Violin Turf Wars

Earlier in the week, I wrote about how the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra may very well have to submit their “Golden Age” collection purchased from Herbert Axelrod to a new appraisal and authentication process.

In that article I briefly touched on the how the business of authenticating and appraising rare string instruments (violins, viola, and cellos) works in the music industry.  But today I’ll take a little closer look at that world and how the NJSO fiasco is has triggered a series of events that may very well end up playing out like the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

How does a violin becomes valuable?

warAn instrument’s value is primarily achieved by means of consensus among the experienced, reputable appraisers in the industry.

There have typically only been a handful of individuals over the years that are widely regarded as the foremost rare instrument appraisers.  They determine value based on who the original maker was as well as a physical examination of the instrument.  The older the instrument, the more time consuming and difficult it is to determine its authenticity and value.

You can also maintain a relative value for an instrument by how much it has previously sold for.  But like any limited commodity, an object is only worth what someone wants to pay it.

If a good salesman can convince someone (or a group of people, like an orchestra board) that an instrument is more valuable now than it was five years ago and that someone is willing to pay what the seller is asking, then that becomes the new value of the instrument.

I’m sure you can see the catch in that last part and you’re probably wondering, “How do you prove an instrument has increased in value?”

Well go back to step one: an appraiser proclaims a value based on their expert examination.

The obvious snag in this scenario is that it only takes one unscrupulous appraiser to trade their credentials for cash and artificially drive up the value of rare instruments by appraising its worth at a higher amount than would otherwise be considered.

And that’s where “consensus” comes in to serve as a sort of check and balance to any shady behavior.

But that stop-gap isn’t useful if there are enough unscrupulous appraisers willing to work together.
And with the public exposure of the Axelrod instrument fiasco, many of these flaws in the appraisal industry are about to come into public view.

The gunfighters approach

As reported by the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the primary appraiser used by Herbert Axelrod was Dietmar Machold.  According to the article, Mr. Machold continues to claim that his appraisals of the Axelrod instruments are accurate and fair.

But on the other end of the dusty western street are a trio of appraisers who are taking aim at Machold’s appraisals; Robert Bein, Geoffrey Fushi, and Charles Beare.  In particular, Bein and Fushi have questioned Machold’s appraisals and his credentials as an authenticator of old instruments.

The Star Ledger article quotes Bein as saying,

“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?’  It’s got nothing to do with bad blood. The only thing we don’t deal with well are fakes.”

Everyone’s wearing a black hat?

But hold on, if you’re expecting someone to wear a white hat in this western then you’re in for a surprise.

When it comes to rooting for one of these fiddle rustlers “It’s always going to be a lesser of two evils” says Fritz Reuter, a luthier and violin dealer in Chicago, Il.

Mr. Reuter believes that the violin business has become a criminal racket and regularly writes papers on his assessment of these problems.

I asked Fritz if he had ever appraised any instruments owned by Herbert Axelrod or if the NJSO had ever approached him to evaluate the Axelrod collection.  He answered no to both questions.

When I asked Fritz about the NJSO situation and how it’s beginning to pit appraisers against each other he said,

“The top dealers have always tried to monopolize the industry and that’s what is happening here.  Many of the better salesmen among them have done a good job at increasing the market for rare violins in recent years and then use that as a way to write new appraisals.  But these appraisals are just fiction. “

So why would these appraisers go to such lengths to publicly discredit each other in the press as they did in the Star-Ledger article?  I asked Fritz if this was smart move since in the end it damages everyone’s reputation.

“It all comes down to the monopoly again,” says Fritz.  “If too many appraisers are at the top evaluating instruments, then everyone’s cut in the sale of those instruments goes down.  Without competition, the ‘violin mafia’ can establish their monopoly.”

Ready, set, draw!

So that’s where the saga is so far.  Bein, Fushi, and Beare are publicly taking aim at Machold all while distancing themselves from anything associated with Axelrod or the instruments he sold to the NJSO.

According to the Star-Ledger article, Bearn suggests he was troubled that the then NSJO President, Larry Tamburri, exaggerated his statements about the Axelrod collection.  The Star-Ledger quotes Beare as saying,

“I do remember saying [to Larry Tamburri] it’s a wonderful opportunity for an orchestra to play on high-quality instruments.  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.”

If I were in Vegas and could make odds on who will come out ahead at the end of the gunfight, I would have to favor any side that stands against Machold.  He’s an easy target who doesn’t have numbers on his side.

With the trio of Bein, Fushi, and Beare all drawing against him, and his only support is Axelrod (who is currently residing in a Berlin holding cell awaiting extradition to the U.S. under charges of cheating on his taxes) he doesn’t stand much of a chance.

And the winner of this showdown gets to have de-facto control over the key element in establishing a string instrument’s value: consensus.

After the dust settles, don’t expect whoever’s controlling the new monopoly to start appraising the artificially inflated value of rare string instruments at lower levels.   And that’s sad news for the people who need them the most but are the least capable of purchasing them; the musicians.

Postscript: I asked Fritz Reuter if he thought there was an appraiser in the world that had both the expertise and ethics to fairly and accurately authenticate and appraise the Axelrod collection now owned by the NJSO.

The only name Fritz said came to mind was Phillip Kass.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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