The World's Most Expensive Instrument Just Got Slightly Cheaper

US violist David Aaron Carpenter plays the "Macdonald" Stradivarius viola created in 1719 by Antonio Stradivari (1641-1737), at Sotheby's auction house in Paris on April 15, 2014. Photograph by Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

Q: What do you call the world’s most valuable musical instrument if nobody wants it? A: A viola

In a failure-to-sell that promises to revive the catty, music-nerd viola joke genre, auctioneers Sotheby’s and Ingles & Hayday said that at the close of sealed bidding for the 1719 “Macdonald” viola, nobody had offered the minimum $45 million price. It would have been a world record for an instrument.

The viola, one of just 10 Stradivarius violas known to have survived, may still set a new record. Weigman says efforts to sell it are ongoing and Sotheby’s anticipates that offers closer to $45 million will be made. “Interest continues,” says Matthew Weigman, Sotheby’s worldwide director of sales communications, speaking from London.

This does not mean that the viola is not very, very valuable, particularly because anyone wanting to build an all-Strad string quartet would pretty much have no choice but to buy this one. But the $45 million price seems to have overshot the market, says Jason Price, the director of Tarisio, an instrument auctioneer with offices in London and New York.

Had it sold at that level, it would have been about three times the auction record for an instrument, which Tarisio set in 2011 with a Strad violin sale for £9.8 million, or $15.9 million at the time. “The violin market is a market which has always respected and enjoyed slow steady growth,” he says. “Quantum-leap pricing doesn’t often work well in this business.” And that’s no joke.

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