With “too big to fail” beyond the reach of violin dealers, the alternative was a kind of Whac-a-Mole, the indictment says. As bills came due, it charges, Machold wrote doctored certificates for a cheap Bohemian cello that a co-defendant sold as an Italian old master.
An 18th-century Milanese viola owned by a Dutch lawyer and independent film producer showed up as collateral on concurrent loans from banks in Germany and in Austria. An 18th-century Venetian violin, consigned by another Dutch client, went as repayment on loans from a Dutch creditor.
A Strad consigned by a widow of the onetime whiz-kid virtuoso Eugene Fodor was repayment to another Dutch creditor, but not before Machold obscured its identity, prosecutors say. He reportedly conceded under police interrogation that he was painfully aware of damaging a third party, but he assumed that a turn for the better would make it possible to repay the owner.
At least the ex-Fodor was real, unlike the Strads he offered as collateral on $7.5 million in loans from his home-town Bremen Sparkasse savings bank. Not only were they copies, Hargrave reported when called in to examine them, they were hardly worth the cases they came in.
In late 2010, Machold filed for bankruptcy in Vienna. A few months later, he took off for Switzerland, where he was arrested at the request of Austrian authorities. Extradited to Vienna in December, he petitioned for release on bail. The court said no.
Joining him as co-defendants are his third ex-wife and her mother. Both are charged with helping him stash $1.5 million in assets where creditors couldn’t reach them. The third co-defendant is the seller of the Bohemian cello, a longtime Machold associate.
The trial is likely to be over in a few days or weeks. But the fallout could remain toxic for years. The task of locating an indeterminate number of missing instruments alone is likely to keep buyers, sellers and art-crime teams busy far into the future.
Philip Margolis, a Swiss-based American expat whose Web site, Cozio.com, is the closest thing the world has to a dependable database of fine stringed instruments, is convinced that the locations of many of them are known. But those in the know are unlikely to come forward if it means a shoot-out, for example, with the Austrian National Bank.
Hargrave, his skepticism nourished by a lifetime in the trade, takes a still-darker view. Violins weigh about a pound. To most people, they look as interchangeable as kittens. They remain essentially portable, despite ever-knottier airline security and ever-stingier overhead bins. Demand for Strads and their extended family is global. Supply, estimated at a few thousand, is inevitably limited. Underground billions in all major currencies are believed to be looking for a home.
Shapreau, the cultural-property law professor, wants buyers to know how to find credible second opinions. She would welcome more and better international law enforcement.
But the scarcity of technical skills will not make this easier. Nor will the complexities of multinational transactions, involving platoons of silent and not-so-silent partners, dealers, teachers, players, collectors and advisers.
Since at least 1890, courts and juries have been asked to rule on authenticity. The results have been mixed, including deepened skepticism about the authority and credibility of experts, and earnest discussion of what constitutes due diligence in questions of provenance.
Expertise itself has become a minefield as art historians find themselves facing liability suits for their professional opinions. “I’m glad that we’re done with the days of ‘buyer beware,’ ” says Jason Price, chief executive of Tarisio, a New York auction house that sold the 1721 “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius last year for $15.9 million. “But I’m equally frightened of the days of ‘seller, be well-lawyered.’ ”
It’s anybody’s guess where the Rev. H.R. Haweis might have stood on income tax reform, dialogue with the Lutheran church and same-sex marriage, had he returned to life at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis in July. But it’s fair to assume that he’d feel right at home when the Machold case comes up around the bar at the Violin Society of America’s November meeting in Cleveland.
David Schoenbaum is a Washington writer whose latest book, “The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument,” will be published by Norton in December.