Monday, September 18, 2023
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Liberace’s rhinestone-encrusted piano takes center stage at First Circuit

A legal battle over ownership pits Baldwin, once the country’s largest piano maker, against a mom-and-pop store in a small Boston suburb.

BOSTON (CN) — An attorney for the Baldwin piano company told a First Circuit panel Wednesday that the company got played when it loaned a $500,000 piano created for Liberace to a Boston-area dealer who refused to return it.

And the court seemed inclined at oral argument to reverse a trial judge and let the musical discord be resolved by a jury.

In July 2011 Baldwin told Rob Norris, who operates The Piano Mill in Rockland, Massachusetts, that he could keep a 9-foot piano encrusted with 10,000 rhinestones — one of two it built for Liberace — if he removed it from the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan which was undergoing renovations. A series of emails at that time arguably suggested that the arrangement was an indefinite loan so that Norris could use the piano for promotional purposes, such as an event connected to the HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. But when Baldwin asked for the instrument back in 2015, Norris refused, claiming it was a gift.

Baldwin, which is now part of the Gibson guitar company, says it wants to sell the piano and donate the proceeds to charity.

But Norris tells a very different story. The piano’s actual value is “much, much, much, much lower” than $500,000, his attorney, Daniel Gibson of SKB Attorneys in Hanover, Massachusetts, said in an interview. Gibson said Baldwin believed in 2011 that its value was de minimis and it was happy to give it to Norris if he would pay for a crane to remove it from the ballroom.

In 2015, however, Norris told a national reporter that the piano was worth $500,000 and that got Baldwin’s attention.

Norris was “puffing it up a little,” Gibson said in the interview, adding that Norris had “no basis” for the estimate and it “probably felt good at the time but wasn’t based on any factual findings.” (Norris’s entire inventory is insured for only $500,000, Gibson noted.)

Liberace himself was famous for “puffing it up a little.” Born in Wisconsin to Italian and Polish parents, he was at one time reportedly the highest-paid performer in the world, with concerts featuring flamboyantly decorated pianos, kitschy costumes and elaborate stunts. Although classical music reviewers often derided his playing as schmaltzy, he was a popular-culture phenomenon with six gold records, Las Vegas residencies and his own television show. He also appeared as a guest on "Saturday Night Live," "Batman," "The Monkees," "Kojak," "The Muppet Show" and WrestleMania.

Baldwin filed suit in 2020 — five years after it demanded the piano back — and last year a lower court granted summary judgment to Norris, finding that the case was governed by Massachusetts’ 3-year statute of limitations for tort claims rather than its 6-year statute for contracts.

The company’s lawyer, Kurt Schuettinger of Bates & Bates in Atlanta, told the panel Wednesday that its arrangement was a bailment — a deal where one person temporarily entrusts property to another for their mutual benefit, like valet parking — and cited a case called Aimtek where the Massachusetts Appeals Court said such a suit has a 6-year statute.

When it was Gibson’s turn to argue, he claimed that Baldwin couldn’t even prove that it owned the piano in the first place since it hadn’t listed it as an asset in a prior bankruptcy proceeding, a move that clearly surprised both U.S. Circuit Chief Judge David Barron and U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch.

“What precludes a jury from reaching a reasonable verdict that they had possession?” Lynch, a Bill Clinton appointee, probed. “They obviously thought they owned it because otherwise they wouldn’t have been looking to lend it out to other people. How could no jury reasonably conclude that [Baldwin] owned it?”

Barron added, “If you want to argue that, you can, but there’s also the statute of limitations issue that the district court ruled on. Do you want to argue that?” Barron later seemed to dismiss Gibson’s initial argument out of hand, telling Schuettinger that “a jury could find that you owned it.”

Lynch and Barron then pressed Gibson on how this case was different from Aimtek. “Is there some fact here that is different from Aimtek that would preclude us from treating this as a mutual benefit?” Barron, a Barack Obama appointee, asked.

“My client went to New York and removed a piano; there was no mutual benefit,” Gibson said.

“Excuse me,” Lynch interjected, “why can’t a jury conclude that he did get some benefit out of it? He used it in different ways. Your theory doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why would he want it if he got no benefit out of it?”

Gibson conceded that Norris did derive some value from having the piano. “You have admitted that [Baldwin] got a benefit, and I think you have just admitted that he got a benefit,” Lynch said.

The pair continued to pepper Gibson as to why this case was different from Aimtek. “You’ve now been asked this three times,” Lynch scolded. “I will ask you, finally, how do you distinguish Aimtek?”

Gibson responded that it violated “common sense” to think that Baldwin, which at one time was the country’s largest piano maker, would choose to loan a celebrity piano to Norris to promote its brand. “There are major cities all over this nation, but they chose my client, a sole proprietorship in Rockland, Massachusetts,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Howard, a George W. Bush appointee, rounded out the panel but said little.

To this day Baldwin’s website proudly boasts its Liberace connection, proclaiming that its brand “has become the piano of choice for the world’s hottest artists, including Aaron Copland, Liberace, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Ben Folds and Miley Cyrus.”

Categories / Appeals, Arts, Business, Entertainment

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