This is one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever worked on and remains among my favorites. Herbert Axelrod, who built a fortune writing how-to books on keeping pets, from fish to hamsters, also amassed a collection of rare violins that, amid great fanfare, he sold to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for $17 million. Both Axelrod and the orchestra touted the collection’s true value at $50 million, creating the appearance that Axelrod was one of New Jersey’s great philanthropists and that the orchestra possessed the finest group of instruments anywhere in the world.
In reality, reporter Peggy McGlone and I found many of the instruments were of questionable provenance, worth a fraction of what Axelrod claimed. Moreover, the deal appeared to be a giant tax dodge, allowing the businessman to take massive charitable deductions on instruments with vastly inflated valuations. We found that to be Axelrod’s pattern around the world. He also overstated what he paid for violins to drive up the international market for stringed instruments.
The architect of Axelrod’s scheme — German-born violin dealer Dietmar Machold, the owner of a 14th-century castle in the hills of Austria — would later go to prison in Europe for using over-valued violins as collateral for loans amounting to tens of millions of euros. He would also lose the castle, foreclosed upon by creditors.
In the wake of our story, the orchestra commissioned its own investigation, buttressing The Star-Ledger’s findings and issuing an apology to its subscribers.
Years later, faced with crippling debt brought on in part by the Axelrod purchase, the orchestra sold the collection.
An old violin speaks to those who play it. Over centuries and lifetimes, it takes on a personality, a singular voice, its wood rubbed and weathered and dimpled into uniqueness.
To Eric Wyrick, star violinist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, it is a thing of rare beauty. And one violin in particular, Wyrick says, is more beautiful than most.
That violin, a 1740 Domenico Montagnana, is one of 30 stringed instruments the symphony bought from philanthropist Herbert Axelrod last year in a deal unprecedented for its cost and scope: $49 million worth of violins for $17 million.
Never had an orchestra acquired so many fine Italian instruments in one stroke. And never had an orchestra gone so deeply into debt to pay for them.
As the symphony’s concertmaster, a position akin to a team captain, Wyrick has played every violin in the collection. The Montagnana — with its dark tone, its fiery varnish, its graceful curls and corners — bewitched him from the start.
“It’s an exceptionally beautiful and unusual instrument,” Wyrick said. “The design, it’s like a science fiction instrument. It’s different.”
So different it might not be a Montagnana at all.
Five violin dealers and experts, including two of the world’s top authorities on stringed instruments, say the Montagnana is not what it is purported to be. The instrument is one of five in the NJSO collection that some or all of the experts say are of questionable authenticity.
They are old instruments, certainly, dating at least to the 19th century. But, the experts say, it is likely they were crafted by someone other than the famed violin-makers to whom they are attributed. In short, the experts say, they are probably fakes, worth a fraction of their appraised value.
In addition, they say one of the collection’s most expensive violins, a 1716 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù appraised at $3.3 million, is likely the work of the craftsman’s father, diminishing the instrument’s value by more than $2 million.
Three other instruments — by Antonio Stradivari, history’s most revered violin-maker — have important parts that are not original, reducing their value by as much as two-thirds, the experts say. Those contentions are one finding of a Star-Ledger investigation mounted after Axelrod, a longtime NJSO supporter, was indicted on tax fraud charges in April. A fugitive for two months, the 77-year-old multimillionaire was arrested in Germany June 15 as he arrived on a flight from Switzerland. He remains jailed in Berlin pending extradition to the United States.
The Star-Ledger inquiry, encompassing dozens of interviews in the United States and Europe, found that Axelrod, while a generous benefactor to many musicians and institutions, was also a charlatan and a huckster.
He invented histories for some instruments to explain away doubts about authenticity or to increase their value. He sought to rig the international violin market, publicly overstating prices he paid for violins in an effort to improve returns down the line.
In his negotiations with the New Jersey orchestra, Axelrod lied repeatedly to build pressure for the $17 million sale, threatening to kill the slow-moving deal in favor of other offers, ones The Star-Ledger has determined to be phantoms.
And he routinely obtained instrument appraisals that strained credulity, even among dealers accustomed to a supercharged market for fine Italian strings. Most of those appraisals were performed by Dietmar Machold, Axelrod’s principal violin dealer since 1997.
The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and a U.S. Senate committee all have launched investigations to determine whether Axelrod used the lofty appraisals, like the one accepted by the NJSO, as a vehicle for fraudulent tax deductions. Orchestra officials say they are cooperating with investigators and that the NJSO is not a target of the probes.
The experts contacted by The Star-Ledger characterized the valuation of $48,990,000 for the NJSO collection as vastly overblown — “ludicrous,” according to one. That figure, which stands as the symphony’s appraisal of record, was widely used in building enthusiasm for a deal that NJSO officials portrayed as so generous it was more like a gift than a sale.
At best, the experts say, the symphony paid market value for the collection, which includes a dozen Stradivari violins and a Stradivari cello.
The experts also questioned how a financially strapped institution preparing to mortgage its future could have failed to identify instruments of dubious origin.
In fact, symphony officials now concede they were aware of questions about some of the instruments. Those suspicions were raised by three consultants hired to examine Axelrod’s collection ahead of the deal’s completion.
But those misgivings were not relayed to the NJSO’s full board of trustees, which ultimately approved the sale, or to the public, which heard only that the orchestra was acquiring a $50 million collection — one touted as among the finest in the world — at a cut-rate price.
Symphony officials, who insisted for months the Axelrod collection was beyond question, maintain the transaction was an excellent one that has transformed the sound of the orchestra.
“The number we paid was a number we were very comfortable with, taking even the most pessimistic view of value and authenticity,” said Simon Woods, the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer. “And if you take the optimistic view, it was an incredible deal.”
In addition, Woods said, there is no absolute proof that the suspect strings are not authentic. “I don’t think we’re prepared to say they aren’t,” he said. “We don’t know what they are. We got a multiplicity of opinions.”
Some members of the symphony’s 50-member board of trustees said they were troubled by questions about the instruments and the revelations about Axelrod.
William Baroni, a Republican assemblyman from Mercer County, called the challenges to the strings’ authenticity “gravely serious.”
“As a board member and a legislator, I want to make sure our investment and the investment of our season ticketholders and the taxpayers of New Jersey are protected here,” Baroni said. “We want to make sure we have a full accounting of the value of these instruments and a full accounting of what happened.”
The story of Herbert Axelrod and his violins stretches from downtown Newark to a 14th-century castle outside Vienna, from central London to the winding, cobblestone streets of Cremona, Italy, birthplace of Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù and other renowned violin-makers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
It involves a trade as murky as it is lucrative, one in which expert opinion stands as fact and in which conflicts of interest abound. Beneath its civilized surface, the world of rare violins is a realm of undisclosed alliances, fierce rivalries and denigrating whispers. Its history of fraud and fakery dates almost to the inception of the violin itself.
