LIANE HANSEN, host:

A rare violin is now up for sale, with a whopping $18 million price tag. If it goes for the asking price, the violin will be the most expensive instrument on Earth. Now, it's easy to assume it's a Stradivarius, the closest thing to a household name when it comes to famous violins. But many violinists prefer the sound of those made by Guarneri del Gesu.

Violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz joins us from our New York bureau. We spoke with him in 2008 about his scientific research on violin acoustics. Welcome back to the program, Sam.

Mr. SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ (Violin Maker): Great to talk to you again.

HANSEN: Tell us more about this violin.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, this is one of the late works of Guarneri del Gesu, who was the late contemporaries of Stradivari. And at the time of Strad, he was much less well-regarded but his instruments were popularized by Paganini. They tend to be very robust violins; thick in wood, quite massive in sound.

HANSEN: Hmm, and it's called a Vieuxtemps?

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: It's called a Vieuxtemps. Vieuxtemps was one of the most famous soloists of his time, which is probably about a hundred years ago or more. And violins tend to pick up the names of their owners or if they were used by a famous player, they like to stick that label on it. It's a way of differentiating the violins and it's certainly a useful sales tool.

HANSEN: I'd like to play an excerpt, if I may, of our conversation from a few years ago, when we were able to hear firsthand the difference in sound between a Guarneri and a Stradivari, with the help of violinist Aaron Boyd.

HANSEN: And you're going to play the Gesu, the Guarneri.

Mr. AARON BOYD (Violinist): Mr. BOYD: Plowden del Gesu.

(Soundbite of Mr. Boyd playing the Plowden del Gesu violin)

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Now for contrast, I'm going to give him the Willemotte Strad to play, which is a very different sort of sound.

(Soundbite of Mr. Boyd playing the Willemotte Stradivarius violin)

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, how would you categorize the main difference between the two fiddles?

Mr. BOYD: The Willemotte has a, in general, has this wide array of colors. It's like playing on a rainbow. And the de Gesu just has that kind of punch that I think a lot of fiddle players really gravitate towards. They know that when they play this fiddle, it's going to soar to the back of the hall.

HANSEN: That was Aaron Boyd playing and commenting on the differences between a Guarneri and a Stradivari violin. Sam Zymuntowicz, what do you think separates the Strad lovers from the Guarneri fans?

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: Well, those were two very good examples of the difference between Stradivari and Guarneri. Generally speaking, Guarneris are very full on the low end and have a little less in the high frequencies, where Strads are really characterized by a lot of high-frequency response and a little less lows. People use different words for Strads on the upper end: twinkle, sizzle. Guarneris, by contrast, tend to be very thick, massive and full.

HANSEN: There's actually a video online of soloist Philippe Quint playing the Guarneri that's actually up for sale.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Now, this is the violin that's being sold by its current owner, British banker Ian Stoutzker of the Chicago firm of Bein and Fushi. So, Sam Zymuntowicz, this Vieuxtemps Guarneri that's for sale has been dubbed the Mona Lisa of violins. Does it deserve to be the world's most expensive instrument?

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: Well, I don't know why anything deserves to be the most expensive of anything in the world. It's about collectability and provenance and condition. The Vieuxtemps is actually very, very well preserved. There's no cracks that I know of, there's no internal patches. So, it is very much as it left the makers' hands with some changes. So, from that point of view it's a great specimen. It doesn't necessarily make it a great player's instrument, but in this case it is.

And what makes the Vieuxtemps different than some other Guarneris is that because it's quite healthy, a little bit thick in wood, it actually has more brilliance and more presence than many del Gesus.

HANSEN: Well, Joshua Bell played the violin, and he speculated since it was actually played by the violinist, the great violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps, that somehow it affected the sound. Is there something to that?

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: There's a lot of mystique about violin sound and what happens to them. Playing certainly helps but I doubt very much that having been played by a famous violinist 100 years ago will change the way it plays now. However, the fact that it's been in active use will change it cumulatively over time. And the more the violin is played, that does vibrate things, and the fact that it was used by a great violinist at least gives it the stamp that you know it will work for a great violinist. That's what provenance is about.

HANSEN: Now, you've serviced instruments for players, including Joshua Bell. You also make sought after instruments yourself. How does this multimillion-dollar price tag affect the rest of the violin market?

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: Well, I think it's a long time now that most violinists have no hope of owning a violin of that caliber. Forget 18 million - even a moderate or low-priced Guarneri or Strads out of the range of most musicians. You know, musicians are like jockeys now. You know, they get to ride the thoroughbreds that are owned by people who can afford to buy them. And in a certain way, it's like they don't own the means of production anymore.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: So, from my point of view, it belongs to the world of collectability and dealing and money and that's a fine world. But when I work with musicians, you know, the best violin in the world is the one they love to pick up and put under their chin and play.

HANSEN: Sam Zymuntowicz, he's a violin maker based in New York. He spoke to us about the Vieuxtemps Guarneri currently on the market for $18 million. Sam, thanks a lot.

Mr. ZYMUNTOWICZ: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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