Philip J. Kass is an appraiser, expert, and author on violins and violinmaking based in Haverton, PA. Member, Appraisers Association of America and 25 year Associate of William Moennig & Sons, Ltd. Philip illuminates George Gemünder, the first fine American maker. Lots 248 & 249 in the November 2011 New York sale.
“Gemünder’s style was alternately French,
German and American, though not always in that order.”
George Gemünder (1816–1899) was for almost 50 years the finest and most important violin maker in the USA. Born in Germany, the son of a minor violin maker in the employ of an equally minor German prince, young George sought the opportunities for advancement that characterized so many other immigrants. He worked under Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris, coming to know both fine instruments and leading musicians, before leaving for the US in 1847. Apart from a brief residency in Boston, he worked in Manhattan, New York, and later across the East River in Astoria, Queens,for most of his American career. He won many awards for his works and received the endorsement of important performers and colleagues, including his former employer in Paris…..jump the rest of this article.
A GOOD AMERICAN VIOLIN BY GEORGE GEMUNDER, ASTORIA, 1885
Labeled, “George Gemünder, fecit Astoria, LI, Anno 1885.”
From 1876 until 1889 Gemünder both lived and worked in a house at the corner of Washington and Hallett Streets in Astoria. In 1876, after a long, acrimonious and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against his landlord, he abandoned Manhattan for his own spacious property across the river. This had the effect of cutting off contact with day-to-day trade, especially potential clients, who now found it easier to go to the ‘other’ Gemünder, his brother August, whose shop was still in Manhattan. In response to this, he set up a branch office in 1886, under the title George Gemünder and Son, just off Union Square. This office was managed by his son, George Jr., who would eventually succeed to the family business.
“The 1889 example has his brand, not always seen, set on the inside back.”
Gemünder’s style is a blend of French, German and American characteristics, not always in that order, although a certain stiffness of character, balanced by a French precision and style, is ever present in his work. The two violins presented in this auction show him at the height of his power. The violin of 1885 was made as a copy of Stradivari. These copies he considered among his best instruments, their prices exceeded only by his copies of Guarneri ‘del Gesù’. His training at Vuillaume’s is particularly evident in the antiquing of the varnish, the clean and precise purfling, strong edging and confident carving. The antiquing is not overdone, the varnish being a rich orange, applied over his signature dark-gold base. The low but full arching, rising strongly from the edges to a low plateau, is also characteristic.
“Although he was deeply proud to be an American,
the umlaut in “Gemünder” is always present.”
The violin of 1889 was created on the same model and pattern but shows a deeper and redder hue, something one often sees in the work of George Jr. It also represents one of his very last works, for later that year he suffered the stroke that left him a virtual invalid for the rest of his life. In no way does it show any less fastidiousness than the violin of four years earlier.
Gemünder had several ways of marking his instruments. Besides the usual labels, both are signed to the interior of the upper treble flank of the top, a simple inscription of his signature, his town (Astoria Long Island) and the date. In addition, the 1889 example has his brand, not always seen, set on the inside back to the bass side of the top block. In size and style this brand resembles a bridge stamp and states ‘Geo. Gemünder N.Y.’. Although he was deeply proud to be an American, the umlaut in “Gemünder” is always present in his signature, brand and printed labels.
Gemünder’s stroke in 1889 marked the beginning of a tragic decline for him and his family. George Jr could not command the market the way his father could, and George Sr’s medical care was expensive. By his death in 1899, the family was bankrupt. Of the three violin making sons, only George Jr made many instruments, and he died without successor in 1915.
Another violin by Gemunder in the November 2011 New York sale
AN AMERICAN VIOLIN BY GEORGE GEMUNDER, NEW YORK, 1859
Labeled, “George Gemünder, New York, 1859.”