Yet even to those inured to the intrigues and dramas of the high-end trade in fiddles, as violins are routinely called, the baroque tale of Axelrod and an ambitious regional orchestra stands apart.
“This whole case is like a new chapter in the wheeling-and-dealing history of fiddles,” said Duane Rosengard, a bassist in the Philadelphia Orchestra and a widely respected scholar of stringed instruments. “For the number of people involved, the number of instruments involved, the number of institutions criss-crossing, I don’t think there’s ever been anything on this scale before. It’s a world record-breaker.”
NJSO, HERE’S A DEAL FOR YOU
Among American orchestras, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has historically rated somewhere in the middle. Not regarded as great, but certainly not bad. With 76 musicians and a current budget of $13 million, it’s not remarkably big, but not especially small.
Situated between the mighty New York Philharmonic and the acclaimed Philadelphia Orchestra, the 82-year-old NJSO has operated in relative obscurity, playing a part-time concert season in seven venues around the state.
Former president and chief executive officer Lawrence Tamburri, now with the Pittsburgh Symphony, once called the NJSO “the hardest orchestra in the U.S. to run.”
“We compete with Philadelphia and New York,” Tamburri said in September 2000. “We present ourselves in seven locations, and the market is totally different in Princeton than it is in Red Bank. You can’t sell an orchestra like soap. You have to be evangelical, to win the audience over.”
The NJSO has survived labor strikes and strife, near-bankruptcies, the 1967 Newark riots and, for much of its history, the lack of an attractive, acoustically suitable home.
Starting in the 1940s, the NJSO performed at Newark Symphony Hall, a once-magnificent building that, like the neighborhood around it, went slowly into decline. By the 1970s, the concert hall was hurting the orchestra more than it was helping. The acoustics had deteriorated. The roof leaked. The crowds dwindled.
The turnaround began in the early 1990s, spurred by Tamburri and Victor Parsonnet, a cardiac surgeon who had been installed as chairman of the board of trustees.
Together, Parsonnet and Tamburri rewrote the orchestra’s bylaws, increased the board’s membership to 50 from 30 and focused on fund-raising. They solidified financial commitments from longtime corporate donors such as Johnson & Johnson, Merck, the Prudential Foundation, AT&T and First Union National Bank. Parsonnet called on old friends, from Gov. Thomas Kean to philanthropist Raymond Chambers, to assure them the orchestra wanted to be part of a larger recovery plan for Newark.
The opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 1997 was a great boon. The orchestra acquired greater visibility and superb acoustics. Statewide subscriptions doubled. The NJSO’s musical reputation also rose under charismatic conductor Zdenek Macal, who led a series of admirable performances and recordings.
But building a better orchestra is often a decades-long, financially demanding process. Orchestras are judged not just by their sound but by their size, the number of recordings they make and their ability to tour internationally.
If the NJSO were to emerge from the middle of the pack, it would need to do something more.
In the spring of 2002, Herbert Axelrod, a valued patron of the orchestra, offered that something, an audacious proposal to forever change the symphony’s sound and standing in the world.
For a bargain-basement price, he would sell it his unparalleled collection of rare strings.
At its most basic, a violin is a shapely wooden box. Four strings produce sound. Two curling holes in the top of the instrument channel the vibrations, which are amplified in the box and expelled.
Simple. And not.
For what emerged from that marvel of acoustical design hundreds of years ago was a sound so rich and sonorous it would turn the musical world on its head.
The violin produced a bigger voice, across a greater range, than any stringed instrument before it. Within decades of its invention in the mid-16th century — debate about its precise origin continues — the violin spread across Europe.
By the 17th century, it had begun to revolutionize the way people listened to music, its big sound allowing the move from parlor to public place. Ultimately, it would lead to the modern concert hall, the symphony orchestra and much of the music we call classical.
As a cultural touchstone, the violin appealed to all levels of society, from monarchs to transients. It was portable, adaptable and relatively affordable. It could be played indoors or out, by adults or children, for fun or profit.
“It’s an instrument of incredible flexibility,” said David Schoenbaum, a University of Iowa historian and amateur violinist who is writing a social history of the violin.
“Everybody in the world plays it for every imaginable reason,” Schoenbaum said. “Norwegian fishermen, Mexican mariachis, Hungarian gypsies, Jewish klezmorim, north Indian and south Indian raga players, Celtic fiddlers from the Orkney Islands to West Virginia, jazz players from Joe Venuti to Regina Carter. Plus Paganini, Heifetz and Perlman. What other instrument can match that? It literally sings like nothing else.”
Through the 1600s and for more than half of the following century, a small town in northern Italy stood at the center of the violin universe.
It was in Cremona, founded in 200 B.C. as a Roman military outpost, that history’s early luthiers, as makers of stringed instruments are known, established family dynasties whose strings are now among the most expensive: the Amatis, helped along by the loss of rivals to the plague; the Guarneris, whose fame would soar after their deaths; the Bergonzis and the Rugeris.
Antonio Stradivari would rise above them all.
The Stradivari mystique remains as strong as ever. The name Stradivari has become synonymous with the classic violin, romanticized in films and novels, an object coveted for centuries. People have stolen them. People have killed for them.
“There’s a mythological history to them,” said violin-maker and dealer Bruce Carlson, an American who has lived in Cremona since 1977. “Everyone wants to know the secret of Stradivari. If you’re in the business of high-end violin sales, you have to lean on this a little bit, but it’s not all hype and hard sell. There’s some truth to it.”
The search for that secret goes on, debates and new theories bubbling forth every few years. Was it the wood Stradivari chose, or the way he planed it? The ingredients of his varnish? His method of mating a violin’s soundboard with its ribs and back? In the quest for answers, Stradivari’s violins have been subjected to X-rays, ultrasound, chemical testing, spectroscopic study and microscopic inspection.
Only one consensus has emerged: The man made great fiddles.
Over the course of his 93 years, Stradivari is believed to have produced some 1,100 instruments, mostly violins. He also made violas, cellos and at least four guitars. Estimates on how many of his strings remain vary between 550 and 650. Depending on their quality and whether most of their parts are original, they sell in a range from several hundred thousand dollars to several million.
Instruments from only one other maker, Guarneri del Gesù — producing a brawnier sound that grew into favor with the emergence of larger concert halls — have sold for more.
Newer violins, a broad category that in the string trade includes anything made after 1800, can’t compete. Since the late 19th century, some acousticians, experts and dealers have sought to pierce what they call the old-violin myth. Blind tests have proved inconclusive. Sometimes experts or audiences can pick out a Strad. Sometimes they can’t.
While those findings might be enough to suggest a Strad or a del Gesù sounds no better than the work of someone like Brooklyn’s Samuel Zygmuntowicz, considered among the best luthiers in the world today, famous soloists continue to gravitate to the “big fiddles,” a dealer term for the most expensive instruments.
