The orchestra's administration and board of directors announced the decision — which reverses a pledge made just eight months ago — yesterday afternoon.
"It was not an easy decision to make," NJSO president and CEO Andr_ Gremillet told the New Jersey Star-Ledger, "but it is clear to me and the board that we have to ... be responsible." He added that, since the market for rare string instruments is strong and prices high, he anticipates making a profit on the sale and using the proceeds to beef up the orchestra's modest endowment fund.
The 30-instrument collection includes 12 Stradivari violins as well as violas, cellos and other violins by the likes of Amati and Guarneri del Ges‹ — the largest concentration of such valuable strings in any orchestra in North America (and perhaps the world). The NJSO and its fans had high hopes that the sound of these prize instruments — along with the arrival of the esteemed conductor Neeme J‹rvi as music director in 2005 — would boost ticket sales, donations and the profile of an ensemble that is usually overshadowed by its counterparts in New York and Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, within a year of their acquisition, the Golden Age instruments had begun to attract the wrong kind of attention. In 2003, their previous owner, pet care mogul Herbert Axelrod, claimed that the instruments were worth about $50 million in total but proposed, as a charitable gesture, to sell the entire collection to the NJSO for $17 million; the orchestra's administration, excited by the offer and fearful that the opportunity would slip away, purchased the instruments as soon as it could raise the money. When Axelrod was charged with tax fraud in an unrelated matter the following year and fled the United States (attracting heavy press coverage), questions were raised about the NJSO deal, including the provenance and actual value of some of the instruments. A panel re-examined the sale and found that the collection as a whole was worth, at most, the $17 million the orchestra had paid, and that NJSO administrators had known about and concealed doubts about the instruments' value. (The orchestra's president and CEO during the deal, Lawrence Tamburri, had by then decamped for the Pittsburgh Symphony. Axelrod, who was arrested in Berlin and extradited to the U.S., pled guilty to the unrelated tax charges in order to avoid being charged with fraud in the NJSO case; he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and now lives in Switzerland.)
So the great expectations surrounding the arrival of the Golden Age instruments at the NJSO never materialized: the taint surrounding the acquisition — along with the difficulties the orchestra encountered in recruiting and keeping a CEO (Gremillet did not arrive until the beginning of this year) — have limited (and tarnished) the buzz surrounding the orchestra, and the hoped-for surge in donations hasn't arrived.
"It was a gamble," NJSO vice president of communications Dee Billia told PlaybillArts.
While subscription and ticket sales are now up from 2005 levels, likely due to the J‹rvi effect, the orchestra has an accumulated deficit of $3.9 million from its turbulent recent past, as well as $12 million in debt remaining from the purchase of the Golden Age collection. In addition, while the NJSO's annual budget is about $15 million, its endowment is currently only $9 million.
In these circumstances, selling the instruments, according to Billia, was clearly the prudent (if painful) choice to make "in order to stabilize the orchestra," and she stressed that the NJSO board, which includes six musicians, approved the decision unanimously.
She also emphasized that the word "bankruptcy," which has appeared in several press reports of the decision to sell the collection, is inapt. "The orchestra is not going away tomorrow," she said. "We're here; we're playing concerts; our educational programs are continuing. The instruments are [for now] still in the musicians' hands." She returned several times to the word "stabilize," underscoring that the sale is to give the orchestra the security to grow and thrive rather than to save it from an imminent demise.
In fact, she allowed as how we should all "come to hear the orchestra soon, while the instruments are still here!"