Jeffrey Epstein, a rare cello and an enduring mystery
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Jeffrey Epstein, a rare cello and an enduring mystery
Julian Hersh, left, and Jonathan Koh, partners in the crypto-based firm Musikhaus, which possesses a Soffritti cello once owned by Jeffrey Epstein, in Cupertino, Calif., April 14, 2022. The cello’s strange odyssey helps explain how Epstein, a convicted sexual predator who died in prison in 2019, surrounded himself with the world’s richest and most powerful men. Peter Prato/The New York Times.

by James B. Stewart

NEW YORK, NY.- When Jeffrey Epstein died in prison in 2019, he took many secrets with him. One was how a sexual predator and college dropout managed to forge bonds with an astonishing number of the world’s richest and most powerful men, like Britain’s Prince Andrew and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Another was why Epstein owned a rare Italian cello. It was the only nonfinancial asset listed on his foundation’s annual tax forms, described simply as “cello” and carried on the books at a value of $165,676.

Epstein had never played the cello or shown any interest in musical instruments as an investment.

The first mystery is large, and it is still being untangled by lawyers, victims and journalists. The second is seemingly small, contained to the rarefied world of fine string instruments. But the two mysteries are connected. And the cello’s strange journey into and out of Epstein’s possession offers a window into the notorious criminal’s life and legacy.

Epstein’s Manhattan mansion was filled with curiosities. There was a portrait of Bill Clinton in a blue dress, a stuffed giraffe, prosthetic breasts in the master bathroom.

But more than objects, Epstein collected people. Over the years he cultivated leaders in the fields of business, finance, politics, science, mathematics, academia, music, even yoga. He often cemented the relationships with introductions to others in his orbit, donations to causes they supported or other gifts and favors.

That is where the cello came in.

False Claims and Accordion Lessons

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Epstein and his younger brother, Mark, showed an aptitude for music. Both began lessons on the saxophone, then switched to more difficult double-reed instruments. Jeffrey played the bassoon, Mark the oboe, both in high demand in orchestras and other ensembles. It was as a bassoonist that Jeffrey earned a scholarship in 1967 to Interlochen, the prestigious summer music camp nestled in the woods of northern Michigan. When his mother visited him that summer, he asked her to bring bagels.

As an adult, Jeffrey Epstein falsely claimed to have had a budding career as a concert pianist. And he claimed to have begun piano lessons at age 5, which Mark Epstein said in an interview was not true. (He took lessons on the accordion as a young boy.) Epstein later took piano lessons, but he never achieved more than a high-school level of proficiency.

It was the cello that became a recurring motif in Epstein’s self-told life story, starting after he and a friend backpacked in Europe in the early 1970s. Among the stories Epstein later recounted was playing the piano for Jacqueline du Pré, the British cello virtuoso. In Epstein’s telling, he met du Pré in 1971 while visiting London. Du Pré enjoyed the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II, and it was through the cellist that Epstein said he’d gained access to members of the British royal family, forging an especially close friendship with Prince Andrew.

The tale was not entirely implausible. Du Pré, who died in 1987, was still performing at the time Epstein visited London, where he bought a full-length fur coat that he wore for years afterward. But du Pré hardly needed Epstein as an accompanist, since, among the world’s countless other professional musicians, she was married to celebrated pianist Daniel Barenboim.

At Interlochen, to which Epstein became a significant donor and regular visitor, he met and befriended a 14-year-old cellist, Melissa Solomon, in 1997. According to her account in a 2019 podcast, he insisted she apply to Juilliard and agreed to pay her tuition there. She said he never attempted to have sex with her (he did get her to massage his feet), but after she declined to attend a party with Prince Andrew, Epstein cut ties and stopped paying her tuition.

Another Interlochen student, identified only as Jane, testified in the recent trial of Epstein’s closest associate, Ghislaine Maxwell. Jane said that Epstein and Maxwell began grooming her when she was a 13-year-old student at the camp and that Epstein subsequently raped her, all while promising to advance her career.

Thanksgiving at the Ranch

In the mid-1990s, Epstein showed up backstage at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, after a performance by cellist William DeRosa, a young prodigy who’d made his concert debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 11. By the time Epstein saw him, DeRosa was regarded as one of the world’s best cellists, performing at Carnegie Hall, on television and with leading symphony orchestras.

Epstein’s and DeRosa’s paths didn’t cross again until around 2004, when DeRosa began dating a blond model named Kersti Ferguson.

Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Ferguson said in an interview that she met Epstein through a mutual friend when she was 18. Ferguson and Epstein spent time at his Palm Beach estate, where she met Maxwell. Epstein invited Ferguson to his Virgin Islands estate while she was in college, and after she broke up with a boyfriend, Epstein flew her and her mother to his New Mexico ranch for Thanksgiving. He sometimes called her four times a day. He showed her photos of himself with what he said were his powerful friends, among them former President Bill Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

After she began dating DeRosa, Epstein insisted on checking him out. “Be nice,” DeRosa recalled Epstein warning him. He seemed fascinated by DeRosa’s musical talents. He once suggested they play together, but DeRosa brushed him off. He said he had never heard Epstein play the piano.

