Newsletter #33, April 2010

Please browse our newsletter archives or g)

This is Part 3 of a seven-part series on the vintage guitar market, written in 1991. Prices and other references specific to that time period have not been changed. Please feel free to email me with any comments.

George Gruhn

To view the rest of the series...
Introduction
Part 1: The utility market
Part 2: How instruments are priced
Part 4: Fads (including Stratmania)
Part 5: Market dynamics
Part 6: The vintage dealer as trendspotter
Part 7: Instrument sales and musical styles

The Vintage Instrument Market, Part 3: The role of the collector

One of the loudest voices in the vintage instrument market is the one that complains about high prices. The person behind that voice is usually a musician and he's usually pointing a finger at collectors - people who buy instruments for reasons other than utility.

Obviously, some vintage instruments may be of little use to modern musicians, and their value is based more on their workmanship or historical importance. Many of the Martin guitars from the 19th century, while playable, are so different from modern instruments that they don't fill a large market niche for utility. And the early instruments made by Orville Gibson should only be played with great caution, if at all. The prime appeal in either case is not playability. If these instruments are priced high, it is because they are rare and old, the same as any other quality antique item. Few people in the vintage market have any problems with that.

The problem lies with the instruments that are playable but are collectible for those other reasons as well-rarity, craftsmanship and historical importance. A 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin signed by Lloyd Loar, a pre-World War II Martin D-45, a Fender Broadcaster, an early Telecaster or Stratocaster - these are instruments that bring prices much greater than their modern day equivalents. Some of these prices have skyrocketed to the point where these fine, playable instruments are too expensive for many musicians to afford. Understandably, that makes musicians angry. A fine instrument should be played, they argue, and it's a crime for a rich collector to buy it and then put it in a display case. The argument between musicians and collectors is older by at least a century than the vintage market for fretted instruments. It started in the early 1800s over bowed instruments. The hated collectors were doing the same thing then-hoarding hundreds of fine old Italian violins, driving up the prices and taking them out of the hands of the musicians.

Time has changed our opinion of the violin collectors. It's a generally accepted opinion now that if the violins had all been distributed among musicians to be used - and likely abused - then there wouldn't be any left today, nor would there be nearly as much knowledge amassed about them. The musicians of that day often enough treated their violins the same way musicians treated their fretted instruments in the '50s and '60s. They customized them, refinished them, put their names on them, re-graduated the tops, etc. Many of these instruments weren't worth a great deal of money when they were new, and people don't treat things with respect if they're not worth much. If these instruments needed repair or restoration they were likely to be thrown away.

A good instrument treated with tender loving care can last 300 or 400 years, but if you beat it, it may only last 10. These old violins went through a very dangerous period when they were considered to be utility instruments of no special value. During that time collectors amassed large collections and, granted, they often didn't play their instruments much. "Held hostage" is a term used recently to express the musician's viewpoint of this practice, but from the collector's point of view, these instruments were in protective custody. Today we can thank all those so-called hateful collectors for the Stradivari and Amati and all the other fine Cremona instruments that are still in existence.

Even if an instrument is taken out of circulation by a collector, chances are that the collector will hold it for a maximum of 50 years and probably much less - not a long time compared to the instrument's potential life of 300 years. Collectors do not always hold onto instruments for their entire lifetime. If an instrument increases in value considerably over a short period of time, a collector may put it back into circulation-in other words, sell it for a nice profit-sooner than expected (although that sale may not put the instrument into the hands of a musician). That has been the case in the violin market through the years. Even when collectors do hold instruments until they die, the instruments usually then return to circulation. Those instruments, after 30 or 50 years in a sort of cold storage, may well emerge into a new world, where they are now revered, cherished, and properly cared for, and they may last another couple of hundred years.

As a dealer, I take a somewhat sentimental approach to fine instruments. I tend to run my business like an adoption agency-if you aren't going to give it a good home you don't deserve to have it. An instrument lasts longer than a human lifetime. They're not really alive, of course, but a good instrument has a sort of soul and personality. It's not just a dead piece of wood; it's a piece of history. I feel that you buy an instrument to become its custodian rather than its lord and master. I don't feel that it should be absolutely yours to do with as you wish, particularly if your wish is to customize it, refinish it, change pickups on it, etc. If you buy a Stradivari or Amati violin, you would legally own it, just as you would a Stratocaster that you have a receipt for. If you decide you want to paint your violin red and install tone and volume knobs in the top, you have the right to do that, but if you did you would hear an outcry in the violin market. You would be ostracized, and you'd find it hard to buy anything in the future. If you could afford to buy Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers painting and if you thought you were a better painter you might try to customize it - add a couple of blue flowers and put your name on it, too. People would scream bloody murder, even though it would be a privately owned piece and you would have every legal right to do anything you want to it. In my opinion, a vintage instrument is no different. I feel that you are its custodian and as such have no more right to carve your name into it than you have to carve or tattoo your name into your child's back.