“For the last two centuries, there hasn’t been a great violinist who hasn’t wanted to play on a Stradivari or a del Gesù,” said Robert Bein, whose Chicago firm, Bein and Fushi, is one of the world’s largest dealers of high-end strings. “They give the player something special. They have some magic in them.”
But if there is an impregnable aura around such instruments, there is also great ambiguity.
How does a musician know, after all, he or she is really playing a Strad or a del Gesù or, for that matter, the Montagnana now in the collection of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra?
The violin-makers of the 17th and 18th centuries left no catalog of their work. Those looking to authenticate an old instrument today rely in part on provenance, or the trail of ownership and certification by experts, but that history of transactions often starts in the 20th century.
“It’s hard to follow the trail,” said Robert Ames, a Fort Lee bow-maker and instrument dealer. “You’ll have wars, and entire inventories are lost. Things get sold at auction and quite often you don’t get any papers. Instruments still get stolen all the time.”
Violins have been copied since the instruments first came into vogue. John Lott, considered by some England’s best violin-maker, built a career on such trickery. Through the early and mid-1800s, Lott made such exacting copies of Stradivari and del Gesù instruments that they continue to fool some experts today.
An authenticator might try to divine the truth about an instrument from its label, which provides an important baseline for establishing a maker’s work. But labels have been switched and forged so frequently they can’t be entirely trusted.
“That goes way back into history,” said Brian Harvey, a Briton who co-authored the 1998 book “Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery and Lawsuits in England and America.”
“You don’t see so much of it happening now,” Harvey said, “but it certainly muddled things in terms of identification.”
It muddled things as far back as 1685, the year of the first recorded dispute about a violin. According to the archival record, a northern Italian composer named Tomasso Vitali bought a violin he believed to be an Amati. He later discovered the Amati label had been placed atop one identifying the maker as Francesco Rugeri, a lesser star. Vitali promptly petitioned the Duke of Modena for help in obtaining a refund.
“Unfortunately, fakes are not rare at all,” said Stefan Hersh, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a consultant to those who buy and sell rare stringed instruments. “Forgery and deception have been part of the violin world since violins were invented.”
It was a world unfamiliar to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, but one quite well known to Herbert Axelrod.
PATRON AND FRIEND
To any musician who has ever played one of his million-dollar violins, to anyone who has ever been treated to a bottle of his fine wine or a box of his Cuban cigars, to any of the charity directors and museum curators who have accepted one of his checks, Axelrod is the model patron.
“He’s always been the most generous, giving and caring person, and not only towards me but to many young, aspiring prodigies,” said Elmar Oliveira, 53, a New York-based violinist who has played several of Axelrod’s instruments.
The Cremona violin-maker Vittorio Villa once watched as Axelrod, during a visit to Italy, handed a thick stack of 500-euro bills to the descendants of Giuseppe Verdi to help them restore the famous composer’s neglected childhood home. Later, the philanthropist donated a Stradivari violin to Cremona, which owns precious few of its most famous luthier’s works.
“He is a good man who has done a lot for people and for Cremona,” said Villa, whose brother, Marcello, has made custom violins for Axelrod. “I’m proud to be his friend.”
Bearded and burly, more often seen in a fluttering madras shirt than classic business button-down, Axelrod is described by his admirers as an accessible Everyman happy to talk about Mozart for an hour and fishing for another. If the subject turned to violins, and it usually did, he could talk for two or three hours, hands dancing, bushy eyebrows jumping.
On one trip to Cremona, Axelrod and Villa’s young nephews plucked sticks from the ground and battled like pirates. In broken Italian, the Monmouth County millionaire told jokes.
“Although he’s a tycoon, he’s a normal person,” Villa said. “In Europe, if someone is very rich, they don’t usually like to blend with the normal people.”
Axelrod mixed easily with those people, but he could daze them at times with accounts of his extraordinary life: how the middle-class kid from Bayonne grew a single magazine, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, into the world’s biggest publisher of pet-care books; how he hunted crocodiles with a former Belgian king and swam naked among piranhas in the Amazon jungle; how dozens of fish species bear his name in its latinized form, axelrodi.
“He seemed to be very proud of the things he had done in his life,” said Carlson, the American luthier living in Cremona. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that he wasn’t modest. He let you know who he was and how he got there. He did it in a very charming way, but he let you know nonetheless.”
In various interviews over the years, Axelrod has claimed to have discussed ichthyology, or the study of fish, with Japan’s Emperor Hirohito; caught wild jaguars for the Walt Disney Company; studied math under Albert Einstein and exchanged letters with Winston Churchill on the merits of goldfish.
Eugene Balon, a friend of Axelrod’s from Canada’s University of Guelph, to which Axelrod donated a collection of fish fossils in 1989, sought to verify those claims as he wrote a short biography of the man for a university newsletter.
The Hirohito anecdote checked out, Balon said, but Axelrod’s other stories appeared to be Bunyanesque tales.
“He had a habit of stretching things,” said Balon, a retired professor.
Other aspects of Axelrod’s life also would come into question.
In 1997, he sold his company, Neptune-based TFH Publications, for $70 million in cash to a California firm, Central Garden & Pet Co. In a lawsuit filed in Monmouth County two years later, the new owners claimed Axelrod fraudulently boosted sales figures, disguised payments to a mistress as author’s fees and siphoned more than $3 million from the company into bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
If the court fight bothered him — and lawsuits generally didn’t, judging by the dozens he filed over the years — Axelrod still had his beloved violins, and the equally beloved legacy they provided him.
An amateur violinist, Axelrod began collecting the works of Italy’s great luthiers in the 1970s. Two decades later, his was among the world’s largest private collections, numbering more than 50 instruments.
“He loves his fiddles,” said Machold, his violin dealer. “He always said that violins were the second love of his life. The first was his wife.”
And Axelrod wanted others to love the instruments, too. He insisted they be played by young musicians who otherwise had no access to such expensive strings. Some of the world’s top soloists — among them Pamela Frank, Shlomo Mintz and Leila Josefowicz — have been beneficiaries of Axelrod’s largess.
Over the years, Axelrod has lent or donated instruments to the Smithsonian Institution, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the city of Cremona and Vienna’s museum of cultural history. He also has given some of those institutions millions of dollars in cash.
“He loves to give, and he loves the prestige of hearing someone say that Axelrod gave something,” said Rene Morel, a renowned instrument restorer and dealer who has worked on many of the philanthropist’s violins in his New York shop. “He loved the contact with virtuosos, and with a collection, he could invite them to his house.”
Along with that generosity came notable tax advantages. Donating expensive violins allowed the philanthropist to claim significant charitable deductions, offsetting the income from his publishing empire.
While a full picture of Axelrod’s deductions could not be determined, a 1996 letter obtained by The Star-Ledger provides a glimpse into his eagerness to avoid taxes. In the letter, Axelrod informs the owner of a Montagnana violin that he cannot meet the man’s $400,000 asking price.
Axelrod instead suggests a $300,000 cash offer, “which we could pay you in Europe so you don’t have any taxes to pay in this country, and would also save us the sales tax.”
