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MacdonaldviolacropIt may well prove to be the most expensive musical instrument in the world – a Stradivari viola, whose asking price will start at $45 million when it is offered for sale this spring – but, just for a moment, it was held up with no hands.The viola was tucked firmly under the chin of the violist David Aaron Carpenter, who briefly needed both hands to adjust his bow, which had frayed a little during a virtuosic run-through of Albéniz’s Asturias at a demonstration of the instrument arranged by Sotheby’s. “I won’t go that crazy on this again,” Mr. Carpenter said with a smile after trying out the viola in an empty showroom at Sotheby’s. “It’s possibly the most expensive instrument in history, and I don’t want to break it.”

If the viola fetches anything near its asking price, it will dwarf previous sales records for musical instruments. The “Lady Blunt” Stradivari violin set an auction record when it was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million. While some instruments may have been sold privately for more, none are believed to have gone for anything near the $45 million being sought for this viola, which was owned and played by Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet until his death in 1987 in England.

It is a staggering sum for a fiddle: Its $45 million base price is more than enough to have saved both New York City Opera, which has folded, and the San Diego Opera, which is also closing because of money woes, or to buy several hundred top-of-the-line concert-quality grand pianos. And it underscores the way collectors have driven up the price of rare instruments in recent decades, with inflation far outpacing, say, musicians’ wages.

Violas are sometimes thought of as the unloved stepsisters of violins – rarely in the spotlight, played by fewer famous virtuosos, with less music composed specially for them. But it is precisely their status as second-class citizens that has made this viola so valuable: While there are roughly six hundred violins made by Antonio Stradivari, only around ten of his violas are known to have survived intact. That makes this instrument, the “Macdonald” viola, rare indeed.

The viola, owned by Mr. Schidlof’s family, will be sold in a sealed-bid process by Sotheby’s and by Ingles & Hayday, which specializes in the sale of valuable musical instruments. Buyers will be asked to submit bids of $45 million or more – not knowing how much their competitors have bid – and the viola will be sold to the highest bidder.

“The value is a combination of factors,” said Tim Ingles, a director of Ingles & Hayday. “It is a Strad, which is the first thing, made in the very best period of Stradivari’s work, which is between 1700 and 1720. It’s incredibly well preserved – one of the best-preserved Strads in existence. It’s one of only ten violas in existence. Then you add to that the fact that one of the most famous violists of the twentieth century played it for over twenty-five years.”

Still, setting a price for such a rare item is not easy.

Mr. Ingles said that the “Macdonald” viola – named for one of its early-nineteenth-century owners – sold in 1964 for $81,000 to Philips, the Dutch electronics company, which owned the Deutsche Grammophon record label and bought the instrument for Mr. Schidlof to play with the Amadeus Quartet, which recorded on the label. (The ownership of the viola eventually passed to Mr. Schidlof “by a process we don’t fully understand,” Mr. Ingles said.) But the valuation is not as simple as adjusting the 1964 price for inflation – $81,000 in 1964 would be around $613,000 today – because the value of rare instruments has far outpaced inflation in recent decades.

Mr. Ingles said that the sellers determined the viola’s asking price partly by examining how its value compared with other instruments over time. The $81,000 it cost in 1964, he noted, was more than three times the auction record for a Stradivari violin then. The $45 million base price now is a bit less than three times what the “Lady Blunt” sold for.

It is unclear who might offer such a sum for the viola, which will be first on view in New York. It then goes on display in Hong Kong and Europe. Collectors, foundations and patrons have often purchased rare and valuable instruments, which they then sometimes let musicians use. But David Redden, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, said that the instrument might appeal to another kind of buyer: the type who will pay $7.6 million for a coin or a fortune for a rare stamp. “We see them at Sotheby’s quite frequently – the sort of person who is absolutely fascinated by, sort of, the greatest object of its kind, in every category, and is able to participate at that level,” Mr. Redden said.

Of course, no one would try to spend a $7.6 million coin, or mail a letter with one of those postage stamps made famous by a printer’s error. The viola is still meant to make music. “Musical instruments and string instruments are quite different from selling some of the other things,” Mr. Redden said. “Because they need to be played.”

David Aaron Carpenter plays Bach’s Suite in C Major (BWV 1009) on the “Macdonald” viola.

Michael Cooper – The New York Times

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