsoft bought Fox Software. Employees were able to stay on at Microsoft  or take a generous severance package and assistance finding other jobs. Gates wanted to meet with Fulton directly, however.

 

In the meeting, Fulton introduced himself to Bill Gates and said, “I had a little company, which you bought for serious money, but it’s a lot smaller than Microsoft. However, we had twice your profit margin.” That piqued Gates’ interest, so the two spent days in one-on-one sessions, leading to Fulton becoming vice president of dBase at Microsoft.

 

After a year passed, when Fulton was 49 years old, he made the decision to leave Microsoft and retire, which is when he turned his full attention back to violins.

 

At Sloan’s office, surrounded by violin books and well-worn issues of The Strad, a passion was born. One day, Sloan asked Fulton if he’d like to accompany him to buy a Strad. He asked him to come to Chicago and take a trip to Bein & Fushi, the premier dealers of rare, antique, and modern violins.

 

Fulton came along and brought his old German violin, which he showed to Robert Bein with trembling hands. Robert Bein’s response was, “Well, if you give me $50, I’ll destroy it for you.” When he asked him later, Bein had no recollection of saying so.

 

Back then, the room at Bein & Fushi was known in the trade as an “ego chamber,” complete with a vaulted ceiling, lush carpets, and a centerpiece table with beautiful violins that Fulton played and played.

 

One day, Robert Bein offered Fulton one of the prized instruments to take home, a Peter of Mantua. When Fulton said he couldn’t afford it – it was probably more than his house at the time with a price tag of $120,000 – Bein said that he could take it home over the holidays, as it wouldn’t sell anyway.

 

As Fulton says jokingly, Robert was like a “drug dealer,” saying, “Here, just try this drug right now; you can quit at any time.” Fulton ended up organizing a loan on the instrument, which was more than his mortgage.

 

Just before the Microsoft  deal, Fulton was pining for a Strad (Antonio Stradivarius Violin). He had already purchased the Baron Knoop and loved the violin, but he had heard of a Del Gesu (Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri – Guarneri Del Gesu) and Strad in a double case – a collector’s dream.

 

Bein had found a “Haddock” Del Gesu, allowing Fulton to work out a deal for the Peter of Mantua. But when the time came to trade, he couldn’t part with the instrument he played for ten years. So, he wrote “a much larger check than intended” and realized he was in trouble – he had become a collector.

 

At its peak around the year 2000, Fulton’s collection contained 28 of the greatest instruments in the world and a staggering collection of bows. He brought some of the world’s premier working concert artists to play, talk, and gossip, including Joshua Bell, Vadim Repin, and Isaac Stern. Many of them have become lifelong friends.

 

Fulton played quarters with the concentrated talent that enjoyed his collection for 16 years, but he doesn’t play much anymore. At 78, continuing to play the violin is challenging.

 

Reviewing the prizes in his collection, including Bergonzi, one of the greatest violas on the planet, seven Strads, and seven Del Gesus, including the “Lord Wilton” and “King Joseph,” Fulton realized that it was indigestible. When violinists come to see his collection, naturally, they want to play the finest instruments, not the second tier.

 

What happened was the “wallflower” effect that made these magnificent violins into stagnant pieces, not instruments of music. “It’s not good to have fabulous things that no one touches,” says Fulton.

 

He made the decision to sell some of his collection, but he ran into obstacles. Selling something like the Peter of Mantua, there’s an extremely limited market. At any given time, there are only a handful of buyers.

 

Ultimately, he decided to sell off the lesser instruments and keep the finest ones. As he says, “These instruments passed out of our possession. We’ve enjoyed them, they’ve enriched our lives unbelievably, but in going to their new owners, they give us the means to pursue good work.”

 

Many of his violins passed on to foundations or were sold, which he believes to be a wonderful outcome for the collection. While he loved and enjoyed his violins, they must pass to others who can take care of them and love them. They provide money to support students, symphonies, chamber music societies, and some types of medical research.

Fulton has no regrets, but he did retain a keepsake. He created a book for his collection, The Fulton Collection, a linen-bound hardcover with museum-quality photos, archival materials, and first-hand recollections of his violins and the stories they’ve inspired.

 

“It’s like a tombstone for the collection; it almost memorializes it,” says Fulton. It’s highly probable there will not be another one like it ever because the instruments are dispersed in foundations, banks, museums, and so on. “I couldn’t assemble it now, no, Bill Gates couldn’t assemble it now. It’s not a matter of money; things are just not for sale.”

 

As suggested by his wife, Fulton’s book memorializes the collection with instruments in the order they were acquired to showcase his personal journey in the fiddle world.

“It’s been an amazing journey. I think one message I’d have to convey is that if you want to be an entrepreneur, don’t forget that luck plays a huge role in the outcome, gigantic role in the outcome,” says Fulton.

“Yes, I made some good decisions and yes, I was smart, but there are a lot of people that are smarter, a lot of people that make clever decisions. I was just lucky I was there at the right time and the right place. I got into the computer business at a time when computers were all new. Ten years later, it may have been another situation altogether. Ten years earlier, I’d be teaching high school math somewhere.”

Thinking back on the journey, he says, “If I were to look back, I’d look back with satisfaction. I’ve had a very fortunate life, a good life. I’ve been very lucky.”

Credits

Director/Producer
DoP
Cristian Coldea
Production Coordinator
Cristian Fatu
Editor
Jose Rodriguez

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