Evelyn Axelrod Speaks

More than once, Evelyn Axelrod says, “I’ve said too much.” But the words come easily, perhaps because the wife of Herbert Axelrod—the pet-care magnate, philanthropist, and patron of the arts—is breaking her long silence about his controversial sale of 30 rare stringed instruments to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Herbert Axelrod had valued the instruments at $49 million and sold them for $17 million, but the orchestra later placed their value at no more than $26.4 million. In a telephone interview from their new home in Zurich, Switzerland—her first public statement about the debacle that tarnished her husband’s name—Evelyn Axelrod testily defends the 2003 deal and regrets the “terrible publicity” that it generated.

“We relied upon the documents that came with the instruments. We would have documents from many of the luthiers of Europe that have been in business for years and years and years,” she says. “We bought our instruments predicated on the certificates that we received, and the certificates were given to the orchestra when they bought them. They had time to play on them, to have everything examined. That’s what drives me insane.”

The Axelrods plan to return this month to Deal, their hometown of 36 years, for the grand opening of a performing arts center that they helped finance and that bears their names. A gala fundraiser will feature the violinist Elmar Oliveira, whom the Axelrods once sponsored. Forty years ago, when Oliveira was a teenage virtuoso, Herbert Axelrod was so impressed with his playing that he loaned Oliveira a Stradivarius, the first of many such gestures that Axelrod would bestow on musicians of great promise. Although the center has been operating since July 2005, its official opening was delayed because Herbert Axelrod was still serving a prison sentence for an unrelated case of tax fraud (he was released in October 2005).

The orchestra, meanwhile, continues to struggle financially. Its operating deficit has grown to $4.6 million, and it still owes $12 million on its payments for the Axelrod collection. “I feel terrible that it’s happened to them,” Evelyn Axelrod says. “I also feel terrible that somebody didn’t speak up for us when we did nothing wrong.”

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