Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Strange Case of Joseph Tang - the conclusion

While it appears that Joseph Tang got away with a lot, it could have been much worse - he never dealt in really pricy violins ($250,000 and above), though perhaps he did want to get to that top tier.  His downfall came as a result of his effort to fool everyone all the time.  Tang should have known it cannot be done.  Many people are attracted to beautiful masterpieces, be they paintings or violins or jewels or books or furniture.  Some take that appreciation for beauty to the level of an obsession.  They will do almost anything (that does not involve violence) to acquire a masterpiece – one or several.  There are many forgers too, who are gifted at replicating exact copies of instruments or paintings or anything worth the trouble.  They sell the copies in lieu of the originals or simply fabricate new works (forgeries) and masterfully antique them.  Elmyr de Hory, David Stein, and Han van Meegeren were three such artists.  They fooled the world’s greatest experts.  This is, of course, the key.  If you can’t fool an expert, then what’s the point?  Imagine discovering an old manuscript by Vivaldi or Bach or Mozart.  Who would authenticate it?  No one would call Jean Baptiste Vuillaume a forger, though he could replicate a violin so perfectly even the owner could not tell the difference.  As early as 1685, none other than Tomasso Antonio Vitali (the assumed composer of the famous Chaconne in g minor – the authenticity of the piece itself is very much in question) claimed to have been fooled by a violin dealer, Francesco Capilupi.  He purchased what was supposed to be a Nicolo Amati violin which turned out to really be a Francesco Ruggieri.  The dealer had placed a false label right on top of the real one and Vitali claimed he paid four times as much as the violin was really worth because he thought it was an Amati.  (Interestingly, today, those violins are of almost equal value.)  Nonetheless, labels are not the only things that can be faked - well-trained violin makers can artificially distress the varnish, simulate wear patterns, insert neck grafts for purported proof of conversion from baroque fingerboards and necks to a more modern neck length, and create strategically placed repaired cracks with interior studs and patches.  In 1997 and 1999, the estate of Englishman Gerald Segelman (who died in 1992, leaving a large collection of rare violins), alleged that several violin dealers and investors defrauded Segelman's charitable trust by providing low appraisals of the instruments (in the collection) before purchasing them from the estate, then selling the instruments to one another at steep markups.  Some of the transactions involved highly reputable dealers in London and Chicago (who need to remain anonymous.)  The estate claimed that investors made six and seven-figure profits on individual Segelman instruments.  In one instance, one dealer allegedly acquired a Guarnerius violin from Segelman for $950,000 and quickly resold it for $2.3 million.  Shortly after the start of the London trial in 2001, one dealer settled, agreeing to pay the estate $4.5 million.  By 2004, every single case had been settled out of court.  Nobody pled guilty and nobody went to jail.  However, not every case of this sort has a happy ending.   In November, 2008, a violin teacher in Rome who was caught selling fake antique violins to his students for vast sums, hanged himself in his apartment.  Sergei Dyachenko, the teacher, had already confessed that he had bought violins at a flea market in Rome and sold them to his students at hundreds of times their true value.  One of his students had bought a violin from him for $830,000.  Dyachenko claimed the instrument had been made in Italy in 1784.  Experts found that the violin was a much newer German model, worth only $3,800.  In addition to all this chicanery, there are also several very valuable stolen violins out there which have never been recovered.  When a valuable instrument is stolen, the insurance company will cover the loss but it will never forget.  Such a thing occurred when the famous Gibson Stradivarius (1713) was located in 1987, after having been stolen in 1936.  The insurance company initially paid the owner $30,000 for the loss but, in 1987, again had to pay a $263,000 finder’s fee in order to acquire it.  They could have paid a lot more but they didn’t.  In 1988, after the instrument had undergone some minor repairs, the company sold it for $1.2 million.  In 2001, violinist Joshua Bell paid $4 million for it.  Had Joseph Tang worked himself up to this level of dealing, he may well have made himself a fortune.  Instead, he decided to cheat a little girl out of $1,250. 

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