The strange legal case of the Burmester Stradivarius, a $250,000 violin that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime seeks to reclaim from an exiled Iranian businessman, has surfaced in a federal court here.
U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant said in the case's first court hearing Monday that he will order the businessman, N.K. Behroozian, who is in hiding near Paris, to appear "pronto" before Iran's Washington lawyers to prove he owns the violin. Behroozian, who says Iran sold him the violin in the midst of its revolution in 1979, has resisted making an appearance, fearing assassination by Khomeini agents.
"I'm going to order a deposition. Now you figure out a way to protect him," said Bryant to Skip Short, an attorney for Behroozian. Short said after the hearing that the deposition -- a standard discovery procedure in civil cases -- would be in Paris, New York or Washington, depending on where his client felt safe.
The story of N.K. Behroozian and the Burmester Stradivarius, pieced together from court records and interviews, is a tale that stretches from late 17th-century Italy to the revolutionary tumult of 20th-century Iran, and thence to the exhibition halls of the art auction firm Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York and Judge Bryant's austere courtroom in Washington.
The violin in question is one of the world's loveliest musical instruments. It was made by Antonio Stradivari, the grand master of violin makers, in Cremona in 1698 and contains, inside, a paper label bearing his personal stamp -- a Maltese cross with the initials "A.S." Stradivari made more than 1,000 violins, violas and violoncellos, half of which survive.
The violin was named "Burmester" by Charles Rudig, head of Sotheby's musical instruments division, after Behroozian consigned it to the firm last Jan. 21 for auction. Willy Burmester, a virtuoso German violin soloist at the turn of the century, owned the violin and used it as his concert instrument. Burmester claimed he had to end his career because he had practiced so much that the nerves on his fingertips were raw and permanently damaged, according to Rudig.
"I dubbed the instrument that," said Rudig. "If I hadn't done it, the next person would have . . . Most of the Stradivariuses have names like that." A provenance for the Burmester Stradivarius in a Sotheby catalogue, published in advance of the March 18, 1982, auction in which it was to be sold, showed that it was once owned by Queen Marie of Bavaria and, before that, by a Baron von Aichstadt.
But the provenance did not mention Iran as having been a recent owner, and this was noticed by Jacques Francais, a rare violin dealer in New York. Francais says he was surprised by the omission because he himself had sold it on March 21, 1978, to National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT), an official agency of the shah's government. NIRT's successor agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), is the plaintiff in the suit to recover the violin.
"I couldn't figure out how the fiddle went from Iran to Sotheby's," Francais said. "I called the head of Sotheby's musical department and said, 'Unless you have a chain of title, you may be in trouble.' He said as far as he was concerned he had a perfectly good contract.
"Then I was curious to know if Iran sold it or not, so I called the Iranian delegation at the U.N. and they sent a telex to Iran and a telex came back saying the fiddle was missing, and the Iranians got in touch with their lawyers in Washington and the sale was stopped."
"Please be advised that government of Iran claims ownership of Item Number 279 Antonio Stradivarius violin dated 1698 scheduled for sale on Thursday March 18, 1982. Please withdraw from sale pending demonstration of ownership," said the lawyers' telegram to Sotheby's.
Sotheby's complied. Then Iran sued Sotheby's to recover the violin and the auction house, in a legal motion called an "interpleader," brought Behroozian into the case. Now Sotheby's has been dropped from the case entirely, except that it is still holding the violin for Judge Bryant pending resolution of the struggle between Iran and Behroozian.
Behroozian, who identified himself in an affidavit as a 35-year-old "bachelor business-man," says he bought the violin and two violin bows in Tehran in December 1979 for the equivalent of $50,000 at a public auction "witnessed by hundreds of people" and conducted by an agency of the Khomeini regime called the Mostazaffin Foundation.
This was at a time of revolutionary turmoil in Iran as the new regime took hold, executing many of its opponents, reshaping the rules of society and banning, among other things, western music. Behroozian fled Iran with the violin and alleged in court documents that the regime ransacked his house and confiscated records that proved he lawfully bought the violin.
"Due to danger to my physical safety, I was forced to leave Iran," said Behroozian in an affidavit. "I have since lived the life of an exile, always in fear of agents of the regime and their nefarious activities. Were the regime's representatives to learn of my whereabouts, to see what I currently look like, or to know where I would be at a given date and time, I believe my life would be very much endangered."
In Paris, according to court papers and interviews, Behroozian received help in sending the violin to New York for consignment from Hector Villalon, a lawyer and former Argentine politician. Villalon, during the unsuccessful 1980 hostage negotiations, served as an intermediary between then-White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, foreign minister of the new revolutionary regime who was later executed.
When Behroozian received this help, Villalon was a member of the Paris law firm of Christian Bourguet, whose credentials with revolutionary Iran once were impeccable because for years during their French exile, Bourguet had helped prevent the French government from giving in to the shah's pressures to deport Ghotbzadeh, Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, and other Iranian opposition militants.
In a telephone interview from Paris early this week, Villalon said through an interpreter, "If we helped Mr. Behroozian, it is because he is a persecuted person . . . We think that Mr. Behroozian is honest." Villalon said he knows of "lots of cases like this . . . in Paris or London or elsewhere" in which the Khomeini regime publicly sold art and antiques and later, after they were removed from Iran, sought to recover them.
In court in Washington early this week, the lawyer for the regime in the Stradivarius case, Christine Cook Nettesheim, told Judge Bryant she knew of no proof that this sort of thing had ever happened.
Villalon said in the telephone interview that neither he nor Bourguet personally knew Behroozian, but that an Iranian friend sent the exiled businessman to the firm for professional help in selling the violin. The violin was sent to New York with a member of the firm, Villalon said. It was then given to Sotheby's on consignment.
The Sotheby's contract establishes a minimum acceptable price for the violin, called the "net reserve," of $250,000 and sets Sotheby's commission at 10 percent. Sotheby's is also authorized in the contract to collect an additional 10 percent from the buyer as a "buyer's premium." The net proceeds of the sale were to go to a Swiss bank account designated by the code, "Operation Sotheby Parke Bernet/Behroozian."
Short, Behroozian's attorney, is trying to have the whole case thrown out of court on grounds that the Khomeini regime has not been recognized by the United States and lacks standing to sue. Judge Bryant said Monday he will decide this issue next week, but added that, "Presently, I don't see why I should" dismiss the suit on these grounds.
In Monday's hearing, Short argued that Iran has a record of "repressing and executing its critics," and that Khomeini agents would harm Behroozian if they could find him. Iran's attorney, Nettesheim, did not concede in the hearing that Behroozian could be in danger if he appeared in court. However, she told Bryant she would "offer to keep the place and time of deposition quiet."