DeRosa and Epstein discussed their shared admiration for du Pré, with whom DeRosa had spent a summer studying and living. DeRosa had a collection of every recording du Pré had released, and he and Epstein sometimes listened to them together. When Epstein asked to borrow them, DeRosa obliged. (He said Epstein never returned them.)

In 2006, Epstein was arrested in Florida after investigators found evidence that he’d been sexually involved with girls. Ferguson said Epstein never suggested having sex with her or asked her to recruit other young women. On the contrary, when Ferguson attempted to hug him, he’d “shrivel up,” she said, as if afraid of catching a disease. And she thought he and Maxwell were in love, even though Epstein confided in Ferguson that he had no intention of marrying.

Rich and Powerful

For a time after his arrest, Ferguson didn’t hear from him. Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting an underage prostitute and was sentenced to 13 months in jail, though he was allowed to serve much of that time at home.

Then, in 2010, as Epstein was trying to reconstitute his orbit of the rich and powerful, he called her. “I need to buy a cello,” Epstein said abruptly, asking if she would enlist DeRosa in the search. When Epstein next spoke to DeRosa, he explained that he was buying a cello for a young Israeli cellist. “Go find one,” he ordered, then hung up.

At first DeRosa didn’t take Epstein’s command seriously. But Epstein kept calling, as did members of his staff, asking if he’d made any progress. DeRosa got to work tracking down a cello.

Like many professional musicians, DeRosa was wired into the small world of rare string instruments, a few of which command prices as high as $20 million. His own cello, made by Italian master Domenico Montagnana in 1739, is considered one of the world’s finest and is likely worth millions of dollars. DeRosa assured Epstein he wouldn’t have to spend that much.

Soon after, DeRosa was visiting his mother in Los Angeles when he learned of a cello being sold there by a musician who recorded soundtracks for Hollywood studios. (Before that, the cello had been played by a member of the Indianapolis symphony orchestra.)

While not a Stradivarius or a Montagnana, this cello had a distinguished pedigree, and was manufactured by Ettore Soffritti, who worked in the string instrument center of Ferrara, Italy, from the late 1800s until his death in 1928. Benning Violins, the Los Angeles dealer, described the cello’s sound as “rich and powerful” and said the instrument was “suitable for the finest of cellists.”

DeRosa tried the cello. He was smitten. He said he considered it “one of the greatest modern cellos in existence.” (By “modern” he meant any produced after the Italian Renaissance.) With an asking price of $185,000, he also considered it a bargain.

Epstein seemed pleased when DeRosa told him he’d found something. He said the cello’s intended recipient — a young Israeli man named Yoed Nir — had to test the instrument first. DeRosa knew nearly every up-and-coming cellist, but he had never heard of Nir.

DeRosa had the cello on a trial basis, and Nir tested the instrument on a visit to DeRosa’s mother’s house in Los Angeles. Nir, who was about 30 years old and had dark, shoulder-length hair, which he tossed theatrically while playing, played some of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites. He had clearly had musical training (he was a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance), but DeRosa considered his playing unexceptional by his exacting standards. He could think of many young cellists more deserving of such an instrument. “I thought it incredibly odd that Jeffrey had chosen this guy,” DeRosa recalled.

Nir approved of the instrument, and Epstein had his accountant, Richard Kahn, step in to negotiate the purchase from Benning Violins. Kahn obtained an appraisal, then bargained down the price to $165,000. (DeRosa, who felt like his reputation was on the line since he’d initiated the transaction, found this insulting.)

When Epstein refused to buy an economy class ticket to fly the instrument back to New York — the usual method for transporting a valuable cello — DeRosa sent him an angry email accusing him of being a cheapskate. “I’m done,” he told Epstein.

“Why are you so agitated?” Epstein responded.

‘You Can’t Treat Someone Like That’

Weeks later, when DeRosa was back in New York, Epstein’s assistant called and said DeRosa should be at his house the next morning at exactly 7:30 a.m. There, Epstein gestured toward a large unopened cardboard box. DeRosa said he opened the package and verified that it was same cello he’d located in Los Angeles.

“Did you make any money on the transaction?” Epstein asked.

“No,” DeRosa answered, furious at the insinuation that he’d taken a cut.

Epstein walked out without further comment. “He showed no interest in the cello,” DeRosa recalled.

Ferguson was upset when she heard about the meeting. She called Epstein and chastised him. “You can’t treat someone like that,” she said. He was unapologetic.

The money to buy the cello came from Epstein’s foundation, and the purchase was reflected on its 2011 tax return. Kahn drew up an agreement in which the cello would be lent to Nir at no cost, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

Not long after, singer Judy Collins performed at the Café Carlyle. A positive review in The New York Times mentioned in passing that Collins had “added a new element, a cellist, Yoed Nir.”

Epstein and Ferguson subsequently papered over their disagreement, and she urged DeRosa to forgive him. When a valuable Stradivarius cello came on the market, Epstein offered to buy it for DeRosa’s use. DeRosa had a unique connection to the instrument, since a foundation had previously owned it and lent it to him early in his career.

