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Done in by his musical medley
By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published Friday, September 25, 2009
TAMPA — Mark Yaffe’s 300 guests could have easily mistaken him for a lord of a bygone era as he ushered them under a 10-foot high Venetian glass chandelier in the great hall of his mock English Jacobean palace.
Yaffe was hosting a fundraiser for Hillsborough County Community College that night in 2005, attended by the high and mighty of Tampa. Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was there. Actors in medieval costumes mingled among them.
Waltzing through the surroundings, it seemed obvious: Yaffe had arrived.
He was a college dropout who rose to head National Gold Exchange, a Tampa-based coin wholesale business that brought in half a million dollars a week.
But behind the glitz, Yaffe’s empire was on shaky ground. This summer, his bank demanded he repay a $35 million business loan. Hidden in the bankruptcy court documents: Yaffe was nursing a multimillion-dollar passion that was eating away his business, the bank said.
Yaffe had blown through tens of millions of dollars on his collection of antique music machines and the mansion he had custom built to display them.
The making of a collection
Yaffe loved coins even as a high school student in 1970s suburban Boston. Clutching his allowance, he would take a train into the city to feed his habit.
He attended Boston College, hoping to specialize in business, but dropped out his junior year. “I was learning more with coins than in school,” Yaffe told the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 1997. “And I figured I was sleeping too much in class.”
Colleagues describe Yaffe as an introvert with a genius’ attention to detail. He can plow through a pile of 1,000 gold coins and, using his trained eye, immediately pinpoint the fakes by noting nearly microscopic mint marks.
Yaffe moved to Tampa in 1988, ensconcing himself in a 10,000-square-foot house in the exclusive Avila community in North Tampa. That’s when he developed his second great passion: music machines.
Before stereos, before FM radio, before talking motion pictures, cabinets of automatons, self-playing pianos and “orchestrions” were parlor room entertainment for the wealthy. Their popularity waned before World War II. Most were simply too big, too obsolete, too hard to maintain.
“The analogy I use is if you found one of the first IBM computers,” said Ken Goldman, a Boston coin dealer and Yaffe’s friend. “It would take up half your room, it wouldn’t work and no one would want it.”
The hobby made a comeback as tycoons desired to decorate their estates with bulky historical artifacts.
Jasper Sanfilippo, the owner of Fisher Nut Co., has one of the great collections. His Chicago-area mansion is so crammed with mechanical music machines it’s been dubbed the Place de Musique.
Goldman, who built his own extensive collection of music contraptions, turned Yaffe on to the hobby.
Yaffe applied his talent for detail to assembling one of the world’s best collections. He described the allure during a brief interview after a recent bankruptcy hearing in Tampa. Forty-nine years old, with salt-and-pepper hair above a pair of accountant’s glasses, Yaffe came alive when he described the hobby.
“Consider a painting on the wall,” he said, gesturing to a framed print hanging in the courthouse. “After a while you get bored just looking. With these machines you can listen to beautiful music. And on top of that, they’re works of art.”
Yaffe began by patiently building his collection with relatively inexpensive pieces. In 1994 he joined a group of aficionados called the Music Box Society International. That year, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at a single Sotheby’s auction.
Soon after, Yaffe was ready to move into the million-dollar club.
Giving in to his orchestrion fixation
Yaffe coveted an orchestrion in a collection belonging to a bearded German collector named Siegfried Wendel.
Orchestrions resemble tin pan bands in one huge cabinet. They mechanically resemble fairground band organs and carousel calliopes.
At a convention of the Music Box Society at Orlando’s Clarion Hotel in 1995, Yaffe approached Wendel and inquired about buying a banged-up Hupfeld Phonolist Violina.
The Violina is an 90-year-old player piano equipped with automated violins. Dozens of metal mechanical fingers press down on the violins to adjust the pitch while a metal wheel rotates around the instruments to produce the bow stroke.
Yaffe proposed a price. Wendel refused to sell.
But Yaffe was tenacious. On a trip to Europe a year later, he phoned Wendel at his home in Rudesheim on Germany’s Rhine River. Could he come see Wendel’s collection?
Wendel agreed. This time Yaffe succeeded. He bought the Violina for $450,000. Craftsman from California invested 3,000 man hours and three years in its restoration. That cost Yaffe $174,000 more. The piece is valued at $1 million.
The collection grew so fast that Yaffe was forced to stash machines in his garage, in off-site warehouses, even in his brother’s house.
“These things are fun to show off,” Goldman said. “You don’t have to lock them away in a vault like a coin collection.”
By 1997, the hobby was taking its toll on Yaffe’s finances. Yaffe downsized. He traded his 10,000-square-foot house for a 5,000-square-foot model. He ditched his $200,000 yellow Ferrari convertible. His antique music machine no longer had a proper home.
But a comeback was just years away.
