Herbert & Evelyn Axelrod

First Encounters of an Enduring Kind

by Smithsonian curator emeritus Gary Sturm


Shock and awe. Herbert Axelrod surely derived immense pleasure from a tactic of shock and awe within an instant of first encounters, assessing passionate students, scholars, and musicians. And with unimagined stroke-of-lightning generosity Herbert would create an enduring channel for dazzled recipients to pursue their passions in earnest. To those who understood the implications, these first meetings were a challenge to succeed and share the fruits of their efforts with a broad, borderless public. Herbert’s passion was spontaneous generosity aimed at enriching the human cultural experience; all made possible by his fish enterprises.

I was skiing in Utah in 1986 when colleagues in the Smithsonian phoned to say the Secretary of the institution received a three-sentence letter from someone named Herbert Axelrod. He stated he owned a quartet of instruments made by Antonio Stradivari, and wanted to know if the Smithsonian had any interest in having them. And oh, these were especially rare fiddles that Stradivari ornamented with exquisite inlaid decorations. How should the Smithsonian reply to this inquiry?

By spring we managed our first meeting with Herbert at the museum, sizing each other up for a reality check. We touted the qualities of our research and collections that were manifest in publications, recordings, and especially, chamber music performance programs. Leading off with our borrowed Stradivari Hellier violin of 1679, tuned and ready to play, we talked about our active performance programs while standing in the concert hall. There on the stage was a 1830s piano made by Conrad Graf in Vienna. We were struggling for some months, with no end in sight, to purchase it to expand the fabric of our study and subsequent informed performances and recordings. Despite a large collection of pianos, we had no working keyboard of this era when composers like Franz Schubert would have considered a Graf piano as a “Steinway” of his time. It was a piece missing from our interpretation of music as originally conceived by 19th century masters using contemporary instruments of the most highly regarded makers. Within fifteen minutes of first meeting, Herbert turned and said, “I’ll buy that piano for you.” And so it began.

For the next 20 years Herbert’s support grew in unimagined scope. He did indeed donate his decorated quartet of Stradivari instruments to the Smithsonian Institution, the United States National Museum. And some years later I would hear those same words. We were on the verge of losing the purchase of a pristinely preserved Erard piano that Queen Victoria bought for Prince Albert after it received accolades at the 1854 London Exhibition. Erard was also the favorite of Franz Liszt. A three minute phone call to Herbert, and ten minutes later, he called back, “I bought that piano for you.” 

I would have untold numbers of three minute phone conversations with Herbert: he acquired a quartet of Nicolo Amati instruments, would the Smithsonian be interested; he acquired a quartet of Jakob Stainer instruments; he acquired a quartet of J. B. Vuillaume instruments; he and Evelyn want to make a gift of a million dollars to endow performances; let’s put together a world performance tour and exhibition in Germany and Japan. Time and again I watched Herbert spontaneously excite newcomers to his web, from a 12-year-old girl in a Tokyo restaurant being invited to play on his Strad cello he had at his side, to the Mayor of Cremona, Italy. Beyond these flash encounters, if you gained trust and respect, Herbert was an unconditional, loyal supporter for years on end. This was clear with many facets of his generosity that ranged from promoting young musicians with promising careers to continuous support of research at the Smithsonian’s Division of Fishes.

The aggregate total of Herbert Axelrod’s support of scholarship and work of curators at the Smithsonian could be summarized in his being honored as the 1999 Donor of the Year for the entire institution. His contributions to the museum’s study of music and fishes exceeded all others. But to us in the trenches, it’s not about the dollars, but the impact that level of support allows for continuous “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” to borrow a phrase from our founder, James Smithson.  And Herbert Axelrod has precisely assured such continuous intellectual exploration and understanding. Chamber music and scholarship of Fishes at the Smithsonian, today and far into the future, enrich the lives of untold thousands only because of his generosity and enduring Axelrod endowments.