Plenty has changed since Haweis died three years later. Stradivaris that sold for three figures in pounds sterling and four in gold-based dollars now sell for eight figures in pounds, dollars and euros. Washington, a Nowheresville in Haweis’s day, has long since become a dealer’s delight of public collections and private collectors. Demand has reached Kuala Lumpur and Qatar.
Archival research and forensic science are now at least supplements to authentication by faith, educated guess and “What can we sell it as?” Yet due diligence is no less due than it was in Haweis’s time, and the question that matters is essentially unchanged: Would you buy a used violin from this man?
The question needs asking anytime in any place, including Washington. But it will be front and center beginning Wednesday when Dietmar Machold, 63, comes up for trial in Vienna, Austria. It is the largest fraud case in the history of a trade that goes back to at least the middle of the 18th century: Apart from criminal charges, Machold faces civil claims estimated at $200 million.
The prosecution will argue that Machold sold things that weren’t what he said they were, claimed things that belonged to other people and hid things where neither their owners nor his creditors could find them. But they could state their case to equal effect in wine-label format: a blend of Greece and Bear Stearns, with hints of Jay Gatsby and Harold Hill, and a Bernie Madoff aftertaste.
According to the police, Machold has confessed in part. Judge Claudia Moravec-Loidolt and two jurors will decide the case by majority vote. If convicted, he faces a sentence of one to 10 years.
The indictment covers 19 single-spaced pages. Among his creditors are at least eight banks, including two of Europe’s biggest, and the Austrian National Bank, Vienna’s version of the Fed. According to Renate Graber, a prize-winning Austrian business reporter who virtually owns the story, Munich-based UniCredit has sued the Austrian National Bank over ownership of an instrument that Machold apparently sold twice.
For Carla Shapreau, a co-author of the standard work on violin fraud and a professor of cultural property law at the University of California at Berkeley, the case is a textbook-quality introduction to the practice of due diligence.
Like most rise-and-fall sagas, the story starts small. In 1951, Heinz-Joachim Machold opened a violin shop in the north German port of Bremen. In 1980, fresh from law school and barely 30, his son Dietmar took over the business. Neither a player nor a maker like his father, he was a novelty in the trade. There were at least a dozen shops in the world at the time that regularly bought and sold upper-end violins. Machold’s was not among them.