Collectors do more than just protect an instrument. Their activity often creates a heightened interest in instruments. They themselves generate many of the articles, books and other works that educate both the musicians and the general public on the subject of instruments. The two books by collector Akira Tsumura on his banjo and guitar collections, for example, have been derided by some as somewhat obscene displays of Tsumura's buying power, but the fact of the matter is, the quality photos and, particularly in the banjo book, the depth of Tsumura's research, have inspired people to root out more of these fine instruments. If not for collectors, musicians would not even know about, much less want, some of the instruments they complain about collectors depriving them of.

Collectors are also responsible for putting many instruments into circulation. Most collectors could be described as obsessed with finding certain instruments. They are constantly looking for more. Most collectors also have high standards for the instruments they add to their collections. As a result, in their searches through pawn shops, attics, yard sales, etc., for every instrument they find that is suitable for their collection, they may run across hundreds of instruments that aren't. The typical collectors don't just send these instruments back to the attic, rather they buy and sell them in order to help finance their collections. Consequently, most collectors end up putting more instruments into circulation than they take out.

Even when collectors do buy instruments to keep, their influence on the vintage business does not end there. Many instruments must be restored, and all must be maintained. Today, much of the interest, research and, most importantly, financial support in the field of restoration is a direct result of the activity of collectors.

Part of the case against collectors seems to be based on the belief that if it weren't for collectors and their inflated market, many more deserving musicians would have fine instruments to play. A few more, maybe, but not many more. One of the primary reasons the super high-priced items are super high-priced is that they are rare. Martin only made 91 D-45s before World War II. Gibson made even fewer Lloyd Loar L-5 guitars and only about 325 Loar-signed F-5 mandolins. Fender made less than 150 Broadcasters and less than 300 "No-casters." Even if they were priced at $25, everybody couldn't have one. There aren't enough to go around. Furthermore, at low prices, the chances are strong that the instruments would not get the respect and care that they do now. A high price is one of the best incentives not to abuse an instrument.

Yet another complaint against collectors, or at least against high prices, is the charge that guitars are not art. That may be true, at least to a degree. A Stratocaster, for example, is essentially a slab of wood cut according to a form and then bolted on to another piece of wood. The degree of craftsmanship required to build a Stratocaster is not nearly as high as that required to carve an arched top for an L-5 or to inlay the pearl around the borders of a D-45 or to produce the hand-made, custom-ordered instruments of a John D'Angelico or Jimmy D'Aquisto.

Those who would say guitars are not art point to the fact that guitars are catalog models, but antique firearms, antique automobiles, stamps and coins-all mass-produced items that bring art-auction prices-refute that argument. Furthermore, not all guitars are catalog models. There are many guitars that are custom-made and truly inspired works. Compare a custom-made guitar to a true piece of "art" such as a Ming Dynasty porcelain. Many Ming pieces are soup dishes or vases, which, while not catalog items, were made in large quantities and are less rare than many vintage fretted instruments. Compare guitars to Boehm birds, the limited-edition porcelain models which do have a catalog number, which are made from a mold and which are no more inspired than any production model instrument. Compare guitars to van Gogh paintings when he was in an asylum and painting a picture a day, or to Picasso's work when he was cranking out cubist paintings at a rate equivalent to a small production shop. In addition to what he actually painted, Picasso and others turned out lithographs and prints that could be produced at an assembly-line rate, and even these items bring astronomical prices today. Not every van Gogh or Picasso from those periods could be considered truly inspired, although the cheapest, least-inspired van Gogh or Picasso would probably bring as great a price as the most inspired guitar creation.

Even more significant than the inspiration behind certain instruments is their rarity. Stradivari violins, D'Angelico guitars and Fender Broadcasters are rarer than van Gogh or Picasso paintings. In contrast with van Gogh's and Picasso's rapid pace, a master luthier is seldom able to produce much more than one fine hand-crafted instrument in a month of labor.

Compared to art or violin prices, vintage fretted instrument prices are low. Paintings now sell for millions of dollars. By comparison, Stradivari violins selling for hundreds of thousands are bargains. Guitars, whose prices are just beginning to creep into the tens of thousands of dollars, are relative giveaways. They do not yet reflect the degree of art and inspiration involved in making a fine guitar.

There is no dispute as to whether violins and other bowed instruments are legitimate collectibles or not. While guitars are not yet in the same league, I say just give them some time.

Introduction
Part 1: The utility market
Part 2: How instruments are priced
Part 4: Fads (including Stratmania)
Part 5: Market dynamics
Part 6: The vintage dealer as trendspotter
Part 7: Instrument sales and musical styles