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For music lovers, some melodies may seem priceless.

Reporter Caroline Cooper has this story of a remarkable collection of classical music manuscripts that are on sale for $135 million.

(Soundbite of music, "Bolero")

CAROLINE COOPER: Ravel's "Bolero" it's one of the best-known works of 20th century music. The original manuscript resides in New York City's Morgan Library. It's part of the esteemed Lehman Collection - a group of nearly 200 scores that reads like a greatest hits of classical music.

(Soundbite of music, "Fantasia in C Minor")

COOPER: Christoph Wolff, a professor of music history at Harvard, calls it the trophy collection.

Professor CHRISTOPH WOLFF (Harvard University): If you look at the list, you have Bach manuscripts, you have Mozart, Beethoven and Shubert, Chopin, you have Debussy, Strauss and Bartok. There isn't anything like it when it comes to the major works in the history of music.

COOPER: The trove belongs to Robert Owen Lehman, a member of the famed Lehman banking family. He's collected original music manuscripts for decades, and he keeps many of them on deposit at the Morgan Library. Now he's looking to sell this collection, for $135 million. That would make it, by one estimate, the most valuable private music manuscript collection ever sold. Much of the value is in the distinctive marks on the documents: side notes and scratch-outs from the greatest musical minds.

For scholars like Anne Schreffler, chair of Harvard's music department, nothing compares to studying an original.

Professor ANNE SCHREFFLER (Harvard University): Just the way a composer notates music can be significant. So even if they don't make changes, just seeing how they beam notes, whether the beam goes up or down, whether notes are connected or separated, those kinds of things can give you insight into the musical structure. When these pieces are published, certain aspects of the notation are always standardized. But in the manuscript, you can see a composer's idiosyncratic notation.

COOPER: Lehman has two conditions: the collection cannot be broken up, and it must remain on display in a public institution.

Thomas Venning, the director of Manuscripts at Christie's in London, says it could be hard to keep the collection intact.

Mr. THOMAS VENNING (Christie's): It's just easier to realize value for one manuscript at a time than it is for an entire collection.

COOPER: Individual manuscripts have sold for large sums.

(Soundbite of music, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony)

COOPER: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sold in 2003 for $3.4 million. Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture" fetched nearly $1 million at auction. But an asking price of 135 million makes the Lehman Collection a tough purchase for any one individual, or institution.

So John Lubrano, the man in charge of finding the collection a new home, is pursuing a group of buyers. He's hoping they'll go in on the sale together and then donate it to a museum, library, or other public institution.

Mr. JOHN LUBRANO (J&J Lubrano, Music Antiquarians, LLC): The main motivation for this whole thing, the sale, really is because Mr. Lehman has a wish at this point in time to put this resource to a different use.

COOPER: Lehman hasn't announced anything, but a letter circulated to a group of wealthy New Yorkers suggests that he may use money from selling these music manuscripts to set up an organization dedicated to music education and performance.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Cooper.

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