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The Vintage Guitar Market’s Wild Ride

In July 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with a sunburst Fender Stratocaster. The set marked the first time the rising folk icon had ever played live with a plugged-in band, shocking folk purists while at the same time catapulting him to the forefront of rock n’ roll. It became, according to Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin, “the most written-about performance in the history of rock.”

Dylan left the guitar on a private airplane. Subsequently stored in the attic of the plane’s pilot for decades, the guitar found its way to Christie’s auction house in New York in December 2013—nearly 50 years later. Although the pre-auction estimate forecast a price between $300,000 and $500,000, it ended up selling for a monumental $965,000 after fees—a new record for a guitar sold at auction, edging the $959,000 paid for Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Stratocaster in 2004.

And it’s not the only one changing hands for serious money. After years of stagnation, vintage guitar sales are picking up again of late, according to the 42-Guitar Index, a price-weighted indicator based on sales of 42 Fender, Gibson and Martin models from the 1960s or earlier. The benchmark, sometimes described as the Dow Jones Industrial Average for vintage guitars, rose 8 percent in 2013—the first annual increase since 2008. “People are definitely feeling better about the market,” says Gil Hembree, co-author of the Official Vintage Guitar Price Guide, which publishes the index.

Forget stock market volatility: Investment-minded guitar collectors have needed nerves of steel to survive the wild ride of the past two decades. In the 1990s, interest in vintage Martins, Fenders and Gibsons surged as baby boomers began collecting them in earnest, a change prodded on by a slew of detailed books published about the instruments. Guitar values rose 8.6 percent on average between 1991 and 1999 before flat-lining during the dotcom bust of the early 2000s.

Just like the stock market, guitar values recovered in the early 2000s and then skyrocketed in the Guitar 5_ Martin 1834years preceding financial crisis. The value of an excellent condition 1953 Gibson Les Paul, for example, jumped from $6,500 in 2001 to $10,500 in 2004. Then, between 2006 and 2008, the guitar index gained a remarkable 82 percent as buyers started paying unheard-of prices for vintage instruments.

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