Last week, Beethoven Academie, a 40-member Belgian chamber orchestra whose funding for the next three seasons had just been eliminated by the Flemish ministry of culture, listed itself for sale on eBay in a desperate attempt to find some money so that it could keep playing.
On June 28, the going price was €8,000. By last Friday, June 30, it had gone to €25,000. By Sunday afternoon (July 2), the top bid was €100,100.
That's real money — and, potentially, real obligations and liability. So, early this morning, the orchestra shut the bidding down.
St_phanie Adriaansen, Beethoven Academie's communications officer, said by telephone today that eBay representatives had contacted orchestra management over the weekend and reminded them of two important facts. First, listing, bidding and sale on eBay constitute a binding contract: the seller must sell the object listed to the highest bidder, and the highest bidder must pay the price he or she bid. Second, buying and selling people is against the law.
"You can imagine, legally it was really becoming too dangerous," Adriaansen said in an e-mail message.
But before ending the bidding, she recounted in a subsequent telephone call, Jan De Wit, the orchestra's production manager and the man who placed the listing on eBay (screen name: johntroembon), coordinated with a few friends to get the final price up to an attention-getting number (like €100,100).
Asked if De Wit was available to answer questions, Adriaansen demurred: "I think he's gone on vacation."
The price certainly got attention, as did the eBay gambit generally. By this morning, Beethoven Academie's situation had been reported in outlets as widespread as the web sites of BBC Radio 3, Classic FM (U.K.), NPS radio (the Netherlands), Abeille Musique (France) and Musical America, as well as The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Observer (London) and The Times of India, not to mention wire services and blogs.
Beyond the legality problem, Adriaansen observed that €100,100, while it may be a lot of money for an individual, won't get a 40-piece orchestra very far. The amount is less than one-tenth of Beethoven Academie's former annual subsidy from the Flemish regional government.
"I am afraid that the orchestra will die after all," said Adriaansen. "It could be next week, it could be next month, it could be after six months," she continued, in answer to a question about whether the ensemble can fulfill the performance dates it has scheduled through the end of this year.
While she insisted that Beethoven Academie finance director Bart Michiels had been serious last week about the eBay auction as a way to keep the orchestra going somehow, Adriaansen acknowledged by e-mail today that "At this point, we mostly see it as a way to have gotten attention all over the world. People have heard about us, and if still a millionaire is interested, we would love to talk to him/her. But eBay isn't the right way to sell an orchestra!"