Keeping Up With The Jones’ In New Jersey Part 3

Part 3 in the series of articles examining the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Internal Review Report will continue where Part 2 finished, whether or not all of the instruments in the Axelrod collection are authentic.

As was examined in Part 2, there were numerous contradictions between the Trustee’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations regarding the value of the collection.  More important than value however, is authenticity, one of the cornerstones used to establish value.

As you will see, even the term authenticity is almost entirely avoided in the report’s conclusions and recommendations, instead, the Trustees prefer to use the term “provenance” (which has a broader definition that focuses not only authenticity but also on proof of past ownership).

Issue #2 The collection’s authenticity

Report Finding #3 (pg. 4):  The Board of Trustees was not told of questions of provenance on several of the instruments.

“The independent opinions obtained by the Instrument Committee revealed concerns with the authenticity of parts of several of the instruments, but this information was not provided to the full Board. By not informing the Board of the existence of questions of authenticity of the instruments, the Instrument Committee did not meet its obligation to the Board for a thorough presentation of the proposed transaction.”

Report Finding #4 (pg. 5): The entire Instrument Committee and Board of Trustees were not told about warnings that had been received about the seller.

“There is evidence that some members of the Instrument Committee were aware of rumors that the seller was being investigated by Federal agencies over concerns about over-valuation of gifts of rare stringed instruments. Those members made some inquiries independent of Dr. Axelrod and were led to believe that the rumors were just that rumors. In hindsight, more investigation of the allegations should have taken place, and all information should have been given to the entire Instrument Committee and the Board.”

Report Recommendation #5 (pg.5):  The NJSO should implement enhanced marketing plans to derive maximum benefit from the uniqueness of the Collection.

“The Orchestra should set up a marketing committee, with strong representation from the musicians, to develop a strategy to give the Collection a much higher profile than it has today.”

Report Conclusions (pg. 6):  The [NJSO] Board and the public were not informed of questions of value and provenance. There was no independent appraisal.

Contradictions and Concerns

It’s apparent that the report draws a connection between the instrument’s authenticity and their respective value.  But is either of those issues more important than the other or is it a chicken or the egg question?

According to NSJO president & CEO, Simon Woods, the issue of authenticating the instruments has been discussed among the NJSO board members.  In a recent telephone conversation with him about the report he said,

“[We] don’t think authenticating the instruments is important right now and, given the current climate surrounding the instruments, it’s impossible to arrive at an objective opinion regarding their value or authenticity.”

Fortunately, this issue of separating the authenticity from the value isn’t as metaphysically complex as the chicken and the egg question; in order to determine value, establishing authenticity must come first.

Granted, some experts may disagree on how much of an instrument needs to be original in order for it to be “authentic” but there is little disagreement regarding how to determine if an instrument has been modified, what sort of alterations have been made, or if an instrument is an outright forgery.  Even if you remove the handful of principal authenticators in the business, there are still numerous individuals capable of creating a collective consensus regarding issues of authenticity.

Although the report fails to present any recommendations regarding issues of establishing authenticity they do imply that the inherent value of the collection is derived from its “uniqueness” (pg. 5).

This is the point where the report truly begins to break down in its objectivity, and therefore, credibility.

Throughout the report, the Trustees stress the fact that the orchestra did the right thing by purchasing the instruments. Why? Because they believe that all of the instruments are what Herbert Axelrod said they were, representative examples of the “Golden Age” of string instrument making.

The Trustees suggest that the orchestra should develop more opportunities to showcase the instruments, have musicians talk to the audience about the instruments, and develop a PR campaign to draw a stronger connection between the collection and the NSJO (pg.6).

It’s obvious then that the Trustees made these suggestions because they believe that the authenticity surrounding the instruments is legitimate.  However, in light of the revealing conclusions from their own “shotgun” style evaluations and strong questions raised by the New Jersey Star-Ledger (especially the instrument used by NJSO concertmaster, Eric Wyrick) the close scrutiny of a portion of these instruments is worth consideration.

Given the NJSO’s position that the very nature of who made the instruments is what will draw people to buy tickets, there shouldn’t be a price that is too high in order to confirm the collection’s authenticity.

I invite you to return for tomorrow’s final installment which will examine the final two issues surrounding the report, “How they sound” and “Lack of objectivity & equality”, as well as offer some conclusions.

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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