More than two years after his legal quest for the return of one of Liberace’s decked pianosNashville-based guitar maker Gibson Brands (through its nonprofit arm Gibson Foundation) faces new hurdles.
Indira Talwani, a federal judge in Boston, ruled last week against Gibson’s demands to declare that Rob Norris, owner of the Piano Mill in Rockland, Massachusetts, breached his contract with Gibson and wrongfully took possession of the piano that the company says. intended only to lend to him.
“They were the Goliath and we were the David, and they really tried to hit our guy,” said Dan Gibson, one of Norris’ attorneys. Job.
A pre-trial conference is tentatively set for June 27. Left to a jury, the judge ruled, remains the question of who actually owns the concert grand piano custom-made for Liberace by Baldwin Piano in the 1980s.
The piano’s paper trail is limited, but both parties largely agree that in 2011 Gibson (which had acquired Baldwin and, he believed, the Liberace piano, which emerged from bankruptcy a decade earlier) had asked Norris to remove the piano from the seventh floor. of the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. Norris felt, he has since testified, that he could keep the piano if he could just move it. Gibson argues, however, that Norris had to keep the piano in his Massachusetts store on a long-term loan.
There are no loan documents in court records, and Gibson said he was unable to locate the two former key employees who contacted Norris in the decade since he was took possession of the piano.
The history of piano ownership is even murkier than that, as Gibson Brands chairman Cesar Gueikian said in a deposition that he believed Gibson’s 2001 purchase of Baldwin included the piano, but he is not aware of any inventory document proving this to be true.
The company then drafted documents detailing an alleged transfer of ownership from Gibson Brands to the nonprofit Gibson Foundation in 2019. The goal, the two entities said, was to sell the piano at auction, 5% with profits going to Norris for his troubles. and the rest will finance the activities of the association.
But the transfer was not enough to reset Massachusetts’ statute of limitations for lawsuits. The court agreed with the Piano Mill that the three-year limit on state claims had passed without Gibson asserting ownership rights.
Norris argued that Gibson originally filed the lawsuit in Nashville, rather than Massachusetts, as a way to intimidate or inconvenience him, but Judge Talwani dismissed his claim for abuse of process.
Still, some of Norris’ actions in the years after he took possession of the piano, including asking Gibson representatives for their approval of repairs and loan agreements, indicate that he believed the company still had at least a interest in the instrument. But that wasn’t enough to sway the judge, especially since Gibson had been unable to procure the two key employees involved in the transfer.
The dispute between the two sides dates back to 2015, when the roof of Piano Mill collapsed after a snowstorm. A Gibson employee expressed concern about the Liberace piano and asked to move it, but Norris denied the request. Gibson’s attorneys began contacting the Piano Mill that year.
Representatives and attorneys for Gibson did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the judge ruled that Gibson failed to prove that Norris breached a contract or improperly took possession of the piano, the court said ownership of the piano remained “uncontested”. That question is “for a jury, not the court, to decide,” the judge wrote.