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To participate in an auction tomorrow at Sotheby's, the minimum bid is $45 million. The prize is a rare viola. If it sells, it'll be the most expensive instrument of any kind in history. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas tried to find out why.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Here's an old musician joke - how do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Keep it in a viola case. The viola has long played second-fiddle to its far more popular higher-pitched sibling, the violin. But if any instrument can break the curse, it just might be this one.

TIM INGLES: This instrument was made in 1719 by Antonio Stradivari who is the greatest violin maker of all time. It was made towards the end of what is called his golden period, when he made his best instruments.

TSIOULCAS: That's Tim Ingles, the director of Ingles & Hayday, an auction house and dealership specializing in musical instruments. His firm is working with Sotheby's to sell the viola, nicknamed the Macdonald Strad, after one of its previous owners. The last time it was on the market was 1964. It was sold to the Phillips record label, which bought it for Peter Schidlof, the violist for the Amadeus Quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH AND THE MAIDEN")

TSIOULCAS: At some unknown point, ownership of the viola passed to Schidlof himself. He died in 1987, and his family is now selling it. Back in 1964 it went for $81,000 which, accounting for inflation, is roughly $613,000 today. So what makes it worth 45 million this time?

INGLES: It is really the Holy Grail. There are approximately 650 Stradivari instruments in existence today, but only 10 of these are complete violas, and the MacDonald is the best of these violas by some distance.

TSIOULCAS: Not surprisingly, Ingles's and Sotheby's firms have been doing their best to drum up the chatter surrounding the sale. Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden says that they're now hoping for more than 45 million.

DAVID REDDEN: Well, we're actually doing a combination, really, of private sale and auction. We're doing a sealed-bid sale. We have a floor price and beyond that, people can bid that or any other price they wish to bid.

TSIOULCAS: To help goose that price up, Sotheby's took the viola on a road show this Spring to New York, Hong Kong and Paris. And they enlisted a prominent young American violist, David Aaron Carpenter, to show off what it can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLA MUSIC)

DAVID AARON CARPENTER: So over here, it is an immediate reaction that this viola has. Sometimes your viola is a little bit too muffled or, you know, kind of have a nasal qualities or they're too mellow and they sound too much like a viola, you know, and you want to have the projection that will reach the last member of the audience. And this viola kind of understands.

TSIOULCAS: Carpenter can talk about the MacDonald Strad both as a player and as an expert. He's a well-regarded soloist, but along with his brother and sister he also operates Carpenter Fine Violins, a firm that deals in high-end instruments. They accompanied him pizzicato while he played a little Paganini to show off the viola's high notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLA MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Carpenter says that as gorgeous as this viola sounds now, it's going to take a while for it to sound completely like its old self again.

CARPENTER: It's been a little bit of a shame that this particular viola has been locked away in a vault for 30 years and really hasn't been played on. So it's kind of still sleepy, and it probably would take about a year to five years for it to really maximize its true potential of sound.

TSIOULCAS: But the odds are, a musician won't be the one buying it, says Tim Ingles.

INGLES: Most even very successful musicians are not able to purchase their own instrument these days, with good Stradivari instruments costing anything from about $5 million, upwards. So in many cases a private investor or a foundation will step in, purchase the instrument, and then loan it to a talented player.

TSIOULCAS: It's an investment. As with visual art, sale prices for rare instruments have soared. There are even investment funds that help high-flyers buy such instruments. But recent research indicates even professionals usually can't hear the difference between a Strad and a very good modern instrument. The Stradivarious mystique endures. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

CORNISH: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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