New Jersey Symphony Sells 'Golden Age' Collection of Strings

Classic Arts News   New Jersey Symphony Sells 'Golden Age' Collection of Strings
In a conclusion to one of the singular episodes in the recent annals of U.S. orchestras, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has sold its "Golden Age Collection" of string instruments — 30 violins, violas and cellos made by the likes of Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati.

The purchasers are a group of investors led by Seth and Brook Taube, identical twin brothers who work as investment bankers and are both avid amateur violinists. In exchange for an upfront payment to the NJSO of $20 million, the Taubes and their partners will take title to all 30 instruments but will allow the orchestra to continue using 28 of them for at least the next five years. (The brothers are keeping two Stradivarius violins for themselves.) In addition, the NJSO will receive a portion of the net proceeds when the instruments are sold (the size of the share was not revealed).

The orchestra's administration announced the sale on the day after Thanksgiving, with a full report appearing in that day's New Jersey Star-Ledger.

The $20 million payment will allow the financially troubled NJSO to retire its accumulated debt of $14.2 million, which includes $10.5 million in remaining debt on the purchase of the instruments.

"This is the best we could get, and we're pleased with it," Andr_ Gremillet, the orchestra's CEO, told the newspaper. He and his colleagues are particularly that the NJSO will continue to play the instruments for five years: "We were hoping for it, but never counted on it."

The "Golden Age Collection," the largest concentration of rare antique strings in any orchestra in North America (and likely the world), was purchased by the NJSO in 2003 amid a blitz of publicity. Hopes ran high 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 both the artistic level and the public profile of an ensemble that is usually overshadowed by its rich and famous counterparts in New York and Philadelphia. (Increased donations and ticket sales were expected to follow.)

Unfortunately, within a year, the Golden Age Collection was attracting the wrong kind of attention. The 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 $25 million, a figure he later knocked down to $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 and borrow the money. (Axelrod himself lent $4 million, according to the Star-Ledger.)

When Axelrod was charged with tax fraud in an unrelated matter the following year and fled the United States (drawing 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 never arrived.

Summing up the NJSO's current situation, Gremillet told the Star-Ledger, "After all that has happened, the orchestra is in a better position now than it was in 2003. We're debt-free for the first time in 11 years."

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