Newsletter #10, September 18, 2003
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As both a dealer and appraiser of vintage fretted instruments I am faced with the daily necessity of placing dollar values on instruments. Any appraisal or price determination is to a certain degree the subjective judgment of the particular dealer or appraiser involved, however, the figures that I or any other dealer or appraiser place on instruments are firmly based on our knowledge and experience of the market involving supply, demand, and prior precedent for instruments of this type. While there is no one simple formula that a dealer or appraiser uses for evaluations, the following factors are critically important:
1) Maker: Instruments made by famous luthiers or manufacturers are far more sought after than those by lesser known makers. A great sounding guitar by an unknown luthier may have intrinsic merit and value as a utilitarian tool, but it will rarely sell for as much money as a well known model by a famous maker even if the instrument by the lesser known maker may sound better. Typically famous makers achieve recognition because their instruments are indeed superior to those of lesser known luthiers. Martin, Fender, Gibson, D'Angelico, Stromberg and other such makers did not achieve their great recognition without having justly earned it. While new luthiers are continually appearing on the scene and some produce very fine instruments, it usually takes a number of years for a maker to establish a strong enough reputation for his instruments to command high prices.
2) Model: Some models are far more sought after than others. In the case of Martin guitars, for example, dreadnought size instruments tend to bring more money than the smaller O, OO and OOO guitars, although the actual cost of manufacture varies very little with the size of the instrument. An O, OO or OOO-18 costs virtually the same amount to manufacture as a D-18, but the demand for vintage, used and new D models surpasses that of the smaller guitars such that the D models will bring more money. Similarly Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters are more sought after today than vintage Jazzmasters, Jaguars or hollowbody Coronado models of the same age. In spite of the fact that the Jazzmaster, Jaguars, and Coronados may have cost more when new, Telecasters and Stratocasters are more sought after and bring more money today. Similar examples can be stated for virtually every manufacturer.
3) Age: Older is not necessarily better, but virtually every manufacturer has had periods which buyers and players view as their "Golden Era." Pre-CBS Fenders are more sought by collectors and musicians than the later models. Martin guitars of the 1930s are held in far higher regard and command higher prices than the later models. Gibson Les Paul Standards made between mid 1958 and 1960 featuring patent applied for humbucking pickups, curly maple tops and cherry sunburst finish command far higher prices than the earlier gold top Les Paul models with single coil P-90 pickups and certainly greatly more than any of the later Les Pauls. New instruments by major manufacturers such as Martin, Gibson, Fender and Taylor are of fine quality and without doubt are suitable for professional use on stage or in the studio, but many collectors and musicians view models of the "Golden Era" as being superior. It should be noted that a company such as Martin which has been in business since 1833 had employees during the 1930s who were routinely longer tenured with the company and more skilled at hand work than those employed today. In the case of individual luthiers the trend in this respect is quite different. The finest instruments by any skilled hand builder are likely to be his most recent ones. Just as Stradivarius built far better violins when he was 75 years old and had many years of experience than he did when he was only 16, a skilled hand builder such as Stromberg, D'Angelico or D'Aquisto or modern builders such as Benedetto, Monteleone, Kim Walker, Steven Gilchrist and numerous others are more experienced today than they were twenty years . agoIf, in fact, a hand builder's older instruments were worth more than his latest creations, that would amount to a statement on the part of buyers that in their opinion the maker had either learned nothing new in the past twenty years or had in fact actually slipped.
4) Condition: Condition needs to be evaluated in terms of cosmetics and structural concerns. Needless to say, a cosmetically clean example in original condition is worth more than the same make, model and year instrument which is highly worn although still structurally stable. Structural concerns, however, are fully as important if not more so than cosmetics. It is quite possible for a vintage instrument to have little if any playing wear but still have major structural problems. In most cases loose glue seams, warped necks or poor neck set angles can be fixed to be invisible and structurally fine. Cracks and other such structural damage are greater problems. In the hands of a skilled restorer many cracks can be made to virtually invisible, but such work is very time consuming and expensive. Re-gluing loose seams or braces or resetting a neck, in my opinion, constitutes normal maintenance and does not lower the value of the instrument. Just as there are no violins of the 1600s and 1700s in use today which have never had maintenance such as re-gluing of loose seams and replacement of worn out fingerboards or even far more drastic work, it is essential to be aware that acoustic guitars of the 1920s and 1930s are old enough today that virtually all of them have either had or now need some maintenance to be kept in good playing order. When I started collecting guitars in the mid 1960s it was relatively easy to find Martin and Gibson guitars of the 1930s and Gibson and Fender electrics of the 1960s in excellent playing order without need of restoration, but today an instrument of the 1970s or early 1980s is older than many of the "Golden Era" vintage instruments were when I started out.
