Classical musicians invest years of their lives to perfect their artistry. Now banks are being asked to invest a few million dollars in their classic instruments.

Dietmar H. Machold, a German-born dealer in rare instruments, has set up shop in New York and is calling on bankers in the hope that they will buy antique violins that cost up to $5 million.

The idea is not so farfetched-at least not in Europe, where several banks have acquired Italian 17th and 18th century Stradivarius violins and Guarnerius "del Gesu" instruments. The banks lend the violins to musicians.

The multimillion-dollar rarities, many of them sold by Mr. Machold's firm, Machold AG of Zurich, Switzerland, are seen as an investment and a promotional opportunity. There is also a strong market for the violins in Asia.

The Italian-made instruments' value is tied to their diminishing numbers. There are only about 70 del Gesu violins in existence, made by Joseph Guarneri del Gesu, who lived from 1698 to 1744. By contrast, there are about 650 violins made by Antonio Stradivari, who lived from 1644 to 1737 and is considered the greatest violin maker.

Mr. Machold owns two of the del Gesus and four Stradivarii, and he is eager to start selling to American banks.

In an interview in his new offices, decorated with antique furniture and located across from Lincoln Center in New York, Mr. Machold said the violins appeal to the investor mentality because they never decline in value.

"When I was a young boy, a Stradivarius cost $30,000," he said.

Mr. Machold, 47, grew up around violins. As a child he began working in his family's workshop in Bremen, Germany, where the instruments are repaired and new ones are crafted. Eventually he learned how to play the violin, like previous generations of his family, which started the business in 1871.

Generally the instruments appreciate 10% a year, said Mr. Machold, who is also a lawyer. They can be a tax writeoff. Moreover, lending the instruments to musicians enhances the image of a company.

Nevertheless it will be hard to persuade bankers to fork over millions for a musical instrument.

Robert McDuffie, an American violinist, knows the challenge only too well.

Mr. McDuffie has been borrowing one of Mr. Machold's violins, a 1734 del Gesu that costs about $3 million. It is called the Ladenburg, after a German family that owned the violin for generations.

"Dietmar has been very gracious, but he is also a businessman," said Mr. McDuffie. "If someone offers him the money ...."

The threat of losing the violin has launched Mr. McDuffie on a quest to find a corporate sponsor that will buy the Ladenburg and allow him to use it. His odyssey included visits to SunTrust Bank and NationsBank.

A Georgia native, Mr. McDuffie has performed as a soloist with the Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland symphony orchestras and the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala of Milan, among others.

But it was his southern roots that he hoped to leverage in meetings with SunTrust's chief executive officer, James B. Williams, and an executive with NationsBank who passed along Mr. McDuffie's proposal to Hugh McColl, the superregional's chief executive.

Mr. Williams asked Mr. McDuffie why he needed a $3 million violin instead of, say, a mere $1 million instrument.

Using the language of musicians, Mr. McDuffie said the violin he covets is "luscious, deep, and piercing when it needs to be." It gives him confidence and allows him to deliver his best performances.

Playing on a lesser instrument "is like running with a pulled hamstring," he said.

The sales pitch didn't work.

'Mr. Williams explained that SunTrust is in only three states-Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee-and the 15 or so times that Mr. McDuffie might play there would not give the bank enough bang for its buck.

NationsBank similarly declined, citing its sponsorship of the Olympics in 1996 as a bigger and better publicity priority.

European financial institutions have a different perspective.

An official with the Austrian National Bank, Austria's equivalent to the Federal Reserve, said if European banks do not purchase these instruments they will end up in Japan or Korea.

Four of the five instruments Mr. Machold sold this year went to Asia. In 1991 he sold a Stradivarius to a Japanese chemical company for $3.5 million, the most ever paid for such an instrument. The violin is being used by Midori, the Japanese virtuoso.

Companies based in Asia have "discovered that the arts are a superb field to sponsor," Mr. Machold said. "America is a little bit behind in this area."

The Austrian National Bank began buying rare instruments in 1989 and has amassed one of the largest collections. It owns 21, including six Stradivarii and two del Gesu.

It has spent $17 million on its collection, which it sees as combining a cultural deed with a good investment, said the official.

The central bank also produces special compact discs of performances in which these instruments are featured, and it benefits from the concert programs, informing concertgoers of the bank's role as a sponsor.

The top German banks Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank, and Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale also bought violins from Machold.

Mr. Machold attributes the difficulty Mr. McDuffie has had in securing financing to the newness of the idea. "Robert met people who had never heard of" a bank's buying a musical instrument as an investment, he said.

Sponsoring the arts is not new to American financial corporations. For example, Advanta Corp. of Spring House, Pa., recently gave the Philadelphia Museum of Art a $1 million grant to sponsor a Cezanne exhibit.

Bank of America owns a contemporary art collection comprising 20,000 paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures. The bank lends its collection out to museums in regions where it has operations.

Money-center banks are generous donors to New York's classical music programs.

But some companies, such as AT&T Universal Card Services of Jacksonville, Fla., give primarily to local organizations.

"Frequently a company will support something that it can link to some of its products or services," said Cheryl Riddick, manager of community advertising for the AT&T Corp. unit. It has donated $1.5 million since 1990 to support credit education efforts.

A $3 million violin could easily eat up an entire corporate charity budget, said Ms. Riddick.

But Mr. Machold would argue that buying his instruments is not just philanthropic-it is also an investment.

His firm appraises the instruments each year and handles any necessary repairs, and the musicians are responsible for the insurance.

He also speaks like a musician. "You can live without art pieces, but a soloist who plays big concerts has to play on such an instrument," he says. "We have to get people, corporations, and banks interested in buying these instruments to lend them out to professionals who need them."

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