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Exclusive: ‘It wasn’t my fault they couldn’t sell the $45 million Strad’

June 30, 2014 by norman lebrecht

14 comments.


David Aaron Carpenter, who lent his playing skills to the hype machine that sought to sell Peter Schidlof’s viola, has been thinking over the unfortunate result. He has come to the conclusion that the reason the sale failed in the showroom lies in the modern auction method of canvassing sealed bids. Here’s his report, exclusive to www.Slippedisc.com

david aaron carpenter

 

 

A few months ago, I received what turned out to be one of the most transformative calls of my career: Tim Ingles from Ingles & Hayday informed me about the imminent sale of the mythical “MacDonald” Stradivari viola of 1719, followed by their request to have me perform on it for Sotheby’s press conferences in New York and Paris.  Of course, to be considered as the musical ambassador for such an important musical instrument is one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me, both as an advocate of the viola as a solo instrument as well as a collector of fine musical instruments. My answer to Tim was obvious, at no cost to his company or Sotheby’s.  In fact, neither I nor my family’s company would have any financial emolument in its sale; we actually spent our own money travelling around the world to represent the viola and produce a concert at Sotheby’s in NYC in May featuring the viola alongside my orchestra, Salomé, performing on 8 Stradivari instruments.

 

And such began my adventures with the “MacDonald.”  My first interaction was in April, half an hour prior to the New York Times reporter and videographer interviewing and having me perform a movement from Bach’s Suite No. 5 (a video now at over 100K views on YouTube).  The setup on the “MacDonald” had not been altered since Peter Schidlof’s family left it in a vault in London almost 3 decades ago. The strings were not optimal, the neck was antiquated and too thick, and the viola sounded still dormant.  All things considered, the experience was both uncomfortable and magical.

 

When people ask me whether this Stradivari is the best-sounding viola I’ve ever played, my response is “it ranks among the best.”  I am indeed a lucky musician in that I am fortunate to own and play on an 18th-century Venetian viola by Michele Deconet, the best sounding instrument I have come across. However, this was not always the case, and it took me a few years to optimize the sound of my viola, much like it would with the exceptional “MacDonald.”  It would take a career to understand the complexity of sound inherent in the “MacDonald” viola, and any violist would be thrilled with such an opportunity.

 

 

Staff member puts the 'Macdonald' viola made by Italian artisan Stradivari on a stand during a preview at Sotheby's gallery in Hong Kong

In light of the failure of the viola to sell via sealed bids at Sotheby’s, many musicians, collectors, and interested parties have expressed their opinions about the price of the viola in the context of the fine musical instrument market.  Reading many of these posts indeed inspired me to describe the behind-the-scenes process in greater depth.  By enlisting Sotheby’s to sell the instrument, the Schidlof family was hoping to draw from the company’s massive rolodex of collectors of art and rare collectibles, for whom a whopping $45 Million opening bid is not extraordinary.  To put this in the context of contemporary art being made today by artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Gerhard Richter, paintings or sculptures made yesterday are commanding even higher prices with an ever-expanding supply. Of course musical instruments are there for musicians, for us to express as best we can great works of music, but at this level they are something else as well – works of art, pieces of history.

 

It is also worth remembering that Stradivarius instruments were expensive throughout history. They were always difficult to afford for musicians, who typically relied then as now on the generosity of patrons to buy them and gift them their usage. The rarity and beauty of the “MacDonald” is unsurpassable, even by other great Stradivari instrument standards, and the price tag, while theoretical, was in some ways justified. The family has received world-record offers in the past but for whatever reason was not ready to sell.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, the issue with the sale of the “MacDonald” had nothing to do with the merits of the actual instrument or fine musical instrument market in general; rather, it was the mechanism by which the sale was conducted.  Sealed bids via a large auction house is a hybrid process, which oftentimes leads to a sale in limbo.  While highly publicized, something typically associated with auction sales, it is a non-transparent, uncompetitive method of selling which could antagonize a likely bidder.  The other issue is that of the opening estimate: what is typical of an auction sale is a lower estimate organically driven up by market forces.  Had the “MacDonald” started at a lower estimate, and either remained a quiet private sale, or a very public auction format, the instrument would have been sold–I state this with 100% certainty.  Perhaps the high estimate was justified in the minds of Sotheby’s and the Schidlof family because they received world-record offers in the past from top collectors, and the instrument market has blossomed since those offers were made.