5) Originality: As I have discussed in previous columns, originality is critically important. Obviously a forgery is not nearly as valuable as an authentic original instrument. A highly modified instrument such as a Martin D-28 which has been inlaid to resemble a Style 45 or a Gibson Goldtop Les Paul which has had the top finish stripped and redone to sunburst and P-90 pickups removed to be replaced with later humbucking pickups will not have nearly the appeal of an authentic original pearl trimmed Martin or late 1950's sunburst Les Paul. Collectors place a great premium on a fully original pristine condition example of a prime collectible model, but such pieces are becoming increasingly more and more difficult to find as each year passes. A beautiful original pre World War II Martin with an expertly done neck set such that the work is invisible and the guitar plays perfectly will have a value virtually the same as a pristine example. Similarly re-gluing of loose glue seams or loose braces is not a major consideration. On the other hand, refinishing or restoration of major structural defects, however well done the job may be, will result in an instrument of lesser value than one which is pristine. Needless to say, an expert restoration of structural and cosmetic defects such that the work is virtually invisible will result in an instrument of far greater value than one which needs work or has been poorly repaired. Much of the time and effort put into instruments in the Gruhn Guitar repair department is spent undoing poor previous repairs. It is far easier to work on an open but un-repaired crack than to fix one which has been firmly glued with epoxy in the wrong position.
I am frequently asked if repairs will lower the value of an instrument. If it were true then any repairs simply resulted in depreciation, I would immediately be able to lay off seven of my most expensive employees. Needless to say I have not done so because it is my opinion that proper restoration greatly enhances the value of instruments. While I like to see instruments in totally pristine unplayed condition, the fact remains that these guitars, banjos and mandolins were made to be played and enjoyed and over the years they do become worn and need maintenance. Worn out original frets result in a guitar which is unplayable and worth less than one which has been expertly refretted. Over the years wear, natural aging and unfortunate accidents can and will happen. The work of a truly expert restorer should be virtually invisible. It can be said as a compliment that the work of a luthier may be as distinctive as his signature such that it can be identified from across the room at a glance, but the same comment applied to the work of a repairman or restorer would be an insult. A truly superb restorer leaves no sign that he was ever there. An instrument with cracks, loose bracing, worn frets, poor neck set angle or other such problems is worth far less before restoration than afterward if the work is properly done. There are plenty of repairmen who can refret, glue loose braces and do set up work, but remarkably few who can take a crack and make it structurally stable and visually virtually invisible. At Gruhn Guitars we pride ourselves in having one of the finest repair shops in the world, but we take great pains to accurately represent all instruments we offer for sale such that repair work is disclosed.
6) Supply versus Demand: Some instruments are extremely rare but rarity is not necessarily to be equated with desirability. Instruments may be rare for a variety of reasons. Since individual luthiers build based on orders and manufacturers produce instruments based as well on dealer and customer demand, rarity can be a sign that a model was not well accepted by the public. A model can be very rare because the company received no orders do to lack of public interest. Examples of instruments which are rare because there was little if any public demand when they were made would be Gibson Victory guitars and basses and Martin pre-World War II archtop f-hole guitars.
Some instruments are rare because they were introduced ahead of their time. The Flying V and Explorer Gibsons of 1958 and 1959 are prime examples. These guitars were so radical that they were laughed at, in spite of the fact that they were very fine sounding instruments. It was not until many years later that they were recognized as being great collector's items not only for rarity but due to their historic significance and extraordinarily fine quality. Today there are not only Gibson made V's and Explorers but over the years these designs have inspired makers such as Hamer, Kramer, Ibanez, Dean and numerous Japanese, Korean and Chinese knock-offs such that there are now hundreds of thousands of instruments which owe their direct lineage to the extraordinarily rare 1958 and 1959 originals by Gibson.
