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Classic Guitars Become Prizes to Collect, or Give

Most gifts between leaders’ families come with strings attached. But few of them also come with a pickguard, a fingerboard and the ability to produce sweet music.

Michelle Obama’s gift of an acoustic guitar to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy on a June visit to Paris came with all of that. It also evidently came with no small measure of thought.

The French president’s wife is an accomplished musician. Her first three albums of whimsical French folk music, on which she often plays the guitar, all topped France’s music charts.

The guitar itself, a Gibson Hummingbird, is something of a modern classic, harking back to Gibson’s halcyon era of the 1960s when the model was first made. Yet for something with a touch more grandeur and mystery, the First Lady might have opted for the original model.

“A Hummingbird from the 1960s would cost in the region of $6,000, about twice as much as the new model,” said David Brewis, a guitar maker in Newcastle, in the gritty northeast of England and a partner in the guitar trading business Rock Stars Guitars. “They are both great guitars, but for the extra money you get a level of craftsmanship in the vintage version that has been lost.”

In the past two decades, classic guitars made during the early days of American folk and rock have become prized collectibles, valued both for their quality and their history.

The golden age of acoustic guitars started in the 1920s, when steel strings and flat tops became standard, and ran until the mid-1960s. Electric guitars shone from the 1950s to the mid-1960s, before a surge in demand led makers to prioritize quantity over quality.

Standard model guitars from this era, made by Gibson, Fender, Grestch and Rickenbacker regularly sell for $4,000 to $20,000 or more. Rarer models can fetch far more.

Collectors say the most sought-after guitar is the 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, the first solid body electric guitar made by Gibson. Solid body guitars have no acoustic sound-box, using an electric sensor system to pick up sound directly from the strings.

Affectionately known as a Burst, it was based on a design by the late American jazz guitarist Les Paul and was originally sold for $250. Only about 1,000 were made over three years from 1958 to 1960, when it was discontinued because of poor sales.

The guitar might have faded into obscurity. Instead, it was adopted by a handful of blues players like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield, and later by rock icons, including the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards. Bursts now trade, albeit infrequently, for $200,000 to $300,000.

Other iconic guitars – and guitars owned by icons – can be more affordable. “For a couple of thousand dollars or less it is possible to pick up a classic guitar, a real ’60s icon and one that is in good condition too,” said Adam Newman, shop manager at Vintage and Rare Guitars, in London.

Mr. Newman suggests looking out for Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, used by rockers like Kurt Cobain and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Among Gibson guitars, he singles out the SG Standard and Special models, which were favored by Eric Clapton and Bob Marley. And then there are a host of less famous, but very collectible names like Gretsch and Rickenbacker, a brand popularized by the Beatles.

“Getting something you like is a matter of visiting the shops and getting their help,” said Mr. Newman. “Most good vintage guitar shops will be able to give you tips and even source a particular guitar if they don’t have it in right away.” The guitar shops clustered on Denmark Street in London and Rue de Douai in Paris can be good places to start searching.

Not all guitars are equal, even when they seem to be. For example, Fender electric guitar models made before the company was bought in 1965 by CBS are considered to be among the best, yet the same models made in the following decades are shunned for their poor quality.

Condition is equally important. No musician wants a guitar that can not be played and most collectors feel the same way. It is always worth playing an instrument before buying.

When buying a guitar with an eye on its potential investment value, it is also important to make sure it has all its original parts and has not had any repairs. This is more of a problem than it might seem. Anything that is 50 or more years old risks needing bits replaced, even leaving aside the musicians’ habit of adapting instruments to get particular sounds.

Finally, beware of fraud. The value of the most famous guitars, coupled with the anonymity of online trading, has given rise to a flourishing market in counterfeit instruments. The risk of being cheated is heightened in the market for guitars offered with a claim of celebrity provenance. “You need some way to prove provenance, either a photo of the musician with the guitar, a letter or some other proof you can believe.” said Mr. Brewis of Rock Stars Guitars.

One way to be sure of getting a good original Fender, Gibson or Gretsch – and at a very competitive price – is to buy it new. “We are in the midst of a new golden age of guitars,” Mr. Brewis said. “The quality is so good and some of the new makes are so cheap, you can’t go wrong.”

Which, if you are giving the guitar as a present, like the Obamas, and budgets are tight, may be a reassuring thought.

New York Times 23rd November 2009

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