The life & times of a violin collector
Philip E. Margolis
Baron Johann Knoop was possibly the greatest violin collector of all time. He is a member of that small fraternity of collectors who managed to put together a quartet of Stradivari instruments – two violins, a viola and a cello. And Knoop did it not once, but twice. But despite his fame as a collector, virtually nothing is known about the man himself. Writing in 1954, the indefatigable chronicler of instruments, Ernest Doring, wrote that he had long searched for information about Baron Knoop, but to little avail.
Doring lists thirteen instruments known to have passed through the Baron’s hands, but as he himself noted, this list was likely “far wide of the mark.” Thanks to Baron Otto von Schulmann of Finland, an acquaintance of the Baron’s and a reader of Doring’s publication, Doring was able to sketch the basics of the Baron’s life. Baron Johann Ludwig Knoop was born in Moscow on July 22, 1846. His father, the original Baron Knoop, was from Bremen, Germany, but had emigrated to Russia where he established a large cotton mill in Narva, a town now part of Estonia. The Knoop mills were the largest in Russia at the time, and possibly the largest in the world. At its height, the factory operated a half million spindles and employed 12,000 workers. It was in gratitude to Knoop’s contribution to the Russian economy that Czar Alexander II bestowed upon him the title of Baron in 1877. As is the Russian custom, all of the Baron’s sons, of which there were three, inherited this title.
When the elder Knoop died in 1894 his three sons inherited not only the title, but the family’s vast textile empire as well. Doring states that Baron Johann Knoop visited England frequently and was well-acquainted with the W.E. Hill firm. In 1898 or 1899, Knoop accompanied Alfred E. Hill to Russia and helped him arrange to see the instruments in the Czar’s collection, as well as the “Delphino” Strad cello owned by Senator Markevitch.
That, more or less, is the capsule summary of Doring’s article, and for the past 55 years it has remained the fullest printed account of Baron Knoop’s life. Thanks to the Internet, as well as sleuthing by an army of historians, it’s now possible to fill in a few details about the Baron’s life, though he remains a frustratingly difficult person to research.
Johann’s Father, Ludwig Knoop
Much more has been written about the Baron’s father, Ludwig Knoop. Ludwig was born in Bremen, Germany in 1821, the fourth child of a middle-class family of grocers. At the age of 14, Ludwig was apprenticed to a local merchant and in 1838 he was sent to Manchester, England to work as a clerk for De Jersey & Co., which was owned by two uncles on his mother’s side. De Jersey Co. was primarily a cotton dealer, purchasing cotton from the U.S. and reselling it throughout Europe. In 1839, just 18 years old, Ludwig volunteered to go to Russia to assist the manager of the Moscow office, which was responsible for importing cotton into Russia.
In Russia, Ludwig met the Russian textile magnate, Savva Morozov, who asked Knoop if it wouldn’t be possible to import some English milling machinery into Russia. At that time there was a ban on exporting machinery out of England, so it seemed unlikely that Knoop could fulfill Morozov’s request. But with great perseverance and financial backing from de Jersey, Knoop successfully built a modern mill for Norozov at Nikolskoye near Moscow.
At the request of C. V. Morozoff, a Russian yarn importer, he [Knoop] fitted up a spinning mill with English machinery in Moscow as an experiment. The success of the venture was so complete that he began to import cotton-spinning machinery regularly. . .From that time onwards cotton spinning, weaving, and printing has become the most firmly established of Russian industries, although the machinery is wholly English, and a large number of English managers and foremen are employed in it.
Knoop quickly took over the Russian operations of the de Jersey firm and with the lifting of the ban on English imports to Russia in 1843, Knoop’s business expanded quickly and he became a “virtual monopolist-mediator between Russian textile factory owners and their English suppliers of equipment and raw material.”
According to one source, Knoop’s success stemmed from his “extraordinary charm and business proficiency” . . . and his ability to hold his liquor. “The Moscow partners were impressed,“ writes Petrov, by his ability – so rare in a foreigner – to drink and remain sober at the inevitable banquets, which followed all business negotiations in Russia at that time.” Ludwig’s daughter, Adele, remembered her father saying that he had to endure an 8-day drinking binge to gain the trust, and hence the business, of the Konovalov firm.
While Ludwig was enjoying success in Russia, his younger brother, Julius, had in 1840 also gone to work for the uncles in Manchester. The brothers maintained close relations and worked together to their mutual benefit. Indeed, it seems likely that they may have connived behind the backs of their uncles. It’s not entirely clear what happened in 1847, but several commentators have written that the de Jersey firm “went virtually bankrupt”. When the company emerged from this crisis, Ludwig had become the de facto head of the Russian part of the business, and his brother Julius was in charge of the de Jersey firm in Manchester. Julius bought cotton from the U.S. and other places and exported it to Russia where Ludwig had it spun into thread via his own mills or sold to other mills that used English equipment purchased through the de Jersey company in England. It was a winning business formula.
In 1852, Ludwig established his own company, L. Knoop & Co., based in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he adopted Russian citizenship. Knoop also took a shareholder interest in many of the companies to whom he sold equipment, and by 1857 he was part-owner of well over 100 companies.
Over the next 20 years, the Knoop brothers – Ludwig in Russia and Julius in England – built a family empire based on cotton, textiles and English-made machinery. One of Ludwig’s daughters, Adele, wrote of a scene from the 1860s in which her grandmother went for a Sunday walk flanked by Ludwig on one side and Julius on the other. She looked at one and then the other of her sons, and exclaimed: “Meine Jungens! Wat heff ick doch for Jungens!” (“My boys! Such sons have I!”)
As Thompstone notes, Ludwig Knoop “became a major force in Russian cotton textile production.” By 1877, the 25th anniversary of Knoop’s company, he had helped establish more than 100 cotton mills and had supplied 187 different factories with machinery. His name became so popular in Russian that it was mentioned in a proverb – “Every church has a priest, every factory – a Knoop”.
Petrov, Dr. Jurii, “Russian-German Economic Relations in the 19th – Early 20th Centuries: The problem of Export of ‘Human Capital,’ Competition and Cooperation of Enterprises on National and International Markets (19th-20th Century): 19th-20th Century (editor, Hans Pohl), Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997.
Thompstone, Stuart, “THE RUSSIAN TECHNICAL SOCIETY AND BRITISH TEXTILE
MACHINERY IMPORTS, 2002.