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While My Guitar Gently Reaps

Vintage guitars are making a lot of noise in the collectibles market

There are few images more iconographic in American popular culture than a musician with his guitar. To baby boomers especially, the steel-stringed instrument symbolizes those carefree days when six months’ allowance could buy a lifetime of musical fun in the form of a knockabout guitar. So it came as a bit of a shock when, last December, Christie’s auction house in New York sold the late Beatle George Harrison’s guitar for just under $600,000; at another Christie’s auction earlier in the year, “Blackie,” Eric Clapton’s favorite Fender Stratocaster from the 1970s, sold for almost $1 million.

Collectibles with celebrity cachet are nothing new. But these sales drew attention to the value of all varieties of fretted instruments. “Guitars had been overlooked in the auction market [for a long time],” says Kerry Keane, Christie’s department head for musical instruments. “But we’ve seen an increased interest in them in the last 15 years.”

Most in the field concede that the major reason vintage guitars are so sought after is that the instrument was perfected in the mid-20th century; no great sound or design improvements are forthcoming. “The golden era in American guitar-making [was] the 1930s and ’40s, then the 1950s and 1960s for the electrics,” says Keane. “It hasn’t gotten any better, and it’s not going to. Just as musicians clamor for 17th- and 18th-century Italian cellos, 100 years from now they’ll be clamoring for mid-20th-century American guitars.”

Serious musicians and aficionados, as well as boomers prone to playing air guitar when no one’s looking, have realized that a guitar’s appeal only grows over time. This translates to good investment strategy. “We have never seen the prices grow as quickly as [in] the last three or four years; we’re shocked every couple of weeks when we hear about something being offered at a price that’s so much higher than what we thought the price [should be],” says Stan Jay of Mandolin Brothers, Ltd., in Staten Island, New York. For example, a 1959 Fender Sunburst Stratocaster with a slab fingerboard initially would have cost about $250, but by 1997, it was fetching between $8,000 and $9,000. Now, says Jay, you’d have to ante up to $17,000 for the same guitar.

Guitar collecting has also been helped along by recent unpredictability in the stock market. When your portfolio flat-lines, any investment, however unconventional, starts looking good. “I really got into it when the market was taking a big hit. [I thought] that guitars might be a more sheltered or protected investment, and particularly for the true vintage ones, that has been the case,” notes Tom Kaney, a senior executive with GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia. Kaney has a collection of 62 guitars, split between electrics and acoustics and covering antique, exotic, custom-made and contemporary styles. “It’s a balanced portfolio,” he says, chuckling.

So what constitutes a “vintage” guitar? To Stan Jay, “vintage” means an instrument “from a good period in which materials or techniques were used that were no longer used after that time, or [one that dates before] a major change in a company that built it.” For example, when Leo Fender, inventor of the modern electric guitar, sold Fender Musical Instruments to CBS in 1965, his departure from the company was seen by some as its death knell. Today, pre-CBS Fender Telecasters (descended from the original Broadcaster) and Stratocasters remain hugely in demand, with asking prices well into five figures.

A similar shift happened to C.F. Martin & Co. of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, maker of the D-28, probably the most popular acoustic guitar of all time. Martin hasn’t been able to use Brazilian rosewood as the standard wood on its guitars since 1969, and although the company’s output increased substantially in the 1970s, many guitar collectors view Martins from that transitional era as relatively inferior.

Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Guild and Martin are often named as the standout American brands, and each manufacturer has an era agreed upon by collectors as its best. But make is only one factor in determining a guitar’s worth: Others are provenance or chain of ownership, rarity, condition and whether a certain model is in fashion. For instance, electric guitar fans see a Gibson Les Paul Standard from the late 1950s as the Holy Grail. They originally sold for about $265, but “I can remember when they were worth $60,000, then $35,000, then $250,000,” says Keane. Their rarity translates to desirability-only about 1,500 were made from 1958 through 1960. But vintage Les Pauls also reflect the last big technological advance: two rows of humbucking pickups. And of course, there’s the look. The maple top and beautiful cherry sunburst finish makes a Les Paul one of the quintessential cool-looking guitars.

Rarity is what also drives the demand for D’Angelico guitars. John D’Angelico was an Italian violin-maker who moved to New York and handcrafted 1,164 guitars between 1932 and 1964. Today his guitars can sell for as much as $75,000 at auction and are considered the ne plus ultra of “archtop” guitars.

What collectors are not seeking out is a guitar with nonoriginal parts, regardless of vintage. But musicians are notorious for noodling with their guitars to achieve certain effects, so neophyte collectors should be careful. “The most important thing is to trust the person you’re buying it from,” notes Matt Umanov, owner of the eponymous guitar store in New York. For a fee, Mandolin Brothers offers written on-site appraisals, which vet an instrument’s structural integrity and make note of any repairs that need to be made. First-timers might seek out the high-profile quality pieces like a Gibson ES-335 or a 1930s-era Martin D-28, both familiar in the marketplace and easily identifiable. But counterfeits are out there, according to Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. “Because instruments haven’t been treated as art per se, the same sort of infrastructure that maintains an artwork’s integrity doesn’t exist.” The best way of establishing authenticity, he says, is through the chain of ownership or custody.

Of course, to every rule there are exceptions, like Clapton’s “Blackie,” which the guitarist customized without any apparent negative impact on its value. And that’s where the desire to emulate an idol comes into play. “Every guitar I ever bought was because someone I admired played it,” says Keane. “It wasn’t until I was 40 that I could afford to buy an old Martin because Stephen Stills played one. Eric Clapton was the same way. He bought his first Les Paul after seeing [Texas blues legend] Freddie King’s Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away,” which shows King playing a gold-top.

Unlike, say, a Ming vase, vintage guitars are the kind of expensive collectibles you can play with without fear of harming them, or their value. Guitars simply sound better over time as wood ages. But there’s the rub. Notes vintage specialist Scott Terry of Augusta, Georgia, “The hardest part of investing in guitars is knowing that to yield the dividends, you will one day have to give up the pieces that you have grown to love.”

That’s easier said than done. Some collectors might find themselves cashing in on even more valuable investments before turning to their beloved guitars. After all, notes Henry Juszkiewicz, “You can’t really play an etching.”

 

Lorraine Cademartori, Forbes.com

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