 

Another criticism I’ve heard about the process of selling the “MacDonald” is the ‘over-hyping’ of the instrument in the press.  Given that I had nothing to do with pricing the viola, the only way to generate buzz for the sale was to actively publicize the unprecedented nature of both the instrument and the price.  I like to think that I was an extremely fortunate musician to have the privilege of playing on the “MacDonald” and speaking publicly about its merits. Deciding upon repertoire to showcase the viola on major TV networks also proved to be quite difficult, as the studio microphones distorted solo Bach and Mozart Duos, which is why given the short time spaces allotted I tended towards short showpieces.

 

carpenter-viola

 

But, again, I am honored to have used every mechanism at my disposal to have publicized this wonderful Strad and, through the publicity it attracted, the viola in general. The championing of the viola, an endlessly fascinating instrument that is rarely given its due, is a cause to which I dedicate most of my waking hours, and if having a viola played on much-watched outlets like Bloomberg, Fox, NYT.com and the rest has encouraged new people to go to a viola concert, or to take it up, or even to compose for it, then at least part of my mission will have been accomplished. Regardless of the results of the “MacDonald” sale, what this story did for both the viola as a solo instrument as well as gaining visibility for the fine musical instrument market to precisely the collectors who are comfortable spending tens of millions of dollars on visual art, is priceless–akin to the viola itself.

 

In response to my fellow musicians who take issue with the exorbitant price of the “MacDonald” I pose this: had the estimate been placed at $5 million, or even $1 million, would that have really made it more accessible for us to acquire?  It isn’t a secret that the fine musical instrument market has seen an uptick in prices because of the rarity factor and because of economic forces well beyond our control.  In the past decade, tangible assets have appreciated because of global fiscal dynamics (i.e. inflationary risk, overvalued equities, etc.) and have made fine musical instruments a stable asset class in and of itself.  At a purchase price of $45 million, this viola would have been expensive for an individual worth billions of dollars, or even a corporation or government willing to preserve its cultural heritage.

 

The target buyer for the “MacDonald” and for other great high-value instruments are not necessarily players; they are people who buy them as investments, as art pieces, and who typically have a strong sense of patronage.  I speak from both personal experience as a player, and as a lover and collector of instruments, and as someone who has taken it upon himself, through my family’s company, to create a lending program that pairs patrons with musicians who are being priced out of the market for old Italian instruments. Because, as musicians, we completely understand the frustration of musicians who are being priced out of the market to acquire rare instruments, and that has to be tackled resourcefully and directly.
The response to the auction of the ‘Macdonald’ was incredible, and there were inevitably negative as well as positive reactions. It is as we all know easy to post negative comments on social media platforms without the full story. But these are important and in some cases complex issues, too important for the facts to be obscured. For my fellow musicians, there are ways to get access to fine old instruments if this is indeed your objective. One way is to inform and educate prospective patrons to purchase an instrument on one’s behalf.

 

What will become of the “MacDonald” now?  Had I the same opportunity that Peter Schidlof had to pay off a long-term loan at a lower price, I would be honored to be the instrument’s next custodian.  I hope the viola does find a home outside of a vault, and that it is heard and seen by audiences for generations to come.

 

I leave with fond memories of one of the greatest musical experiences of my lifetime:

 


Comments (14)

  1. Doug says:

    That’s a lot of long-winded defensiveness, but to be expected from someone who has only a vast marketing machine to back himself up, and virtually no artistry.

  2. Spectator says:

    Isn´t the whole thing bizarre?
    You only pay millions for a name.
    There is something seriously wrong leaving these cultural important pieces in hands of people with too much money. Like a Monet on a private jet toilet.

  3. On Top says:

    Barf. Really? You shill for Sotheby’s for three months and then throw them under the bus to promote your family’s charitable and philanthropic endeavors?

  4. John-J says:

    What a long winded, incoherent and rambling text!! I could only get through half of the first paragraph before loss of consciousness started to set in. Who is this guy with a super inflated ego? He seems to think that his own importance in all of this was so great and so paramount that the auction centred around him and he also believes that at his young age he can lecture the professionals at Sotheby’s on a thing or two! Give me a break! He also seems to want to get some heavy self promotion out of this ‘scandal’, mixing a Sotheby auction up with how many YouTube hits he got, plugging the name of “his” orchestra, as well as plugging his family’s company and leaves us with a YouTube video of him playing with “his” orchestra. He should go back and practice his instrument, focus on music and not be so consumed by “global fiscal dynamics”, self promotion and wasting his youthful time writing a pompous treatise lecturing professionals about why a great overpriced instrument didn’t sell at auction, with emphasis that it wasn’t his fault. No, it wash’t your fault, just like it isn’t the fault of the dummy in the store window draped in a dress that nobody wants to buy.

