The sound of music

Nothing can define a generation more than its music, and by extension, by its musical instruments. But how do we define what’s vintage, what’s collectible — and what’s just old?

“Originality, somebody’s signature, limited edition guitars … none of these make a collector’s item,” said David Bonsey, director, Fine Musical Instruments, Skinner Inc. “What makes one instrument worth thousands of dollars and another worth a few hundred is no more than a happy accident; it is the combination of rarity, quality and age — and a collector who really wants it.”

One example is the F-5 mandolin, which was designed in 1923 by acoustic legend Lloyd Loar for the Gibson Guitar-Mandolin Co. of Kalamazoo. A commercial failure at the time it was made, the F-5 mandolin was rediscovered in the 1940s by Bill Munroe. Considered the father of bluegrass music, the celebrity association has significantly impacted the F-5’s value. In October 2005, Skinner sold an F-5 for $132,500.

“From about 1900 to 1920, there was a mandolin craze in the United States,” said Bonsey. “People played Italian mandolins and learned Neapolitan songs. Young debutantes even had classical mandolin orchestras.”

Unfortunately, Gibson was a bit behind the craze, hiring Loar to make its ultimate mandolins from 1922-1925. “The instruments had incredible sound, beautiful workmanship and inlays, but they were listed in the Gibson catalog for $250 — a princely sum when one considers a car at this time would have cost about $400,” said Bonsey. “Couple that with the fact that the mandolin craze was essentially over, and you have a couple hundred instruments that languished unsold.”

Although the F-5 is considered the most desirable by collectors (contemporary country musicians such as Ricky Skaggs have now discovered its appeal), other 1920s models by Gibson also have escalated in value; an H-4 made in 1922 recently sold for just under $11,000.

In general, mandolins made pre-1922 and post-1930 will command considerably less, as evidenced by these recent Skinner sale prices: A-4 (1904) $1,645; A-3 (1915) $1,293; F-4 (1919) $5,288; A-00 (1940) $382; A-50 (1945) $642.

Vintage guitars also can be influenced by celebrity association. In some cases, certain models have become popular because they were the favorite of a well-known musician or they were featured on an album cover.

“One example is the black Gibson custom used by Neil Young,” said Frederick Oster, owner of Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia and a frequent musical appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.”

“However, most vintage guitar (loosely defined as pre-1970) enthusiasts are sophisticated collectors with a respect for the instrument, and are usually serious amateurs or professional musicians,” said Oster. “Above all else, these people are looking for originality, as well as the best instruments with the best sound.

Most vintage guitars can still be purchased for less than $10,000, although certain models command a premium. These include a small group of 1950s and 1960s Fender guitars, Gibson guitars from the 1920s to 1960s, and acoustic guitars made by C.F. Martin from the 1920s to 1969.

As for direct celebrity influence, value depends on whether the guitar was actually owned and played by the musician, who the musician was, and if the connection can be authenticated.

“If the musician has signed it as a courtesy, the intrinsic value of the guitar is really only enhanced by what an autograph collector would be willing to pay for that particular autograph in any format,” explained Oster.

“However, if that same guitar can be directly associated with the musician — signed with a personal note, etc. — then the value will increase accordingly. And, if that same guitar was actually played by Hendrix, autograph or not, the guitar will also have celebrity value.”

A case in point is Christie’s June 2004 sale at their New York Rockefeller Center location. The sale featured 88 guitars that were either owned and played by Eric Clapton or donated by musician friends, including Pete Townshend (The Who), Brian May (Queen) and blues guitarist B.B. King. Proceeds benefited the Crossroads Centre, a substance-abuse treatment center founded by Clapton in 1997.

“We had comparables from a similar sale held in 1999, but Clapton’s fame carried the day. Our results were seven times over the pre-sale estimate, coming in at just under $7.5 million,” said Kerry K. Keane, international department head, Musical Instruments, Christie’s.

Highlights of the sale were “Blackie,” a unique composite Fender Stratocaster, circa 1956, that Clapton played throughout the early 1970s until the mid-1980s ($959,900); the 1964 cherry red Gibson ES-335, the second electric guitar Clapton ever bought and the one most associated with early career with groups like The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream ($847,500); the 1939 Martin, 000-42, used extensively on his “Unplugged” album ($791,500); and the Fender Stratocaster “Crash 3,” which was designed by famous street artist Crash and was the first of Clapton’s graffiti guitars to be offered at auction ($321,100).

Keane points out that the value of other instruments is influenced by their previous ownership, especially violins. “In April 2005, we had the privilege to auction The Lady Tennant, a violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1699. The fitted case in which the violin rests still carried an engraved lock plate with Lady Tennant’s (one of its many illustrious owners) name and London address. It sold for $2.03 million, setting a world record as the most expensive musical instrument ever sold at auction.”