So confident was the seller that a deal would come together that DeRosa took possession of the instrument. But Epstein balked at the asking price of $14 million, refusing to pay more than $10 million, according to DeRosa. The deal unraveled, and DeRosa returned the cello. It later sold for more than the asking price, DeRosa said.

DeRosa Has Regrets

DeRosa and Ferguson were shocked in 2019 when Epstein was arrested and charged with sex trafficking. Ferguson couldn’t reconcile the allegations with the man she thought she knew. Given his wealth and connections to powerful people, she figured he’d somehow get off the hook. She wrote him a letter in prison offering to visit and bring food. She never got a reply. On Aug. 10, Epstein died by suicide.

Several months later, DeRosa emailed Nir to find out what had happened to the Soffritti cello. Nir said only that he’d returned it. At the Epstein foundation’s request, Nir had delivered the cello to a New York law firm in October 2019. Its case was broken, and the cello itself had suffered some damage, according to DeRosa. (Nir said the case wasn’t broken when he returned it and that the instrument was “in very good playing condition.”) The foundation asked Benning Violins to again market and sell it, and Benning agreed to supply a new case.

Wittingly or not, Epstein had made a sound investment. This time the price was $220,000 — or 33% more than what Epstein had paid eight years earlier. With the backing of a financial partner whom DeRosa wouldn’t identify, he took possession of the cello in early 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic brought an end to live performances.

Like many people in Epstein’s orbit, DeRosa now regrets ever getting tangled up with him and wishes he had kept the cello for himself. “I wish I’d never let Jeffrey buy the cello,” DeRosa said. “I’m not a dealer. I’m a concert cellist. I was always angry at myself that I let it go.”

Back on the Market

Two years later, the Epstein cello was back on the market.

All of DeRosa’s performances during the pandemic were canceled. An extra cello was a luxury he could no longer afford.

Julian Hersh, a cellist and co-founder of Darnton & Hersh violins in Chicago, thought the cello might be useful to a company he was starting with Jonathan Koh, a music faculty member at University of California, Berkeley. There Koh had witnessed Silicon Valley’s fascination with the blockchain, cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens. His idea was to market digital images of rare instruments, or fractional shares of them, as NFTs, in some cases along with videos of professional musicians playing the instruments. He and Hersh reasoned that rare instruments were works of art, and if an NFT for a work by the artist known as Beeple could sell at Christie’s in 2020 for $69 million, why not a token for a rare instrument? Payment would be exclusively in cryptocurrency, adding to the allure for a new generation of investors.

Hersh wasn’t deterred by the cello’s provenance. “Jeffrey was horrible,” he said. “No question about it.” But there was a clear title — in other words, there was no dispute over the cello’s ownership — which was what really mattered to investors.

Hersh and Koh launched their new venture, called Musikhaus, in January. They described its mission as “bridging the worlds of classical music with the rapidly evolving world of non-fungible tokens” to “make timeless digital collectibles.” Among the first offerings was the Epstein cello.

The listing came just days after Maxwell’s conviction for sex trafficking and conspiracy, which thrust the Epstein saga back into the news. Dealers and collectors grimaced at what seemed an attempt to capitalize on Epstein’s notoriety. “The timing was terrible,” Hersh acknowledged. The Epstein connection “was just too hot. I blame myself.”

At first Hersh removed the reference to Epstein from the cello’s description, but he then decided the provenance shouldn’t be concealed. He removed the listing from their website altogether. He hopes to re-list the Soffritti NFT in the future. “So what if Jeffrey owned it?” Hersh said. “It’s still one of the best 20th-century cellos in the world.”

A Clue at the Cafe

The mystery persists: Why had Epstein bought the cello in the first place? What was his connection to Nir?

An important clue emerged at the 2011 Judy Collins concert at the Café Carlyle. Collins’ longtime musical arranger and pianist, Russell Walden, recalled that one thing about the evening stuck in his memory. At the cafe, he met Nir’s wife, Anat. Nir mentioned that she was the daughter of Barak, the former Israeli prime minister.

There are hardly any public references to Barak’s children. Reached recently in Tel Aviv, he confirmed that Yoed and Anat Nir are his son-in-law and daughter.

Barak — who was prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and later served in other high-ranking government jobs — said that another former prime minister, Shimon Peres, introduced him to Epstein in 2003. Barak has said that he and Epstein met dozens of times but he “never took part in any party or event with women or anything like that.”

Over the years Epstein wooed Barak by, among other things, investing $1 million in a limited partnership established by Barak in 2015.

He said he introduced Epstein to Nir in 2010 or 2011, though he didn’t know that Epstein subsequently lent Nir the cello. Therefore, Barak said, it “could not be true” that Epstein used the cello loan to curry favor. A more likely explanation, he said, “is that Mr. Epstein did it based on the reputation of Yoed as an extremely gifted cellist.” (Asked if he’d ever told his father-in-law about the loan, Nir declined to answer.)

Nonetheless, the loan of a $165,000 cello was the kind of favor that Epstein might only have made known when he wanted something in return. After all, not just anybody had the resources and connections to source an extraordinary cello for the relative of a powerful political leader — just the type of person that Epstein had a knack for keeping close.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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