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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A rare Stradivari viola, considered to be one of the finest in existence, is expected to fetch more than $45 million in a sealed bids sale this spring, which would set a world record for the most expensive musical instrument ever sold.
The 'MacDonald' Viola, made by the famed Italian artisan Antonio Stradivari in 1719, is the first to be on the market in 50 years, according to Sotheby's auction house.
It is also one of only two Stradivari violas still privately owned. The other is held in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
"Stradivari is the greatest violin maker of all time," said Tim Ingles, director of the London-based fine instruments auction house Ingles & Hayday, which is conducting the sale with Sotheby's.
"The amazing thing about violas is that there is such a small number of them in existence - only 10 complete violas today, so there is a huge rarity factor," he added in an interview with Reuters.
Because of the caliber and status of the instrument, a sealed bid sale with a minimum bid of $45 million was decided as the best way to combine the exclusive feel of a private sale with the excitement of an auction. The highest bidder will be announced on June 25.
The world auction price for a musical instrument is $15.9 million, which was set in an online auction in June 2011 for the 'Lady Blunt' Stradivari violin of 1721.
Stradivari instruments, with their rich, deep sounds, sell for millions of dollars and have been beloved by legendary musicians for centuries.
Born in Cremona, Italy in 1644, Stradivari had an extraordinary 70-year career. In addition to violins and violas, he also made lutes, mandolins, guitars and harps before dying in 1737 at the age of 93.
"The finest of all Stradivari violas is generally agreed to be the 'Macdonald' of 1719," said Ingles. "A Stradivari viola has always been, I suppose, the holy grail for a collector of musical instruments."
The 'Macdonald' was also made during what is considered to be Stradivari's Golden Period between 1700-1720 and is immaculately preserved.
Its value had been further enhanced by renowned 19th century violinist Niccolo Paganini, who put together string quartets of Stradivari instruments consisting of two violins, a viola and a cello.
"As the violas have gradually disappeared over the last 100 years into foundations and public collections and the number of Stradivari violas held in private hands decreased it has become increasing difficult for anyone to form a quartet," Ingles explained.
The viola's front is made of alpine spruce, while the back is a single piece of maple. Its coating of Stradivari's famous varnish, thought by some experts to contribute to his instruments' sound, is undamaged.
"Stradivari was really a genius of design but there are a number of factors which influence the sound of an instrument. The shape, the thickness of the plates, the archings of the instrument. These are all things that Stradivari spent decades perfecting," said Ingles.
The viola is being sold by the family of Peter Schidlof of the famed Amadeus Quarter, who bought it in 1964. It is called the 'Macdonald' because it was purchased in the 1820s by Godfrey Bosville, the 3rd Baron Macdonald.
Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid