Played By Violinists, Bought By Billionaires : The Record A centuries-old violin is selling for $18 million -- not exactly affordable to the musicians able to play it. Some argue that the instrument and its heavenly sound should not be locked in a case.

Played By Violinists, Bought By Billionaires

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The asking price is $18 million. That would make this violin the most expensive musical instrument ever sold. It was built in 1741. The sale probably won't go to a musician, though, and that worries some people in the concert world.

Here's Vivian Goodman of member station WKSU.

VIVIAN GOODMAN: The 269-year-old Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu is one of the oldest instruments ever to go on sale.

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Mr. GEOFF FUSHI (Rare Violin Dealer): When I heard this, it was overwhelming, actually.

GOODMAN: Chicago rare violin dealer Geoff Fushi is the one selling what he calls the "Mona Lisa" of violins on behalf of a London banker.

Mr. FUSHI: I've heard all the greatest violins. I said, am I hallucinating? That's the greatest violin sound I've ever heard.

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GOODMAN: But 18 million? Emmanuel Gradoux-Matt also deals in rare violins.

Mr. EMMANUEL GRADOUX-MATT (Rare Violin Dealer): In many ways, it deserves this price. Personally, I feel that this price is really high.

GOODMAN: It's also almost twice as high as the world record set in January when a billionaire Russian collector bought a Guarneri for 10 and a quarter million dollars. But Geoff Fushi is confident of getting his price. Fewer than a thousand Strads and Guarneris survive today. They're a safe investment. Unlike gold, they're functional. And Fushi likes to point out that over five decades while the Dow rose 1,400 percent, rare violins appreciated 26,000 percent. That's good for investors.

Mr. JOEL SMIRNOFF (President, Cleveland Institute of Music): It's kind of tough on the musicians.

GOODMAN: Joel Smirnoff, president of the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: No one who will enter the concert world today will have the resource to actually purchase a great instrument anymore.

GOODMAN: Dealer Geoff Fushi feels no guilt, though, for pricing the Vieuxtemps too high for a musician to own. Great players, he says, will still get it under their chins.

Mr. FUSHI: The past with these instruments has been that there have always been very wealthy people do acquire these instruments and then let brilliant artists use them.

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GOODMAN: Giora Schmidt's 1753 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini is a loaner.

Mr. GIORA SCHMIDT (Violinist): To own one is nearly impossible, even in making a very successful career as a travelling concert artist.

GOODMAN: Schmidt worries every time the phone rings that the owner is calling to get his violin back. He's in the market now for a new one.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Unless an angel flies down from the sky, the instrument that I own will be something that is built by what we call a contemporary living maker.

GOODMAN: Like Yanbing Chen.

Mr. YANBING CHEN (Co-Owner, Goronok String Instruments): It has a knot, so it might not be usable.

GOODMAN: Chen is in his Cleveland workshop, watching one of his luthiers plane a plank of flame maple. Chen makes a few violins, but most of those he sells are made in Shanghai, where his family has another workshop.

Mr. CHEN: This is by Yong Hai Shoo, my friend, a Chinese violin maker.

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Mr. CHEN: I've been working with him for many years.

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Mr. CHEN: I'll just make some sounds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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GOODMAN: Chen wants $4,000 for the Yong Hai Shoo. A more typical price tag for violins he imports from China is about $500.

Mr. CHEN: You know, for the price, it's hard to compete. That's why I would say 80 percent of the student market are Chinese instruments.

GOODMAN: Chinese factories turn out thousands of violins a year. Emmanuel Gradoux-Matt's Manhattan workshop produces about five.

Mr. GRADOUX-MATT: I take one of these instruments that is brought over here by one of their salespeople and bring it to the workshop, and everybody in the workshop gets really depressed. It's excellent work, and the cost doesn't even cover us buying the wood here.

GOODMAN: Joel Smirnoff, formerly of the Juilliard String Quartet, plays a $3,000 Chinese violin.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SMIRNOFF: See, that's what I like about this fiddle. It really does nuance beautifully. Maybe it's just because I'm aging, but I find it a very comfortable fiddle to play. But, of course, then there's my wife who says, Joel, you should play a great fiddle because she really - she thinks I'm silly.

GOODMAN: But some would say it's just as silly for 300-year-old Guarneris and Strads to hang in collectors' display cases. Giora Schmidt.

Mr. SCHMIDT: These instruments are meant to be played. If it's been sitting there in somebody's closet for 50 years, the wood hasn't vibrated. The wood needs to vibrate.

GOODMAN: Joel Smirnoff agrees violins benefit from an acoustic massage.

Mr. SMIRNOFF: But on the other hand, if an instrument hasn't been played for a long time, let's say an instrument hasn't been played for 40 or 50 years, it can be revived. You know, it's kind of like "Sleeping Beauty." You kiss the thing and, hey, it will come back to life. There's a lovely quality about an instrument, which has been sitting. It's dancing with the wallflower, so to speak.

GOODMAN: The $18 million Vieuxtemps hasn't been a complete wallflower. Joshua Bell played a week of concerts with it this year.

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GOODMAN: But the world's most expensive musical instrument mostly sits in a case in a Chicago showroom. The highest bidder so far at $16 million is a prominent collector.

For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman in Cleveland.

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GUY RAZ, host:


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