In his dealings with others, Axelrod could be arrogant and fickle.
“He’s a very imperial man, and he could change his mind in a second,” Machold said.
“He could call me at 10 in the morning and say: ‘I saw a player last night. He’s fantastic. Give him a fiddle.’ An hour later, a boy shows up and gets a Strad. A week later, he could call back and say: ‘I saw him again. He’s not so good. Take it back and give him a lesser fiddle.’ “He was a great lover of the arts, but he could be rude and crude. He was not an easy man to deal with.”
THE DEAL GETS DONE
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra saw another side of Axelrod. A longtime NJSO supporter, Axelrod had already given the orchestra $1 million. He often attended its concerts, and he had been friendly with Victor Parsonnet, chairman of the board of trustees, for more than a decade.
“What you have to know about Axelrod is that he was a great benefactor,” said Woods, the NJSO chief executive. “This wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. He gave hard cash.”
In March of 2002, Axelrod told Tamburri, Woods’ predecessor, that he wanted to give something more.
For $25 million, Axelrod told Tamburri after a concert, he would part with 30 of his extraordinary instruments: 24 violins, four cellos and two violas, all but one from the 17th and 18th centuries. He said the strings carried a $48.99 million appraisal.
The offer, Tamburri later told a magazine writer, prompted an “out-of-body experience.”
If the deal could somehow be consummated — and it was no certainty, given the organization’s chronic budget deficits — the NJSO could become “a tourist attraction,” drawing people from across the region to hear the unique sound of 13 Strads playing as one, Tamburri told The Star-Ledger at the time.
Parsonnet, who would lead the negotiations, later called Axelrod’s proposal unprecedented, and violin experts agreed.
“No orchestra has ever gotten a gift such as this,” Parsonnet said. “No one has ever had this kind of bonanza. What it will do for the orchestra, in terms of attracting attention worldwide, is worth it.”
Axelrod said his gesture was prompted by his advancing age. He didn’t want to subject his wife, Evelyn, to a crush of violin dealers interested in his collection if he died first, he said. And while he had been approached by bigger orchestras interested in the instruments, he wanted the strings to remain in his home state, he said.
Over much of the next year, Axelrod would repeat his contention that other institutions were desperate to claim the strings, naming the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Austrian National Bank.
Parsonnet declined to comment for this story, but both Woods and Tamburri said Axelrod’s claims of other offers did not speed up the talks.
“At various points along the way, he was trying to push the process forward in general, but it took a year,” Tamburri said. “I don’t think ultimately a big rush was an issue.”
But a rush was what Axelrod wanted.
He first set a June 30, 2002, deadline. The NJSO, still trying to determine whether patrons would support the purchase with their checkbooks, missed it. Axelrod continued to push, setting a new deadline of September.
On Aug. 12, 2002, the NJSO and the philanthropist signed a document agreeing in principle to the sale if financing could be arranged. The agreement also called for the NJSO to obtain its own appraisal.
“I think if anyone’s going to lend us money or buy these for us, they’re not going to buy a Renoir without being sure it’s a Renoir,” Parsonnet said at the time. “There has to be an independent evaluation”
The NJSO hired three consultants, all based in New York, to perform that evaluation, which entailed a visual inspection of the strings. The inspections took place in August and were designed to assess the authenticity, value and condition of the instruments.
The consultants reported their findings to Susan Stucker, the orchestra’s general manager and a member of an NJSO committee charged with recommending whether to go through with the deal. The 10-member committee included musicians, NJSO staff members and trustees.
At the suggestion of one of the consultants, the symphony also made contact with Charles Beare, widely acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on violins, violas and cellos. Orchestra officials sent photographs of several instruments to his London office.
Simon Morris, Beare’s partner and the firm’s director, said the photographs were a prelude to Beare’s expected hiring by the NJSO for $10,000. The symphony, however, did not retain Beare, saying his only availability, during a business trip to New York in the first week of October, would be too late in the decision process.
“We wanted to obtain the appraisals in the summer,” Stucker said. Asked why, Stucker deferred to Simon Woods. “Because we wanted to do the deal,” Woods said. “We didn’t want to lose the instruments. It was, ‘Let’s just move ahead with things.'”
Tamburri nonetheless visited Beare in his hotel room when the Englishman came to New York. After chatting for less than an hour, Tamburri returned to the NJSO with the news that Beare “spoke highly” of Axelrod’s collection. Stucker recalls Tamburri telling her Beare thought it was “the best collection in the world.”
Through the fall and winter of 2002, the NJSO missed two more deadlines set by Axelrod as the symphony scrambled for funding.
Four banks were approached. Only one agreed to a loan. Commerce Bank would provide $9 million. With the orchestra still far short of his $25 million asking price, Axelrod threatened to cancel the deal in December 2002. He changed his mind after a plea from Parsonnet.
“That’s when I reduced the price to $18 million,” Axelrod told The Star-Ledger last year. “I love Vic.”
Axelrod again threatened to pull the instruments early in 2003, saying “the Austrians” had increased their $50 million offer for the collection to $55 million.
On Jan. 22, the symphony convened an emergency meeting of the board of trustees for a vote on the deal. According to a board member who was present, the sense of urgency was unmistakable.
“We were absolutely led to believe that Vienna was counteroffering and we had a limited window,” said the board member, who requested anonymity because the orchestra has asked trustees to withhold comment on the transaction. “There was almost the specter of a plane landing at JFK with the Vienna guys.”
The trustee added that Beare’s reported assessment of the collection came up more than once during the conversation.
The board quickly approved the purchase.
In addition to the Commerce Bank loan, the Prudential Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Newark-based financial services company, approved a $5 million loan. Axelrod agreed to accept $4 million in unsecured notes, or pledges of repayment not backed by collateral. He later forgave $1 million of that debt, and he disbursed the remaining $3 million to charities.
Last year, the Commerce Bank loan was converted to low-interest bonds through the state’s Economic Development Authority, a move that reduced the total cost of the deal.
Machold’s valuation became the appraisal of record, accepted by the financial institutions and the insurance company involved, Woods said.
The loans were backed by four guarantors, among them Josh Weston and Marc Berson, both NJSO board members, and P. Roy Vagelos, the former chairman of Merck & Co. The fourth guarantor has not been identified.
The orchestra recorded the transaction on its tax forms as an in-kind donation of $32 million, the difference between the collection’s appraised value and the purchase price. And while it seemed to represent a generous gift to the NJSO, one that landed Axelrod on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the country’s top benefactors, the deal also made him eligible for a potentially significant tax write-off.
The sale closed on Valentine’s Day 2003. The deal was instantly hailed as the beginning of a new era for the orchestra, and trustees threw themselves into the task of raising cash and signing up new subscribers on the collection’s merit.
The Star-Ledger produced a special eight-page section showcasing the instruments and christening Axelrod and his wife “the financial angels” of the NJSO.