Other instruments are extremely rare because they were introduced too late. The original 1922-24 Lloyd Loar-signed and dated Gibson F-5 mandolins are a prime example. The mandolin craze died after 1921, but the F-5 was not introduced until mid 1922. It would be much akin to introducing the finest buggy whip in the world after the invention of the automobile. People simply did not care how good a mandolin was. There was no demand for one until Bill Monroe introduced bluegrass music in the mid 1940s. Today an original Loar signed F-5 will bring well over $100,000, but in 1922-24 nobody cared. Gibson flat-head Mastertone banjos of the 1930s are another such example. The demand for banjos was minuscule after the Dixieland movement died by the end of 1928. During the 1930s when the flat-head Mastertones were made there was a strong demand for arch top f-hole guitars, but it was not until Earl Scruggs popularized flat-head Mastertones during the mid 1940s onward that there was any demand for such an instrument. Interestingly enough the sunburst Les Paul Standard of mid 1958 through 1960 is another such example. There were far more Gibson Les Pauls made during 1952, 1953 and 1954 than in 1958, 1959 or 1960. The sunburst Les Paul may well be the ultimate Les Paul model guitar, but it was introduced at a time when the demand for these instruments was falling. It is exceedingly difficult to kick start demand by introducing a better model instrument once the demand for this style is waning. Numerous companies have tried but failed in such attempts. The fact remains that the finest mandolins and banjos were made after the demand for these instruments had passed. The vintage originals of the "Golden Era of Production" are not necessarily those made during the "Golden Era" of the music itself. Sometimes an instrument is designed for a specific type of music only to become truly popular with collectors and musicians at a later date once it is discovered that this type instrument can be used for totally unforeseen function. Lloyd Loar did not envision chord chop rhythm to drive a five piece bluegrass band with a mandolin, but the fact remains that the F-5 took on a whole new life when Bill Monroe picked it up. Similarly Leo Fender did not anticipate what Jimi Hendrix would do with a Stratocaster nor did the Gibson design team of the 1950s envision the rock and pop scene of the 1970's to the present.
Some instruments such as D'Angelico, Stromberg and D'Aquisto guitars are rare because they are hand made masterpieces by an individual luthier who was incapable of high output. D'Aquisto had a minuscule output ranging from about seven to twelve instruments a year. D'Angelico was only slightly more prolific but lived longer and produced guitars over a greater time span resulting in more total output. Stromberg guitars of the late period from 1940 through 1955 are among the finest rhythm guitars ever made by any luthier, but the early Strombergs prior to 1940 are relatively mediocre instruments. In view of the fact that these are superb instruments made by a tiny workshop for only fifteen years, the total number of such pieces is extremely small resulting in great rarity.
Some instruments are rare due to the fact that they are limited edition "instant collectibles." Martin, Gibson, Fender, Rickenbacker, Taylor and numerous other manufacturers are producing pieces of this sort. I have written a great length on this topic in Vintage Guitar magazine as well as in previous columns. Suffice it to say that I do not consider these to be the ultimate investments. Just as I would not recommend collecting Franklin Mint replicas of Samurai swords or Civil War swords rather than having the originals, it is my opinion that instruments made as deliberate limited editions are frequently not particularly good investments. On the other hand, it is my opinion that there are some superb new instruments being made today both by individual luthiers and manufacturers such as Martin, Fender and Gibson. The Fender Custom Shop models as well as their Masterbilt instruments and Martin "Golden Era" guitars as well as Gibson Custom Shop Historic models are of exceptionally fine quality. How they will stack up in the future as collectibles remains to be seen. Clearly the instruments we view as "Golden Era" collectibles today were once production instruments made to be used and played. It is my opinion that the best new instruments produced today do indeed have the potential to be collectible in the future. It is, however, difficult to predict future values. Much depends on what the manufacturers and luthiers producing these instruments today do in the future. If, for example, a company goes out of business or lowers it standards of quality due to a change of ownership or any other reason, the higher quality instruments of today could become highly collectible in the future. If, on the other hand, new instruments twenty years from now are made to the same or even better standards of quality that the guitars of today, the current models may not appreciate nearly as much.
While rarity alone does not make an instrument desirable, in some cases obviously it is a factor for consideration. Unlike postage stamps or coins in which rarity is everything, musicians want instruments of great quality. Demand for sunburst Les Pauls is far greater than for Les Paul Customs of the same age or for numerous other models which may in fact be more rare. Gibson made over 1500 sunburst Les Pauls from mid 1958 through 1960, but there are millions of people who would like to own one and have bid up the prices such that prime examples can be over $150,000. There are, on the other hand, instruments of which less than a dozen were made but for which there is little demand resulting in prices under $1,000.
