Surprise hardly describes it.
At 7:17 am on Saturday morning October 31, 2021, I was rudely awakened in Los Angeles by a ding from my cell phone. It was my Chicago guitar friend Randy Klimpert texting me before dawn his time as he was leaving a successful flea market before the sun was even up. It seems that once again he had scored “a Find.”
The Full Monty would be this box marked “Printing Cuts from Phil Bohmann,” But actually, Randy had only gone back for what was left in the box at the end of the show. The find was a single photographic engraving the seller had initially saved for him, revealed by flashlight in the dead of night (Is that really how this stuff is traded?! I guess it pays not to spend the day in bed when such potential treasures could be waiting).
The seller, who knew Randy collected anything guitar-related, had scored the box and its contents literally the day before at a local estate sale. He had no idea who “Phil Bohmann” was or that famed harp guitar maker Joseph Bohmann was his grandfather. He just thought the 120-year-old printing blocks were cool.
Indeed they are. Most were player testimonials and newspaper quotes (Photoshop-reversed above), of which Randy ended up with two dozen. I guessed, and later ascertained, that they were used to print one of Bohmann’s two catalogs. They are small wood blocks with thin photoengraved (etched) copper plates nailed on (I’m no expert on the process and techniques).
Bohmann apparently produced just two catalogs in his long career, one circa 1896 and a slightly expanded one at the end of 1899 or early 1900 (the latest dated letter in that one being September 7, 1899). Bohmann historian Bruce Hammond owns many of these original letters, which Bohmann had copied and typeset for his catalogs and other advertising. These blocks are those from his 1896/1900 catalog (some of the quotes appear in his earlier c.1896 catalog as well but were all re-typeset).
Looking for familiar names among them, I spotted Nettie Calamara (profiled with her husband in our Harp Guitar Player of the Month series) and H. F. Meyer, who here endorses Bohmann guitars above all others. In just a few years, he would be offering his own harp guitars and plucked stringed instruments, some built by the Larson brothers of Chicago.
Above, I hold Meyer’s testimonial block at Randy’s. Later I Photoshop-reversed it to verify that these were indeed the blocks used for Bohmann’s second catalog.
Besides the prize (revealed below), there were only three more blocks with images. There was this one that appears in both catalogs, and likely all manner of advertising and correspondence, as it includes patent information (Bohmann’s patents would total at least ten).
Reversing it and inverting the colors yields what one would expect to see once printed…
…and there it is in his catalog, missing just a bit of the engraved detail.
This is the pre-formed violin neck that he advertised separately in his second catalog.
And this one eludes all of us! Not in the catalogs…any guesses?
OK, now for the Catch of the Day that Randy woke me up for:
Randy first wondered if this might be Joseph Bohmann himself…though why would he be holding what looks more like a hollow-arm Knutsen harp guitar….? The detail in this thing is incredible, but with the reflective copper surface it was really hard to capture! We even tried inking on paper, but that proved too crude.
A flat view taken by Randy, much better, but blurry.
Curiously, it was this weird, light-glare-filled “negative” copper image I took at his house that day with my iPhone that provided the best detail.
Here it is flipped, inverted and Photoshopped within an inch of its life to try to capture the details. Can you now see what the gentleman is holding?
Not a Bohmann, nor a normal Knutsen or Dyer hollow harp guitar…it’s clearly an Otto Anderson wrap-around-arm 6-string (harp) guitar!
Here are the two known specimens of this unusual instrument:
Otto built many instruments for Chris Knutsen, but apparently built these for his own use and customers in the mid-1890s. The many parts of his story can be found here.
Above is one customer, a gentleman who remains anonymous. Though his name and story has been lost to time, his instrument has not; it’s the very one shown at left above. Its story (and the other’s) is told here.
So, who is our new mystery gentleman in Bohmann’s stamp? Definitely not the quartet player above. Could it be Otto Anderson himself?
That is a tough call, and to my eye, it’s a no. But I’ll let the reader decide.
The only known photograph of Otto shows similarities with our mystery man, compared below. The Anderson family photo above is believed to have been taken around 1894, but that is admittedly only a guess. Similarly, the photo used on Bohmann’s stamp could have been taken any number of years up to and including 1899.
If taken five years apart, could Otto have grown thicker hair, parted it on the opposite side and tilted his head up a bit to appear as our anonymous man does? Likewise, do we see a similarity in his middle daughter (or other daughters?), now hypothetically five years older? They both seem confoundingly similar enough or am I crazy?! My colleagues were similarly torn on these identifications, and finally, Otto’s own granddaughter Jeanette Detlor weighed in, saying “Grandpa never had hair like this gentleman, and the middle daughter, Esther, had a “droopy” eye that followed her into adulthood. I remember her with this until her death. Wish I could identify these people, but unfortunately do not recognize them” Alas…
As for the instrument itself, it seems to definitely be an Anderson wrap-around-arm guitar, and a third specimen. Though its details are blurry, we can easily see that the arm soundhole is quite a bit further up the arm – about even with the 7th fret rather than the 11th.
Whoever the instrument owners are, our final mystery is the scenario itself. Why did Bohmann have this image? He received many letters and images from those singing his instruments’ praises. But are there any Bohmanns in this portrait? The mandolin does not look like one of his, nor is the tiny “octave guitar” something he made. That leaves the large button accordions (he made smaller models) and of course, the violin, another specialty of his. Whatever the backstory was, Joseph Bohmann made the effort to have a printing block made of the image but did not include it in any catalog.
I’ve been collecting historical images of harp guitar players for decades now, each with their own mysteries…but this little copperplate holds mysteries that may indeed haunt me for some time!
Special thanks to Randy Klimpert (seen below on one of his Facebook “consulting expert” appearances) for sharing his finds with me and allowing me to present to you.
I cannot fathom which planet these things surface on. On this side of the Atlantic, we are lucky to find a broken Mattel plastic guitar at garage sales and flea markets. You seem to dig up one historic artifact after another. Incredible. And in such pristine condition.
The elusive block to me looks like a maraca(s).