On April 26, the orchestra celebrated with a “Symphony Palace Ball” at an old railroad terminal in Liberty State Park. Gauze and Renaissance banners hung from the walls. Centerpieces of citrus and gardenia sat atop tables. Among the 250 guests were three former New Jersey governors and the mayor of Cremona.
The orchestra’s musicians performed a 30-minute concert, concluding with Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” The audience stood and applauded.
Machold, who had sold Axelrod most of the instruments in the NJSO collection, wiped a tear from his eye.
“These instruments will always remain my instruments, though not in the legal sense,” he said.
HOTBED OF RIVALRIES
Across the world, hundreds of shops sell violins. But fewer and fewer of those shops sell the grand old fiddles of Cremona. The sharply rising cost of rare strings has driven most dealers out of the business, leaving perhaps a half-dozen people who sell more than a few Strads or del Gesùs each year.
Machold arrived on the scene in 1995 like an unwelcome party-crasher.
Machold, a cousin of former New Jersey Treasurer Roland Machold, represents the fifth generation of his family to make a living by the stringed instrument. His ancestors were mostly luthiers. Machold, 54, doesn’t make violins, but he sells them like few others.
From one family shop in Bremen, Germany, he expanded to Zurich, Switzerland, in 1989 and to New York in 1995, marking his official entry into the United States. Machold has since opened offices or installed representatives in Seattle, Tokyo, Seoul, South Korea, and his headquarters, Vienna, Austria.
Machold is now in the process of opening his newest branch in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building, five floors below the offices of Robert Bein and Geoffrey Fushi.
The Chicago dealers, who have sold scores of golden-age stringed instruments, are among Machold’s fiercest competitors. They’re also among his fiercest critics, questioning his appraisals and his credentials as an authenticator of old instruments.
“The fiddle business is extremely turf-oriented and greedy,” Machold said. “I’m the only truly global dealer, and that’s why my competitors love me so much. At least I have a defined relationship with them. You know, we have a saying in German: Lots of enemies, lots of merit.”
Machold makes his home in Schloss Eichbüchl, a 17-room castle in the Austrian countryside. Once owned by a daughter of Marie Antoinette and the youngest sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, the castle dates to the 1340s and reflects the dealer’s passion for all things old.
Antique sports cars sit in the driveway. Vintage cameras, hundreds of them, crowd display cases in a finished attic space. A suit of armor watches over a drawing room. Reams of sheet music, the work of history’s finest composers, line a study.
There are few violins here — Machold keeps those in his office vaults — but the instruments are never far from his mind. In that way, he and Bein are not so different.
Bein, a cellist who grew up in a musical family, says he has held 350 Stradivari instruments in his hands and has photographed 150 more. His memory for violin forms and detail has made him famous within the trade, allowing him to identify a Strad or del Gesù by name and year within seconds of seeing it. He calls old instruments an “infection.”
Machold grew up in his father’s violin shop, learning about f-holes and purfling while other kids were playing soccer. He gave up the violin when he realized he would never be a great soloist, but he said he remained entranced by the instrument’s history, mystique and sound.
“They suck you in,” he said. “I could go on for an hour about why an old instrument should not sound the way it does but it does.”
Machold is also a lawyer, something his competitors — every single one of them — point out with the kind of lip-curling expression usually reserved for the scent of spoiled milk. Self-described violin purists, those competitors disdainfully refer to Machold as an entrepreneur less concerned with who made a violin than with selling it.
“There’s a group of people in this business who are sincerely interested in establishing whether something is the real thing, and there’s a group of people who say, unfortunately, ‘What can we sell this as?'” Bein said. “It’s got nothing to do with bad blood. The only thing we don’t deal with well are fakes.”
In the fiddle business, those are words worthy of pistols at dawn.
Machold says he does not mind defending his appraisals — including his $48.99 million valuation of the Axelrod collection — but he argues that Beare, Bein and a few other dealers are motivated by a desire to drive him from the business.
“We are very proud of the fact that we are not connected to the fiddle mafia,” Machold said. “A, B and C are always saying the same thing. We are independent of them, and we’re glad of that.”
Machold’s views might be dismissed as those of an embittered outsider, but he’s not alone in his unflattering assessment of the violin trade.
“This is a business where everyone is smiling in front of you, and the minute you turn your back, you get the knife,” said Rene Morel, the New York restorer and dealer. “I’m not a big businessman, and I’m glad I’m not.”
Bitter rivalries pose problems of credibility in a business that hinges on it.
“The danger is obvious,” said Brian Harvey, the author of the book “Violin Fraud.” “If a dealer wishes to sell his own instrument, he’s likely to put the gloss on the instrument and decry those of rivals. That’s a common problem.”
But it’s only part of the problem.
For one, the men and women who buy and sell stringed instruments also appraise them, shattering the ethical wall that traditionally exists in the art and real estate markets.
In practice, that means an appraiser could quote an artificially low price to a person looking to sell an instrument. As a dealer, he could sell that instrument to another dealer — a friend, perhaps — for the undervalued price. The two dealers could then share in the profits when the instrument is resold at market value, leaving the original seller several hundred thousand dollars, or several million, short.
Fritz Reuter, a Chicago-area luthier and dealer who has railed against the trade’s seamy underbelly for almost two decades, complains dealers hide ownership stakes in the instruments they’re appraising, giving them ample incentive to inflate their value.
Luthiers and dealers, Reuter says, also routinely pay secret commissions to violin teachers for steering students to their shops and to their more-expensive violins.
“The fiddle business can be a dirty business,” Reuter said. “You need eyes in the back of your head.”
With new fiddles, a new top executive and a new musical director, the NJSO had big plans for its 2004 season. Tamburri, bolstered by a résumé that included his role as architect of the violin deal, joined the Pittsburgh Symphony and was replaced by Woods. Neeme Järvi, world-class conductor of the Detroit Symphony, was hired to succeed Zdenek Macal, named chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.
Then, on April 12, 2004, as the orchestra prepared for Järvi’s classical series debut, Axelrod was indicted on tax fraud charges. A little more than a week later, when he failed to appear for arraignment before a federal judge in Trenton, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The government case against Axelrod contends he cheated the Internal Revenue Service by using Swiss bank accounts to funnel more than $1.4 million in payments to a vice president of his former company, Neptune-based TFH Publications.
Charged with conspiracy to defraud the IRS and aiding and abetting the filing of a false tax return, Axelrod faces up to five years in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Michael Himmel, has said the case against Axelrod is flawed.
Interviewed in an oceanfront bungalow in Cuba, among his favorite vacation spots, days after the warrant was issued, Axelrod said he was not a criminal and had no intention of returning to the United States.
“I’m an old man,” he said. “I worked hard all my life, and I want to relax.”
Orchestra officials quickly dismissed speculation that the alleged tax cheat also might have cheated them.