  5. Martin Tomlin says:

    This condescending youngster also believes that it is “disrespectful” to even attempt, to even dare to compare a top crafted modern violin to an instrument made by Stradavari, even when, in a blind test, professional violinists selected the modern instrument as being superior. He claims that the modern violin makers are only copying a Strad. This, like much of what I gather from the verbiage above, is ridiculous. It would be the same as saying that one can not criticize or compare early Beethoven to Haydn, because Beethoven was clearly “copying” his teacher Haydn and to make any assumption that some of his early pieces may even be better than Haydn would be “disrespectful”. Obviously, David Carpenter wants to protect his family violin business and keep the mystique and the prices inflated, much like his own ego, as commented above.

  6. J. Rocker-Fella says:

    Talk about “playing your own fiddle”! Mr. Carpenter would be advised to first master his own instrument and not become obsessed and distracted from music by “sealed bids”, “financial emoluments”, “economic forces well beyond our control”, “tangible assets”, “global fiscal dynamics”, “overvalued equities” and “individuals worth billions of dollars”. If all fails, he should go work on Wall Street!

    1. Max Grimm says:

      “Talk about “playing your own fiddle”! ”

      I heard the Symphony of a Thousand…

  7. Rockefeller says:

    We don’t want him. Keep him away from us – too pompous.

  8. Robert Jordan says:

    I completely agree with the general tone of the comments above and won’t add anything more, except to say that in my old age I have long discovered that modesty is the true sign of greatness, something that Mr. Carpenter should meditate on.

    I was a tax attorney for thirty years and also worked as a prosecutor for the IRS. I am a modest collector of art and antiques and a great lover and student of historic musical instruments. After having looked over this guy’s website and seen his “modest” proclamations of, among other things, declaring himself “The Fifty Million Dollar Plus Violist” (since removed from his site), hearing him proclaim live on Fox Business News that his family has sold more than twenty Stradavarius violins worth multi millions and seeing him photographed with his family in their New York residence surrounded by valuable art and antiques, I would like to warn the gentleman that doing things like that in public will most certainly and without a doubt open him and his entire family to a major IRS audit. The IRS is on the constant lookout for these sorts of boasting individuals, who reveal more in five minutes than on endless well prepared tax forms. This sort of 50 million dollar plus bragging won’t help his career, but will certainly have the IRS investigators zooming in quite quickly.

    1. T. Pleitgen says:

      Interesting that you mention the high risk that these people will be the subject of an IRS audit, most probably the draconian ‘field audit’ for small businesses. As a tax attorney myself, specialized in antique and valuable collectibles, that was the first thing that I thought when I read and listened to the proclamations made by them, i.e. “we have sold more than twenty Strads.” The antique and musical instrument dealer is always at the top of the list for auditing, as the risk of fraud and value underreporting is among the highest of any business. No top art dealer or top violin dealer would ever make such statements live on national television, as these two brothers did. The IRS records and monitors ALL of these types of business programs and that statement better correspond exactly to their returns. Obviously they don’t have good legal counsel, or they are naive amateurs in the business.

  9. harvey brown says:

    Nice dull as ditch water advertising for David Aaron Carpenter!
    Plenty of fine Visual and Aural Recordings of the late great Peter Schidlof would have helped sell that Viola more than David’s mediocre, romantic 60’s style Bach rendition.

  10. Alex says:

    I think I missed something somewhere along the line. Does this guy come from a wealthy family? Who is he?

  11. Max Grimm says:

    That wasn’t just blowing his own horn, that sounded liked the Massed Bands of the Household Division. This “youngster” (as much as this term shouldn’t apply considering he’s 28) needs to go back to school and not just music school. There are a lot of things he apparently needs to learn. I’m starting to feel that if Hollywood, Nickelodeon and Classical music came together and had a misbegotten lovechild, Mr. Carpenter would be it.

  12. Sandra says:

    Probably not wealthy at all and also not even worth the time to consider whether or not he is. These sorts of people just clutter up the space and are eventually flushed out by their own stupidity and oversized egos.


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