Following yesterday’s discussion on WNYC about the New Jersey Symphony’s decision to sell their collection of rare string instruments, one thought comes to mind…
….specifically, the Winston Churchill quote “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” [Author’s Note: thanks to the Adaptistration reader who pointed out the correct attribution in the comments below]
It is safe to say that the process the NJSO used to acquire the instrument collection from Herbert Axelrod is widely acknowledged as having been flawed. Even the NJSO’s internal investigation into the acquisition process determined there were “…significant flaws in the way the [acquisition] process was conducted…”
Ultimately, the NJSO’s lack of understanding about how the rare string instrument trade operates (as well as the individuals who control that trade) led the organization to assume a much higher level of risk during the acquisition process than was necessary.
To date, the information released by the NJSO regarding how they plan to sell the instruments indicates that they intend to rely upon the services of Stewart Pollens, a retired conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Mr. Pollens certainly has a strong reputation among the rare string instrument world, he has not assumed a similar position among the influential brokers responsible for building the rare string instrument trade. Moreover, it is the influential brokers who buyers routinely turn to when they seek advice on which instruments to purchase.
As such, given the uncertainties regarding the authenticity of some of the instruments in the NJSO’s collection, the opinions from the influential brokers will be paramount in how the value for each instrument is determined. It should come as no surprise that those opinions will likely include an intense appraisal and authentication process which may well produce considered values well below the NJSO’s expectations.
Likewise, it is worth considering that since the rare string instrument trade is populated mostly by investment buyers, it is a business governed more by profitability than the inherent (and subjective) value of art. If potential buyers don’t feel the instruments in the NJSO collection will provide them with the same rate of return as compared to an instrument with a less turbulent pedigree, then they’ll simply avoid the NJSO instruments.
In the end, it would be surprising if the NJSO is successful in selling more than a handful of their instruments without getting caught up in the issues associated with the intense appraisal and authentication process implemented by the rare string instrument trade’s influential brokers. Consequently, the NJSO may once again fall victim to many of the same forces which produced such a flawed acquisition process.