Were the instruments what Axelrod claimed? “We had them examined by sets of experts, who physically examined them,” Scott Kobler, the NJSO’s pro bono lawyer, said on the day of Axelrod’s arraignment. “We have in our possession all of Doctor Axelrod’s provenance papers. We were satisfied that their provenance was verified.”
The charges against Axelrod were met with widespread surprise, at least in the New Jersey arts community. There was less astonishment in the violin world.
Interviews with dealers, violin scholars and Axelrod associates in the stringed instrument trade, and a review of the man’s claims over the years, show the New Jersey entrepreneur had a reputation for exaggerating the value of his fiddles long before the NJSO sale. And in cases where a violin’s history was lacking, he sometimes made it up.
One such case involved a 1727 Guarneri del Gesù violin known as the “ex-Guilet.” (Many violins are named for their ex-owners.)
Just as a respected certificate of authenticity or an uninterrupted chain of ownership can increase a violin’s value, so can an important player. The legend of Guarneri del Gesù grew only after the great 19th-century violinist Niccolo Paganini chose to play one of his instruments.
Similarly, a violin played today by Joshua Bell, one of America’s finest young soloists, usually would be worth more than one that hadn’t been touched by fame.
In a 2002 book Axelrod published about his collection, he claims Bell played the ex-Guilet. Contacted by The Star-Ledger, a representative of Bell said the violinist never played the instrument.
In the same book, Axelrod claims a 1685 Stradivari violin had been acquired by another maker, Alessandro Gagliano, around the year 1700. Gagliano, the book says, went on to replace the Stradivari top with his own.
“How on earth would he know that?” asked Rosengard, the violin scholar. “That doesn’t appear in any archive anywhere. As a historian, I’ve never encountered such a thing.”
That violin, known as the “ex-Gagliano,” is one of those now owned by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
In slim volumes, or monographs, about two other violins, Axelrod claims to have bought the “ex-Andrejeus” and the “ex-Count Cessol” from Machold for $4 million and $4.5 million, respectively.
Machold said he sold them to Axelrod in 1998 for well under those reported prices, though he would not divulge what Axelrod paid.
“Those numbers are not true,” Machold said. “I know what the monographs said, and I had a big fight with Axelrod about it. It was a sales pitch. He believed it would raise the market. I told him it was not a very ethical thing to do, and I told him not to do it again.”
The “ex-Andrejeus,” a 1708 Stradivari, is also in the NJSO collection. The appraisal the symphony accepted from Machold lists its value at $3.3 million.
No appraisal has drawn more derision — and more scrutiny by federal investigators — than the one Axelrod and Machold placed on four of the 17 instruments he donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
The instruments known as the Axelrod Quartet consist of two violins, a viola and a cello, all made by Stradivari between 1687 and 1709. Three of them bear a stunning and delicate ornamented inlay.
Axelrod lent the instruments to the Smithsonian in 1986, valuing them for insurance purposes at $5 million.
Over the next decade, according to Smithsonian Institution documents, the quartet’s appraised value jumped tenfold.
An internal memo dated Sept. 11, 1997, places the value of the instruments at $25 million. Additional Smithsonian memos and other forms show the value rising to $30 million on Dec. 1 of that year and to $50 million by Dec. 31.
The soaring values in the fall and winter of 1997 coincided with Axelrod’s conversion of the loan of the quartet into an outright gift, one he could claim as a charitable deduction on his taxes.
Many dealers and experts vehemently contest the $50 million valuation, and Machold just as vehemently defends it, pointing to the rarity of inlaid instruments and of Stradivari violas.
The FBI investigated the case in 2001, interviewing, among others, Bein, Beare and Machold.
“They grilled me for five hours,” Machold said, “and I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not bowing.’ I had my reasons for quoting the $50 million appraisal. Today I would quote it higher.”
Axelrod’s lawyers have seized on the fact charges were not brought in the case, saying it indicates no crime was committed.
Alan Lebensfeld, who represents Axelrod in the Monmouth County civil suit involving his former company, said his client took just $18 million in charitable deductions from the Smithsonian donation over a three-year period, 1997 to 1999.
During the same period, the lawyer said, Axelrod claimed an additional $22 million in charitable deductions, based mostly on cash donations to various institutions. Lebensfeld would provide no details of the donations, nor would he allow a review of Axelrod’s tax returns.
The lawyer said Axelrod took no deduction on the NJSO deal, though he acknowledged his client had not yet filed his taxes when the charges against him were announced. Axelrod would have been eligible for a significant write-off under the terms of the deal.
FIDDLING WITH THE FIDDLES?
Like a painting, a sculpture or a poem, a violin is a form of expression. And like other artists, luthiers develop a distinctive style — a fingerprint, however imprecise, that experts use to place maker and instrument together.
To the layman, violins look much the same, set apart by tint of varnish or grain of wood. But to those who examine violins every day, an English work usually can’t be mistaken for a French violin, which usually can’t be mistaken for an instrument from Italy. Likewise, a Bergonzi from Cremona looks very little like a Guadagnini from Turin.
Early luthiers cut sound holes, known as f-holes, with small but important distinctions. They made instruments slightly wider or narrower or longer than the proprietor of the next shop did. They used varnishes of varying hues and consistency. Purfling, three thin strips of inlay wrapped around a violin’s edges, could be fashioned from poplar or maple or whalebone.
Domenico Montagnana, who made instruments in 18th-century Venice, is known to have consistently used three violin shapes and two forms of sound hole.
Which is why Philip Kass couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing when he looked at a photo of the 1740 Montagnana the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra bought from Axelrod.
“It’s obviously not a Montagnana,” said Kass, a Pennsylvania-based stringed instrument appraiser and consultant. A former violin dealer with William Moennig & Son, a shop in Philadelphia, Kass has written extensively on authenticity.
“It’s got the wrong outline,” he said. “The wrong f-holes, the wrong fluting, the wrong varnish.”
The Star-Ledger spoke to five highly regarded experts, all with extensive experience in authenticating and valuing rare stringed instruments, about the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s collection. In addition to Kass, the group included Beare, whom the orchestra declined to retain before it bought the collection.
The others were Bein, whose certificates of authenticity trail only Beare’s in establishing a violin’s validity; Christopher Reuning, a Boston-based dealer; and Rosengard.
In almost all cases, they issued opinions based on photographs either provided by The Star-Ledger or printed in the book Axelrod published in 2002 to showcase his instruments. While stressing that photographs do not give as clear an impression as examining an instrument in person, they said some of the NJSO instruments were obviously misattributed to famous makers.
The experts agreed that four of the NJSO instruments are not what they are purported to be.
Beare called the Montagnana “fairly impossible,” while Rosengard said he had “never seen anything remotely like it.” Bein said he believes it is a 19th-century violin made outside Italy. Valued at $750,000 in the symphony’s official appraisal, the instrument probably would sell for $25,000 or less, Bein said.
The five experts were unanimous on another violin, a 1754 G.B. Guadagnini valued at $300,000.
