In Tune with the Past
Fred Oster, a string specialist, deals in antique and restored instruments
By Tom Nugent
“When you hold a 300-year-old, or even a 400-year-old instrument, you certainly feel that you’re holding a piece of history,” says Fred Oster, BA’74 (Flor).
For Oster, restoring antique string instruments is the natural outgrowth of a lifelong interest in both music and European history.
His job connects him to the history of music. “The past comes alive, and all at once you’re looking at an irreplaceable artifact from a long-vanished era,” he says.
And he’s been doing the work with gusto for more than 40 years.
After opening his Philadelphia store in 1974, Oster began restoring, appraising and certifying old violins, violas, cellos and bows and selling acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos. He’s become an acknowledged expert on and merchandiser of “historically important antique instruments.”
“I was very fortunate to study history at FDU in the early 1970s,” Oster recalls, “because I wound up doing a lot of historical research under the direction of [the late] James Fraser,” the director of the campus library.
“Dr. Fraser was a most important catalyst for my future as a researcher in antique musical instruments. He was one of my greatest influences, giving me both confidence and inspiration.”
Another key factor in Oster’s career, he says, was his devotion to the guitar and banjo. “I was so hooked on guitar music, in fact,” he says, “that I wound up co-founding the Campus Pub at FDU. We booked great performers like [guitarists] David Bromberg and the Rev. Gary Davis, along with a number of terrific folk singers. It was a huge thrill to see them performing at the Pub on Saturday nights!”
In his personal collection, Oster cherishes Martin acoustic guitars, from the 1830s–1930s; and Gibson guitars, dating to the 1930s–1940s. He also has a particular interest in Philadelphia-made instruments, and owns “the earliest known plucked instrument made in the United States, a cittern [similar to a guitar or lute], dating to 1778.”
Besides providing advice to high-end auction houses, he consults and appraises for insurance companies, musicians, museums and collectors worldwide. His clients have included the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Library of Congress, The Martin Guitar Co. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A regular guest appraiser on the hugely popular “Antiques Roadshow” since 1997, Oster says he’s working harder than ever these days — and he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 edition of FDU Magazine.