ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Well, now to the Great Plains, to a museum housing one of the world's leading collections of musical instruments. The National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, has added to its collection a priceless violin, one made for French royalty in the 16th century.
South Dakota public broadcasting's Gary Ellenbolt reports.
GARY ELLENBOLT: On a typical summer day, the University of South Dakota campus is quiet, save for a few summer school students and those who are getting the school ready for the next academic year. But inside the former Carnegie Library on the campus, there's the potential for a lot of sound. That's the home of the National Music Museum, said to hold the most eclectic collection of instruments in the U.S.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLENBOLT: Inside the museum, Far East gamelan instruments and medieval mandolins co-exist with a display featuring a post-war novelty act, the Korn Kobblers.
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ELLENBOLT: Everything on exhibit was either purchased directly by the museum, or donated by sponsors.
Dr. ANDRE LARSON (Executive Director, National Music Museum): Otherwise, the whole thing wouldn't work.
ELLENBOLT: Dr. Andre Larson is executive director.
Dr. LARSON: To do that in South Dakota is a minor miracle, but those of us who love South Dakota, and believe in this state and its people, know - that it would work. And it has worked, and we're very proud of it.
ELLENBOLT: Since its opening in 1973, the National Music Museum has become one of the first places people think of when they come across a rare instrument.
Its latest acquisition, a 400-year-old Amati Brothers violin - made to order for King Henry IV of France - is an example. Violin expert Claire Givens, who has lent her expertise as an appraiser on "The Antiques Road Show," brokered the deal that brought the instrument to Vermillion. She first saw it 13 years ago, at a conservatory in Wisconsin.
Ms. CLAIRE GIVENS (Violin Expert): But they weren't interested in selling it, or deaccessioning it. And so we continued, every year, to make sure that this violin was in good condition.
ELLENBOLT: The violin was made in 1595 by the Amati brothers. Museum curator of stringed instruments Arian Sheets says they were part of a family of premier craftsmen from Cremona, Italy.
Ms. ARIAN SHEETS (Curator of Stringed Instruments, National Music Museum): Their father, Andre Amati, was actually the first documented violin maker in Cremona. And we know he had set up his own shop by 1538.
ELLENBOLT: Most everyone has heard of the Stradivarius line of violins, and several can be seen in Vermillion. Sheets says the Amatis were established in Cremona by the time Stradivari came along.
Ms. SHEETS: Antonio Stradivari claimed on some of his labels to have been a student of Nicolo Amati. But we don't have any record of that.
ELLENBOLT: In May, a good-sized crowd gathered to take part in the transfer of the violin to the National Music Museum. It hadn't been played since 1997, but University of South Dakota music professor Euhno Kim was given the chance to welcome the instrument to town, with a Bach solo violin sonata.
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ELLENBOLT: The four-century-old violin did not disappoint. Andrew Dipper restores stringed instruments, and he has worked to maintain the Amati violin.
Mr. ANDREW DIPPER (Stringed Instrument Restorer): I don't usually get teary when I hear something. But that was quite an extraordinary exhibition of the sound of an instrument that's that old.
ELLENBOLT: Dipper says even the case containing the violin has its own history: It's decorated with symbols of French royalty.
Mr. DIPPER: It has a Louis XVI violin case with it, and the interesting thing is the armorials on the case, which were illegal to have during the revolution, have been partially blacked out because if you were found with royal armorials with anything in your house, you would go to the guillotine.
ELLENBOLT: The Amati Brothers violin has survived more than 400 years, protected through the French Revolution, a number of wars, and a handing down through generations. After all it's been through, it now has a chance to rest, on display at the National Music Museum.
For NPR News, I'm Gary Ellenbolt in Vermillion, South Dakota.