“It’s not a Guad at all,” said Rosengard, who spent 12 years researching and writing a book on the Guadagnini violin-making family. “That would sell for a fraction — not a rhetorical fraction, a real fraction — of a Guad.”
Bein called the violin’s top “wildly wrong” and “categorically not possible,” adding: “It’s like I’m telling you it’s a Volkswagen, and it’s a Chevrolet.”
Four of the experts agreed on two other instruments: a 1702 violin attributed to Giovanni Baptista Rogeri, valued at $400,000, and a 1742 Tomasso Balestrieri cello, valued at $950,000. Rosengard said he was not familiar enough with the details of Balestrieri’s work to comment. He said the Rogeri “looks odd,” but he would require a close visual inspection to reach a decision.
Bein and Beare say they have seen the cello in their shops, and both called it an English instrument. The Rogeri, according to Bein and Reuning, was likely made in Holland or Belgium.
There was less agreement on a fifth instrument that raised suspicions: a 1771 Antonio Gragnani violin valued at $190,000. Reuning said the instrument’s top and sound holes did not at all resemble the work of Gragnani, whom he called among the more consistent Italian luthiers of his time.
Kass said the instrument bore a resemblance to the work of Gragnani’s lesser-known son, Onorato, and suggested the label may have been switched to increase its value. To Beare, the violin could be a legitimate early work of Gragnani, but he said he could not make a concrete determination without inspecting the instrument.
Beyond those questionable strings, three Stradivari instruments in the NJSO collection are composites, meaning important parts have been replaced, according to the experts’ review.
To be considered a complete instrument, a violin must have its original top, bottom, ribs, which are a violin’s sides, and scroll, the decorative carving above the tuning pegs. Those parts have been replaced on many old violins over the centuries out of necessity, choice and greed.
A badly cracked top or bottom, for instance, would inhibit the vibrations that give a violin its voice. A poorly made top — even master luthiers had bad days — might be replaced by one of a different thickness and fit, improving sound. And an unscrupulous dealer might decide to take a whole Stradivari and split it into two or three Stradivari composites to maximize his profits, a common practice in the 19th century.
The three composite Stradivari violins in the New Jersey collection, the experts say, are the 1685 ex-Gagliano, the 1687 ex-Kloster Traunstein and the 1701 ex-Ferraresi.
They are valued in the symphony’s appraisal at $1.2 million, $1.6 million and $2 million, respectively. But the experts who spoke to The Star-Ledger say Stradivari composites rarely sell for more than $500,000.
“Until Herbert Axelrod came along, I never heard of Strad composites being called million-dollar fiddles,” Rosengard said.
The final instrument questioned by The Star-Ledger’s experts is among the highest appraised in the symphony’s collection. Valued by the NJSO at $3.3 million, it is a 1716 violin by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. The phrase “del Gesù,” which means “of Jesus,” came to be associated with the luthier because of the initials he etched into his labels: IHS, or Iesus Hominum Salvator. Translated from the Latin, it means “Jesus, savior of mankind.”
Bein calls the instrument, known as the “ex-Serdet,” a “great fiddle” that has been played by some of the finest soloists for decades. But he firmly believes the violin was made by del Gesù’s father, also named Giuseppe. Beare and the other experts contacted by The Star-Ledger agree.
The distinction is a big one. Violins crafted by the older Guarneri, well regarded in his own right, traditionally sell for no more than $800,000. Bein suggests the ex-Serdet, as one of the maker’s best works, could reach $1.2 million. By contrast, the finest del Gesùs — about 140 are thought to remain — fetch from $2.5 million to $6 million.
Perhaps as well as any stringed instrument, the ex-Serdet illustrates the sometimes elastic nature of expert opinion and authentication.
The violin bears the label of the older Guarneri and was sold as such until the mid-1960s, when a New York violin dealer, Rembert Wurlitzer, believed he saw in the instrument’s creation the hand of the teenage del Gesù, who had not yet left his father’s Cremona shop to establish his own. Wurlitzer promptly sold it as the son’s work.
The decision never sat well with Beare, who worked for Wurlitzer at the time. Later, at the behest of the violin’s new owner, the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, Beare appraised it as the work of del Gesù’s father, and it was sold that way to noted violinist Miriam Fried.
In the early 1980s, Fried sold it to another New York violin dealer, Jacques Francais, who recertified it as a del Gesù. Axelrod bought it from Francais in 1985.
“It’s a bit of a letdown that it’s back as a del Gesù,” Beare said. “It shouldn’t be called that.”
WAS IT REALLY A GOOD DEAL?
NJSO officials refuse to discuss the collection instrument by instrument, nor will they name the consultants they hired to examine the strings, saying the consultants signed nondisclosure agreements.
The Star-Ledger has identified those consultants. And while two of the three said they would discuss their findings if the NJSO released them from the agreements, the symphony declined to do so.
“We don’t think there’s any value to having a public dissection of particular instruments,” said Woods, the orchestra’s chief executive.
The consultants were Philip Perret, a violin restorer and dealer; Adam Crane, a respected instrument restorer and a partner in the Manhattan firm Rare Violins of New York; and Yung Chin, a maker and dealer of bows.
Perret reviewed the entire collection and submitted a written opinion, while Crane and Chin reviewed portions of the collection and gave verbal opinions to Stucker, the orchestra’s general manager. The inspections took place in August 2002, six months before the deal was finalized.
None of the three would speak about specific instruments. Perret, informed that Beare, Bein and other experts were questioning pieces in the collection, responded: “Many of the things you’ve heard may be right, and the people you’ve spoken to are very knowledgeable. I don’t think my two cents would contribute.”
Chin, while calling the deal a favorable one for the orchestra overall, said both he and Perret raised authenticity questions about instruments.
According to Kass, one of the experts contacted by The Star-Ledger, Crane called him shortly after examining the instruments to get his opinion on them, but Kass was traveling and unavailable.
“He had misgivings about a number of things he wanted me to take a look at,” Kass said. “He was never specific, but he said he saw some suspicious-looking instruments.”
Kass said Crane expressed those misgivings to the NJSO. Crane declined to say what he told the orchestra.
Woods defended the symphony’s assessment of Axelrod’s collection, calling it “an extraordinary due diligence process with checks and balances.”
That some people raised questions about individual instruments is not surprising, he added. “In the world of old stringed instruments, matters of valuation and authenticity are highly subjective,” he said.
The experts contacted by The Star-Ledger agreed. “It’s true that people can have different opinions,” Kass said. “But when a lot of opinions seem to match one another, that makes for a different scenario.”
Asked why the orchestra proceeded with the deal despite suspicions about some instruments, Woods said symphony officials were concerned mainly with the collection’s overall value, and he stressed that the majority of instruments are not in question.
“The fact that there are multiple opinions about some instruments in no way devalues the collection in terms of what it does for the institution and what it does for the orchestra,” Woods said, “and it doesn’t change the fact that we have a wonderful collection.”