‘These collections dictate where you live’
Forget 5,000 square feet. Yaffe was going to build what would become the second-biggest estate in the Tampa Bay area.
The mansion, sheathed in Romanian marble, would be two stories and top out at 29,000-square-feet. Modeled on a 17th-century British royal palace, it was to have 13 bathrooms, 14 fire places and a magnificent foyer.
The focal point would be the grand hall. More than 3,000 square feet filled with scores of music machines, some twice the height of a person, towering toward the 27-foot ceilings. A room so big it would take Yaffe an hour to properly show off the artifacts.
Crowds would gawk at million-dollar, German orchestras-in-a-box. In carved oak and mahogany cabinets more than 7 feet high, moving wires stroked real violins, automated sticks rattled snare drums and blasts of air tooted pipes.
Yaffe would turn a crank on $50,000 Victorian-era automatons, prompting a Cambodian dancing girl and a tight rope walker to perform lifelike routines set to music. Antique Nickelodeons, coin-operated pianos and cylindrical music boxes would tinkle, twirl and tumble through the cavernous hall.
Those who hadn’t wearied of the automata and music boxes could continue their tour in wings astride the great room.
“Some of these things are 12 feet tall. You can’t put them in your standard 8-foot-ceiling house,” Goldman said. “These collections dictate where you live.”
First Yaffe had to finish the house. As the home progressed, he continued to grow the collection. In 2000 he bought a rare Hupfeld Helios, a cabinet containing 256 pipes that mimic clarinets, flutes, cellos and other instruments. The seller was Fisher Nut’s Sanfillipo. He drove a hard bargain, charging Yaffe $1.2 million. Yaffe paid $352,000 to restore it.
Yaffe took out several mortgages worth millions. What had started as a relatively modest 12,000-square-foot blueprint had ballooned into the 29,000-square-foot palace. Once, to tide things over, Yaffe asked a neighbor for a $200,000 loan.
‘I don’t regret ... the music boxes’
Enter Paul Bilzerian. In 2006, Yaffe turned to Bilzerian, a neighbor in Avila. In fact, Yaffe’s house is surpassed in size only by the mansion Bilzerian built years earlier.
Bilzerian had been lying low after troubles with the federal government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The former corporate raider had served a year in prison for securities fraud, but defiantly maintains his innocence to this day.
Yaffe asked Bilzerian to raise private capital to take National Gold to a new level. New York investors came to Tampa, but the deal collapsed at the last minute. Bilzerian’s son sued Yaffe for fees and commissions connected with the broken deal. It was a Bilzerian lawyer who dropped the bomb on Yaffe this summer by relaying to bankers his suspicions about misused collateral.
Creditors in the bankruptcy case accuse Yaffe of selling at least $12 million dollars worth of coins belonging to National Gold and pumping proceeds into his stalled mansion project. They say he cooked the books to hide the deed. Meanwhile Yaffe continued to tap a $35 million line of credit from Boston-based Sovereign Bank. He would run through every cent, though he religiously made monthly payments to Sovereign. National Gold Exchange plunged into bankruptcy this summer when Sovereign demanded repayment.
Yaffe denies he misused the collateral. The financing of the mansion and music machine collection was transparent and legitimate, he said.
“The allegation of taking money out and improperly using it to build the house is untrue,” his lawyer Daniel Saxe said. “To link these music machines to the bankruptcy filing is inaccurate in my opinion.”
Whatever the circumstances, the story of squandered wealth didn’t surprise Russell Belk, business professor at Toronto’s York University who wrote the book Collecting in a Consumer Society. High-end collectors tend to rationalize spending by telling loved ones it’s an investment, he said. But they usually lose money or, at best, break even.
“Regardless of wealth, collectors can find a level of collecting that strains that wealth,” he said. “They need better pieces, bigger pieces. It’s luxury consumption.”
The bank seized all of Yaffe’s coins, effectively putting National Gold out of business. They’re locked away in a Brinks vault. Ahead lies months of wrangling in bankruptcy court. The music boxes remain secure in the regal splendor of Yaffe’s mansion, under the watchful eye of the federal courts.
Yaffe’s life has been upended. The mansion, where he lives with his wife and two children, has been on the market for $25 million for close to a year.
“I don’t regret collecting the music boxes, but I regret building the home,” Yaffe said. “The house has drawn negative attention.”
Yaffe has promised to break up his prized collection, the machines he crossed continents and sacrificed bank balances to acquire. He plans to sell about 15 of the most expensive machines. The liquidation should help him hang on to the rest of the collection.
Wherever Mark Yaffe’s future leads him — a resurrected coin business, a humbler home — jingling music machines and dancing automatons will likely accompany the journey.
James Thorner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3313.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: In a Sunday story about Mark Yaffe’s music box collection, Fisher Nuts chairman emeritus Jasper Sanfilippo’s name was misspelled.