The biggest fraud case in the history of the violin trade starts this Wednesday in Vienna, Austria, and it's a doozy! Dietmar Machold, a man alternately described as the classical world's Jay Gatsby or its Bernie Madoff, is accused of swindling buyers out of millions of dollars.
Here he is in last week's Washington Post, holding up the holiest of holy violins -- a Stradivarius. That one is real, unlike the shamelessly phony assemblages of wood and string Machold managed to pass off to bank executives, who likely sat around feeling proud of their purchases until consultants burst their bubble in a matter of minutes. Machold now faces criminal charges and civil claims estimated at $200 million. If convicted by the appointed judge and two jurors, he faces up to ten years in jail.
In the Post article, violin scholar David Schoenbaum positions the Austrian dealer's rise and fall inside the larger narrative of bubble industries propped up and ultimately betrayed by inflated pricing, ego, and pyramid schemes. Instead of thousand-dollar shower curtains, Machold's extravagances included a 14th century Viennese castle, cars by the dozen, an honorary title, and of course -- violins. The 63-year-old (who liked to say he was a fifth-generation dealer, though his dad started the business) rose to hold a monopoly over the rare instrument market in the 1990s, pooh-poohing instruments under $90,000 as "Mickey Mouse violins," writes Schoenbaum. At his height, Machold sold to billionaire collectors and representatives of entire countries.
When the recession became a reality in 2008, the high powered collector reportedly swindled clients with cheap violins, passing off instruments "hardly worth the cases they came in." Million-dollar Stradivari advertised as being a hundred years old were actually fakes, the prosecution claims. In his desperation, Machold also allegedly sold instruments clients gave him on commission as his own for collateral, reports Der Spiegel.
According to MoneyWeek, Machold declared bankruptcy in October 2010, more than $40 million in debt. Over a dozen rare stringed instruments and bows worth an estimated $82 million "had simply vanished into thin air," MoneyWeek reports. The Austrian courts also liquidated Machold's assets, which means that his beloved castle and sports cars are now under lock and key.
We are currently playing him a dirge on a tiny violin.
Readers: What do you think?
CLICK through for pictures of people smiling while playing Stradivari, (in the grand tradition):