Moreover, he said, the orchestra was not given the opportunity to exclude some instruments from the transaction.
“The collection was always viewed as a whole,” he said. “There was no way to cherry-pick.”
Like Woods, Tamburri called the due diligence process a thorough one, and while he acknowledged that concerns were raised by the NJSO’s consultants, he said some of the strings were more critical to the deal than others.
“There are clearly instruments in the collection that are amazing instruments, and those were obviously core,” he said. “We really worked hard at doing what was right for the NJSO.”
Whatever doubts there may have been about some of the instruments, they were not made public, even when news organizations asked about the collection’s authenticity following Axelrod’s decision to flee the country.
“The orchestra subjected each of the instruments to several examinations by independent experts familiar with rare stringed instruments,” the orchestra said in a statement. “These examinations were designed to verify their authenticity, provenance and chain of title, obtain an assessment of their condition and provide estimates of their value. We are confident in the findings of these experts.”
Woods, in an interview two weeks after Axelrod’s indictment, was even more explicit about the authenticity of the Axelrod strings.
“I have no doubt that we have what we think we have,” he said. “We love the instruments, and I think our audience well understands how great it is that we have them.”
Today, Woods says those statements were not intended to be misleading.
“We were very careful about what we said, which is that we had a very good due diligence process in place to help us understand as much as we could about the collection,” Woods said. “The fact is that we’re telling you now. I don’t see the difference it makes.”
Many in the violin world continue to question the official $48.99 million appraisal supplied to the symphony by Axelrod and Machold. The instruments are insured for that amount by insurance giant Chubb, Woods said.
The experts contacted by The Star-Ledger said the symphony’s instruments, if sold off one by one, might fetch $17 million, though any move to sell them simultaneously would flood the market and depress their prices.
“At the very best, they paid market price for a group of instruments while selling their investors on the idea they were getting a bargain,” said Reuning, the Boston dealer.
The orchestra stands by Machold’s valuation, saying it was accepted by the insurance company and the financial institutions from which the NJSO borrowed to pay for the strings. Woods noted that Machold has not backed away from the appraisal.
Indeed, the German-born dealer defends it vigorously, as he does the legitimacy of the symphony’s instruments. Most bear Machold’s certificate of authenticity. Three of the instruments that have been challenged — the Balestrieri cello, the Montagnana violin and the Rogeri violin — have been certified as authentic by respected dealers over the past half-century, Machold said.
“They are all what they are supposed to be,” he said. “The New Jersey Symphony paid $17 million for a remarkable collection. They improved their sound base drastically. There are fantastic instruments in that collection.”
Beyond questions of value and authenticity, The Star-Ledger has found that the collection was not, in fact, sought after by some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, as Axelrod so emphatically claimed.
Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, says no one from his organization approached Axelrod about his instruments, and neither the collector nor his representatives contacted the philharmonic about a sale.
“I don’t know why he would make these claims,” Mehta said. “I personally met Doctor Axelrod once, backstage at a concert, and he was very charming, but the situation never came up.”
Wolfgang Schuster, a spokesman for the Vienna Philharmonic, among the world’s most famous orchestras, said Axelrod’s instruments “were never a point of interest for us.”
“We had heard about it, and it was not such a good deal,” Schuster said.
Axelrod also had claimed the Austrian National Bank was interested in adding the strings to its own extensive collection. A bank spokesman said he was unaware of such an offer.
Members of the NJSO board said the organization has asked them not to comment on the Axelrod deal. But three trustees confirmed that the full board was not told about the questioned authenticity of some instruments.
“This was played out to us as if these were the tablets of Moses,” one of the three said. “It was immeasurable, and we all sat there amazed that this guy was going to give us these. And the fact of the matter is the collection is still very impressive, but I wish I would have known.”
Woods called it typical practice for a committee not to pass along all it knows about a topic to the full board of trustees.
“The fact is it’s a normal part of the process in any large nonprofit,” he said. “Decisions at the detail level are made by a committee generally comprised of people with expertise in the subject they’re dealing with, and the committee makes a recommendation to the board.”
An additional point of contention stems from Tamburri’s claim that Beare, the London expert, avidly endorsed the New Jersey collection while the two men chatted in October 2002. That endorsement, trustees say, was invoked by members of the committee that ultimately recommended the purchase.
Today, Beare says he did not praise the collection and says he is troubled that Tamburri used his name in promoting the Axelrod deal. Beare said the former NJSO chief executive seemed eager to get positive comments about the instruments. Beare said he responded only in general terms.
“I do remember saying it’s a wonderful opportunity for an orchestra to play on high-quality instruments,” Beare said. “What I’m quite sure I didn’t say is that it would be fantastic for you to buy these particular instruments. I do know some of those instruments, and I think they’re not great examples.”
While some board members say they are distressed by the challenge to some instruments, others contend it is irrelevant.
Robert Grasmere, an NJSO board member for two decades, called the purchase an “extraordinary opportunity.” If the deal had fallen through over a handful of questionable instruments, he said, “that would have been unfortunate.”
“Obviously, there’s an effort to make this in some way less than a perfect transaction, and, frankly, I’m unhappy that is the case,” said Grasmere, a retired business executive and former mayor of Maplewood. “I think it was certainly entered into from the NJSO’s point of view with total good will. It propelled New Jersey into the foremost ranks of symphony orchestras in the country. Perhaps in balance, after a while, it will emerge as an intelligent move.”
Board member Marc Berson, one of the financial backers of the deal, offered a similar view.
“The most important thing about the story is the symphony acquired something that distinguishes it from other orchestras and puts it in a class by itself,” Berson said.
The organization will struggle to pay for the instruments for years to come. Including interest, debt associated with the purchase stands at more than $20 million. The final figure will depend on the fluctuations of interest rates and whether the orchestra can prepay some of the debt.
In the meantime, the NJSO is straining to keep up with its monthly bills.
In the fiscal year that ended in June, the orchestra had an accumulated deficit of $5 million. Woods said the organization is currently undergoing an audit that will determine the deficit figure for this year.
With its financial outlook bleak, the NJSO asked the state earlier this year for help.
“The request was characterized as an urgent need for funding as we restructure the organization to reduce the deficit,” Woods said.
The Legislature responded with a $500,000 line item in the current budget. And last week, the state arts council gave the symphony a $1.7 million grant, $320,000 more than the previous year. Woods said the symphony has continued to meet payroll and has not fallen behind on its monthly installments for Axelrod’s collection. “It’s a challenging time for orchestras generally, and we have some specific challenges,” Woods said. “We’re making progress. We need to make more progress. There’s no question financially, buying these instruments was a leap of faith for the institution.” To Eric Wyrick, the NJSO concertmaster, the controversy over Axelrod and his instruments is inconsequential. Even the violins in doubt, he said, sound better than most.
“Every one is an amazing violin,” he said. “You can’t replace them. I don’t care what they’re worth.”