VIENNA (Reuters) - A dealer in rare Stradivarius violins coveted by the world's top violinists was sentenced on Friday to six years in prison for embezzlement after his glittering global empire crumbled.
Dietmar Machold, 63, built his Bremen-based family business into a juggernaut with branches in Zurich, Vienna, New York and Chicago to serve elite musicians and collectors of the instruments that can command prices of several million dollars.
But the business collapsed in 2010, triggering claims against him worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) from creditors and clients who say they were bilked.
"I am a failure. I have lost everything," Machold said in a Vienna court as he was sentenced after being convicted of embezzling client funds and hiding assets from creditors.
"You played for high stakes and you lost a lot, but you understand you have to take the responsibility for this," Judge Claudia Moravec-Loidolt told him.
Prosecutor Herbert Harammer had traced the career of the fifth-generation violin expert who became one of the world's most influential dealers in instruments crafted by 18th-century masters like Antonio Stradivari, whose workshop in Cremona, Italy produced some of the finest violins and cellos ever made.
"This ascent was built on sand," Harammer had told the court, accusing Machold of leading a lifestyle that was a facade for a business that had actually been insolvent since mid-2006.
A fixture of high society, Machold lived in an Austrian castle, had a fleet of expensive cars and collected watches and cameras. His global network of rare instrument dealerships let him move in the highest circles of music, fame and money.
His former wife and her mother got one-year suspended sentences for helping him hide precious musical instruments and a valuable watch collection as his business imploded.
Machold admitted from the start that he embezzled money made from the sale of instruments entrusted to him by his customers, but denied fraud charges that are being handled separately.
"I did what I did and I am to be punished for it. That is the way it has to be," the German native told the court before sentencing, his voice calm before he teared up and had to pause.
Machold, who told the court he did not deserve a mild sentence given the magnitude of his misdeeds, had faced a sentence of up to 10 years. His lawyer did not say if he would file an appeal.
Machold said he acted in desperation after losing a lawsuit brought by a construction company which meant his Eichbuechl castle was at risk.
The high-profile dealer had at times given contradictory testimony, at one stage saying he built personal relationships with the instruments in his care that he called "my children".
But later he said he "simply forgot" one expensive violin that he failed to report to administrators.
($1 = 0.7857 euros)
Editing by Michael Roddy