Coins millionaire bankrupted by a $1.2m music box

Mark Yaffe from Tampa, Florida, is a multi-millionaire who built up his fortune by trading in rare coins.

Yaffe's coin obsession began when he was at school in the 1970s, and culminated in him dropping out of college and abandoning his planned business career - because it was taking up too much of his time with coins.

"I was learning more with coins than in school," Yaffe later explained to the Tampa Bay Business Journal. "And I figured I was sleeping too much in class."

Nevertheless, Yaffe had apparently done the right thing. He rose rapidly through the National Gold Exchange - the world's largest wholesaler of gold and silver coins - and developed a reputation for speed and accuracy.

Yaffe's expertise meant that he could quietly sift through a pile of coins and separate them according to minute markings.

Eventually, the successful coin dealer had a mansion built to his specifications - in the style of a British palace, no less, complete with trappings such as chandeliers made from Venetian glass.

Today, Yaffe admits that the house was probably a mistake. But it wouldn't be his biggest mistake.

In 1994, the coin obsessive developed a new passion: antique music machines.

Yaffe undertook his unusual new hobby with characteristic dedication: buying pianolas, orchestrons, music boxes and other devices.

He joined Music Box Society International and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction on machines dating from the end of the 19th Century to WW2.

Soon after, Yaffe coaxed a German collector into parting with his violina (an automated piano with attached violins) for $450,000. He then restored it, bringing the value up to $1m.


But Yaffe's new hobby was already leading him to compromise his other assets. First, he sold his Ferrari and moved to a relatively small house.

But, unlike numismatics, Yaffe's obsession with self-playing pianos and the like was taking up too much space.  

To solve the problem, the wealthy collector decided to build a 29,000 square feet house built around a 3,000 square feet central hall.

He filled the hall with music machines, some over 12 feet tall (one even featured a miniature Cambodian tightrope-walking dancer).

Yaffe's acquisitions were growing in price; including a $1.2m Hupfeld Helios, a cabinet containing 256 pipes that mimic clarinets, flutes, cellos and other instruments.

He then paid a staggering $1.3m on top of the $1.2m purchase price, to have the Hupfeld restored.

And then the recession happened.

Yaffe, like many others, was simply spending too hard against his sizeable income. 

His bank's demands for the repayment of a $35m loan forced him put his house on the market (for $25m) and attend hearings to discuss bankrupty.

Yaffe has also been accused of misusing National Gold Exchange money, relating to various projects, which he denies.

To cope with his bankruptcy, Yaffe will have to part with some of his most treasured music machines.

He has so far committed to selling the 15 most expensive pieces. With luck, that should bring his head back above water, and enable him to retain some of his incredible collection.

If medals were awarded for dedication to collecting, then Mark Yaffe would certainly have earned a couple.

But his experiences are also a warning to collectors: plan ahead, and always stay well within your financial means.


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