Peter Biddulph The Story of an Australian Settler
The owner of priceless instruments, including seven Strads and four even rarer del Gesus, what turned him on - apart from the violins' beauty and history - was the excitement of striking deals. Biddulph sensed it brought back the old buzz and challenge of his upward climb in the cinema business. Only after agreeing to pay what Segelman demanded was Biddulph allowed to buy an instrument; there were no compromises on the price and the violin was not allowed out of his sight until a cheque for the amount was produced.
He went to all the auctions, saw the prices, and knew private sales usually fetched far more, and recognised Peter's impressive track record," remembers Robert Bein.
He always took interest and pleasure in how much profit Peter eventually made on his violins. They both loved violins - and doing deals. This was not some feeble old man but a shrewd negotiator who understood the business. His was a typical rich man's dilemma: too secretive and mistrustful to talk about what he owned, with Peter he had the opportunity to interact with another expert, to show off his prizes and gain enjoyment and excitement from them.
Bein vividly recalls being "auditioned" by Segelman when Biddulph first introduced them in He adored that! On hearing of Segelman's death, Biddulph's main concern was to comfort Vera. She had lived with Gerald since the age of 17, when he hired her as his bookkeeper. In earlier years they had enjoyed themselves at dancehalls and nightclubs, travelled on the Queen Mary and visited Hollywood film studios.
Although in public each addressed the other as "Mr Segelman" and "Miss Farnsworth", and she continued to draw a salary as his secretary, theirs was a long, loving relationship. Now, Biddulph anticipated, there would also be business to discuss with her. A year earlier, Gerald had gradually disclosed more information about his violins.
At one meeting, he scribbled a partial list of his collection from memory and gave it to Biddulph, who, having seen only one or two instruments at any time, was astonished that there were many more fine pieces. That day they also discussed the possibility of publishing a book of his collection, and of mounting an exhibition. Uppermost in his mind were Gerald's last words to him, 10 days earlier.
Vera let me into the flat and I saw he was in great pain, with ulcerated legs. By now, being almost stone deaf, he shouted at me, 'Biddy, anno domini, anno domini! I am dying. Sit down. I want to tell you something. I want you to have those violins. You'll know what to do with them. When I die, Vera's going to call you. He gave me the locations and apologised for misleading me before, but it was for security reasons. The residue then goes to several Jewish charities. Although aware he collected instruments, neither Vera and Gerald's lawyer, Jack White, nor Timothy White, his nephew, who took over as the estate's chief solicitor, executor and trustee, apparently had much inkling of the extent of the collection, which was unearthed in the days after Gerald's death.
Andreas Woywod, Biddulph's chief restorer, who first retrieved and inspected the instruments, remembers the excitement of what he calls "the treasure hunt". There, to our amazement, he kept a rare, beautifully decorated Strad. The sagging bedsprings had dented the case and damaged the instrument.
It took over hours of work to restore it fully. The lawyers decided that Biddulph should store the odd violins and violas, and prepare an inventory and valuations for the estate. Timothy and Jack White made it clear they were relying on his expertise as to how best to go about selling the collection, since they were ignorant of the violin market.
Because of the size and quality of the collection, Biddulph advised against selling at auction. The received wisdom is that "flooding" the market with too many valuable pieces at one time deters serious collectors from bidding, and instruments fetch lower prices at auction than through private sales. This is because the small number of collectors and musicians who pay the top prices prefer the discretion, personal attention, expertise and guaranteed after-sales service of a top dealer.
Biddulph's insurance valuations indicated the likely selling prices, but Timothy White stipulated that any firm offer should be confirmed as a fair market price by another independent expert. By autumn , Biddulph had approached potential clients and overseas colleagues to "place" Segelman's violins. The sale prices were confirmed as fair by James Warren.
The money was deposited with the estate and Biddulph pressed ahead with finding further buyers. What actually happened to the rest of Segelman's fiddles did not emerge until If Timothy White hadn't become bogged down in prolonged and messy legal battles over the estate, it might have struck him sooner that all was not well. Instead, in , White's intended prompt winding up of the estate gave way to a classic family feud, as Vera Farnsworth - supported by members of the Segelman family - unexpectedly claimed ownership of almost the entire instrument collection and issued a writ against the estate.
After three years of legal tussles, during which her mental faculties began rapidly failing, Vera's claim was dismissed by mutual agreement, shortly before her death in Only at that point did it dawn on White that since December , Biddulph had not accounted further to the estate. How many more violins had been sold, he wondered, and to whom and for how much?
After tense meetings between White and Biddulph, the executors were still none the wiser. Even today, Biddulph's account of events is largely impenetrable - and, from his rambling manner and the restless way he paces his tiny office, he seems to know it. I've never been strong on paperwork and accounts - mostly I carry the figures around in my head and I didn't have to hand the documents Mr White asked for. It was so long ago, I'd forgotten the exact sums I sold things for. I'd prepared invoices for him, but then didn't send them, because I had received no contract for carrying out refurbishments and repairs.
White was refusing to pay me for them. I was genuinely unsure of the terms of our agreement - something I'd stated in a letter in Unbelievably, he didn't even keep a stock book, which White demanded to see. Biddulph attributes the chaos to a series of events. He had moved home and business premises, and spent much of and putting on an exhibition of Guarneri del Gesu violins at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was also an emotionally traumatic time. I developed panic attacks, and then a fear of flying, which lasted several years. Despite the wide-eyed, distrait manner, he indignantly denies any impropriety in his business dealings.
The absence of written contracts between violin dealers and their clients - who may be other dealers - is, he says, normal in the trade. Our business is all done on a handshake, especially when we buy or sell an instrument jointly, or sell to one another, which often happens. And we all account for transactions in different ways. What Mr White didn't understand was that selling a violin isn't like selling a car! So he began to suspect some sort of scam. Biddulph assured White he would work out his accounts dating back to In March , these accounts having failed to materialise, White obtained a High Court order seizing all Biddulph's paperwork and financial records.
His assets were frozen, and what remained of Segelman's collection was impounded and stored at Sotheby's, across the road from his premises. To the trustees' horror, Biddulph's records revealed the existence of scores of other violins, a cello and hundreds of bows, some worth many thousands of pounds, that had turned up at Segelman's homes, among them a flat in Vera Farnsworth's name in Hove.
None of these had been recorded on the original inventory; some had been kept or sold by Biddulph, in the genuine belief, he claimed, that they belonged either to Vera Farnsworth or to Philip Segelman, one of the two nephews named in Gerald's will; he had accordingly forwarded them payments.
Biddulph's paperwork was so chaotic that other violins proved untraceable. The principal accusation is that Biddulph and his Chicago associates defrauded the estate of millions of pounds. White's lawsuit alleged that Segelman's violins were deliberately undervalued and then resold at top prices, the profits staying within the group. The British lawsuit accused Philip and Leonard Segelman of receiving proceeds from the sale of violins that belonged to the estate. The trial began in the High Court on February 6 last year and was scheduled to run a month.
It lasted a week. The first three days produced a staggering opening speech from Timothy White's counsel, summarising byzantine dealings between a group of long-standing associates. Biddulph received thousands of pounds worth of commissions from subsequent deals that were not disclosed to the estate.
Months later, instruments were resold at huge mark-ups, sometimes double the original sale price, the dealers again pocketing a share of the profits. The explanation wasn't that there had been a dramatic upturn in the market. On the contrary.
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