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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

On the fiddle

By Norman Lebrecht / January 5, 2005


There are two sure ways of making a fortune in art: buy an undervalued old master, or a Cremona stringed instrument. A Klimt or Klee picked up in 1940s Vienna for a few hundred dollars can go for five or ten million these days. A decent Stradivarius, worth ten grand around the same time, now fetches 300 times as much.

Such investment advice is not easy to come by, but if you are thinking of going on the fiddle be warned that it is an instrument of laments. The ghost of Isaac Stern springs sadly to mind. Isaac was always more than just a musician. ‘I had to be,’ he once told me. ‘The greatest violinist of our time was Heifetz. And I knew (other) people who could play rings around me.’

Restlessly gregarious, he became socially and politically active, leading a US boycott against former Nazi musicians and refusing ever to perform on German soil. He was the first American soloist to tour the Soviet Union, and later China. He mentored kids from deprived backgrounds, oganising food, scholarships, instruments. Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma were among many recipients of his kindness. In 1957, he raised a storm to stop Carnegie Hall from being torn down to make way for an office block. He became president of the concert hall for the rest of his life, the lynchpin of musical New York. Violinists called him ‘the godfather’.

But Stern wanted more. Fascinated by wealth, he would call his stockbroker several times a day, sometimes moments before he walked onto stage. He had the highest solo fee in the US and played up to 200 nights a year.Prosperous by any measure, he rooted his fortune in his fiddles.

>From his first flush of success, Isaac Stern was on the lookout for good violins that he could play himself or keep as an investment. His first instrument, a $6,500 Guadagnini, was bought for him when he was 13; by his 70th birthday it was worth some 30 times more. Over a long life, he owned at one time or other more than 20 instruments from the prime source - the village of Cremona in the first quarter of the 18th century. Generous to a fault, he loaned violins to promising players until they could afford their own. He traded up, he traded down, he traded around. Fiddles were fun and financially failsafe. Isaac Stern died, aged 81, two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and the music world mourned one of its liveliest highwire acts.

Generally, when a virtuoso dies, his instruments are given for safekeeping to a recognised dealer, or for sale to Christies or Sothebys. Fine violins need expert care and regular playing while awaiting a new owner to emerge from a close-knit network of top performers and player-investors who know every fiddle by name and ancestry. So it was with some surprise that I reported here two years ago that some of Isaac Stern’s instruments were being flogged off on an upstart internet site.

This, it now transpires, was the gateway to an unfolding family tragedy. A musician in the Philadelphia Orchestra notified Stern’s elder son, Michael, a conductor in Kansas City, that some of his father’s effects were up for sale. Michael called in the lawyers. Battle will commence this month in a Connecticut court.

Five years before he died, Stern left a 45-year marriage to Vera for Linda Reynolds, an administrator’s assistant at the Washington Opera, whom he soon married. Stern’s children now allege that Reynolds claimed his prized possessions as her personal effects and sold them off piecemeal. The three children are suing the executor of his estate, William Moorhead, accusing him in court depositions of being ‘manipulated by Ms Stern and her greed’.

The Sterns had estimated their father’s wealth at $12 million; the executorclaims he had not left enough to cover his debts. The courts will now have to decide, but I cannot forget the pride in Isaac’s eye as he spoke of his precious hoard of priceless instruments. ‘We had to share him with a lot of people,’ said his daughter Shira, a rabbi. ‘Things that would have meant a lot to us, we don’t have.’

Meanwhile, across the state boundary in New Jersey, another fiddle collector is sitting in jail awaiting sentence for tax evasion and fraud. Herbert Axelrod had his moment of glory two years ago when he donated 30 antique instruments to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. 'Donated' is not quite the right word. Axlerod valued the hoard, which included 13 Stradivarii, at $49 million. He offered them locally for $17 million after claiming to have turned down a higher bid from the Vienna Philharmonic. Some are now questioning the pedigree and quality of these instruments.

There was always more to Herbert Axelrod than met the eye. The son of a violin teacher, he made his fortune in fish foods and pet toys and spent his leisure scouring the world for fiddle memorabilia. He published musical biographies under his own imprint, Paganiniana Publications, among them a glowing appreciation of the Stalinist apparatchik Tikhon Khrennikov, who led the ruthless oppression of Soviet composers.

An irrepressible fantasist who claimed to have studied physics with Albert Einstein and discovered dozens of marine species, Axelrod did not welcome close inspection of his statements. When tax officers came calling last summer, he took off for Cuba and announced from Havana that he would spend the rest of his days with fishing buddies. But business called and he flew to Switzerland, where US authorities accused him of holding secret accounts. Then, for some reason. he went to Berlin to meet an associate, only to be arrested at the airport on a US warrant. After losing an extradition fight, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aiding and abetting the filing of a false tax return and was flown home for sentencing.

Axelrod, 77, faces up to three years in jail. His instruments are being played nightly in New Jersey but their sheen has dulled, their mystique is damaged and their true worth is uncertain. A reckoning beckons for those who arranged the deal.

If there is a lesson to be learned from these unhappy endings it is this: put not your faith in fiddles. Musical instruments are made for playing, not for speculation. They inflict pain, as much as gain. Handle with care.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001