Stradivariuses Were a Lure, Baffled Men Say

     VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – A Southern Californian used Stradivarius violins as the cornerstone of a ruse to defraud two men of millions of dollars, the investors claim in court.
     John Skirtich and Martin Logies say Robert Hesselgesser, president and director of the Museum of Global Antiquities, defrauded them of $7.25 million, ostensibly to buy rare violins and have them certified by a world-renowned expert, and sell them at enormous profit in China — but that Hesselgesser spent their money on whatever he liked.
     “Instead of using money plaintiffs provided for the specific purpose of purchasing, transporting, certifying and selling the Stradivarius violins and bows at profit, Dr. Hesselgesser used the money for his own interest,” the men say in their June 6 complaint in Ventura County Court.
     They sued Hesselgesser, his museum, and Hesselgesser’s “associate,” Paul Hackett. Co-plaintiff with Skirtich and Logies is the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, all of Sunnyvale.
     Skirtich and Logies say they loaned Hesselgesser $5.1 million to buy violins, and paid him another $2.25 million for equity in violins, based on Hesselgesser’s promises that the violins he already owned were worth more than $320 million.
     Hesselgesser told them their money gave them “ownership interest” in five Stradivarius violins, made in 1712, 1717, 1719, 1721, and 1728, and a 1741 Guarneri. Then they loaned him more money for three more Stradivarius fiddles, made in 1713, 1715 and 1735, according to the complaint.
     They say they did this based on Hesselgesser’s and Hackett’s assurances that they had “a Chinese billionaire” lined up as a buyer and that “the sale would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
     On Sept. 5, 2013, the plaintiffs say, Hesselgesser wrote them that the Chinese billionaire was “#376 on Forbes billionaires list.”
     The sales hinged, however, on the violins being certified as authentic by Luigi Stradivari in Italy, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs say Hesselgesser and Hackett used this presumed descendant of the Stradivarius family as a ruse to delay payment of the loans, the purchases, and consummation of the presumed sales.
     The excuses ranged from the need to have the Italian Cultural Ministry “register” and “document” the violins, the possibility that the Cultural Ministry might not let the violins leave the country, the need to establish clear chain of title, the difficulty in contacting Luigi Stradivari, Stradivari’s insistence on “payment in full and in advance,” Stradivari’s extreme sensitivity about his “valued services,” and so on — in this way stringing the presumptive deals out for years, according to the complaint.
     One reason Hackett offered for the delay was that “Mr. Stradivari wanted to ‘stick it to the Chinese,’ and assured … that the delay in the sale would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to the complaint.
     It is difficult to tell, from the 46-page lawsuit, whether all of the Stradivariuses exist, or if Hesselgesser’s violins are Strads. Skirtich and Logies say Hesselgesser had a man play for them in Hesselgesser’s house, ostensibly on two Stradivarius violins. But they say Hesselgesser and Hackett have not provided any “written proof … or documentation to and from Mr. Stradivari.”
     They add: “Defendants’ misrepresentations regarding the location, certification and sale of the subject violins were intentional stall tactics used to confuse and deceive plaintiffs. Dr. Hesselgesser’s representations and defendants’ assurances were made without any intention of performance, but only to convert plaintiffs’ money and, assuming the violins exist, to convert the violins.”
     An Internet search Wednesday could not find a Luigi Stradivari who authenticates rare violins.
     Stradivarius violins and other stringed instruments, including violas and cellos, were created by Antonio Stradivarius and his sons in the 17th and 18th centuries. The musical instruments, manufactured by the famed luthiers in Cremona, Italy, are highly regarded for the quality of their sound. An estimated 650 Stradivarius instruments remain in circulation, and all of them, particularly those crafted by Antonio Stradivarius himself, fetch enormous sums at auctions and private sales.
     The “Molitor” Stradivarius, which once belonged to a general in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, sold for $3.6 million at a 2010 auction in Italy. The “Lady Blunt” violin, named for Lord Byron’s granddaughter, who once owned it, sold for $15.9 million in 2011.
     Logies and Skirtich say they met Hesselgesser at a coin collecting convention in 2007 and after many years of acquaintance began loaning him money in late 2012 for the violin deals. With their $7.25 million in hand, they say, Hesselgesser has refused to consummate the sales, or repay them, and when they demanded payment from Hesselgesser, “he and Mr. Hackett audaciously sought more money.”
     Logies and Skirtich say they’ve had it: “Upon information and belief, not all of the money that Dr. Hesselgesser obtained from plaintiffs went toward the purchase of violins, but rather for his own personal benefit. Plaintiffs later found that Dr. Hesselgesser was misusing plaintiffs’ money to fund other projects, cover personal debts, and convert money for his own personal needs.”
     Logies and Skirtich want their $7.25 million back, an accounting, plus another $56 million in damages, for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, fraud, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, conversion and other charges.
     They are represented by Anna Greenstin, with Kudla & Greenstin of Laguna Hills, who did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
     Contact information for the Museum of Global Antiquities, the organization Hesselgesser established in 2007, could not be located.

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