7) Sound and Playability: Obviously as a musician, sound and playability are of paramount importance, however, in evaluating vintage instruments or setting prices I do not generally take these factors into consideration. The reputation a particular make, model and age instrument has is not an accident. The pieces which command high prices have a reputation such that one of a particular make, model, and year is typically extremely good, but tone and playability are rather subjective. It should also be noted that if a guitar is not set up in good playing order and does not as a result sound good or play well, it can be worked on such that in all probability it will play just fine. If I have two guitars of the same make, model, and year, one of which is extremely clean but in my opinion does not sound especially great compared to another one which is in rougher physical or cosmetic condition but which I think sounds great, I will still get a higher price for the cleaner one.
8) Prior Precedent: While any evaluation is based to a considerable degree upon the knowledge and subjective judgment of the dealer or appraiser, prior precedent figures prominently. When evaluating instruments I take into account prices I have previously been able to get for similar instruments as well as prices other dealers with whom I am familiar have gotten. "Blue book" prices are based on dealer input which usually involves their prior precedent in sales. Prior precedent of "asking prices" versus actual sales figures are less relevant to me. Asking and getting are not one and the same. As I have previously stated, I do not go strictly by blue book values. It is my experience that all too often blue book prices can be either higher or lower than my own experience dictates. It should also be noted that neither do I go strictly by previous achieved prices. I take into account current market conditions. If I get an instrument which is an extremely prime example or if in my judgment the market has heated up such that an item is now in greater demand than it would have been the last time I had one, I will ask more.
Needless to say it requires a very skilled and experienced appraiser to take all of these factors into consideration. It is not possible to price guitars simply by picking up any of the so-called "blue books." Some of these books are better than others, but in my opinion none of them are totally accurate nor do I use any of them extensively for setting prices of my own inventory or in comparing appraisals. None of the blue books are helpful in identifying an instrument or determining its originality. In order to do an appraisal one must first properly identify the piece. Not only must one determine the make, model and year, but one must be certain that it is in fact original and one must determine the extent of any modification or repair.
9) Memorabilia Appeal: Instruments which have been owned and used by celebrities have memorabilia appeal. Frequently their appeal to fans of a particular performer may result in prices far higher than they would otherwise command. The base line value for any memorabilia piece is the amount this piece would bring if it had been owned by nobody special. While there is no way to apply a simple formula or "blue book" yardstick in evaluating memorabilia, I try to take in to account the importance of the former celebrity owner, how many instruments he or she had, how extensively they used this particular instrument, and what if any track record there may be for previous instruments placed on the market which have been owned or used by this performer. Typically instruments owned by deceased celebrities will bring more money than those owned by living artists, but it is just as critical to determine how many instruments an artist may have had and how frequently such pieces come on the market. For example, Bill Monroe used one 1923 F-5 mandolin throughout most of his career, whereas Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, have owned hundreds of instruments. Typically an artist who has had hundreds of pieces go through his hands will not add as much value to a guitar as an equally prominent artist who has used only a few instruments in his career, however, it is worthy of note that in a charity auction some of Eric Clapton's guitars brought astronomical prices. The ones which brought in excess of $100,000 were, however, instruments which he used a great deal. Some which he had barely touched still brought as much as $50,000 but it is my opinion that had they been offered in anything other than a celebrity auction context, they would not have brought even half that amount. Typically rock star instruments, particularly those associated with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Elvis command higher prices than country music artist memorabilia, but a guitar certifiably owned and used by Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams Sr. would certainly bring a great deal of money. It is at best a very subjective judgment to try to compare and contrast values imparted by prior ownership by artists such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow or other Opry stars. It should be noted further that some artists sold millions of records but were not highly respected by guitar players, whereas others such as Mike Bloomfield never had a hit record in their entire career but are idolized by pickers. Needless to say, when selling any instrument as memorabilia it is absolutely critical to be able to document the piece with letters, preferably by the former owner as well as photos, film clips, or other documentation from family members, band members, or managers. I am offered instruments said to have been owned by Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams Sr., Elvis and other celebrities almost every week, but without proper documentation, I don't take the bait unless they are offered at their intrinsic value as an instrument.
Needless to say it requires a very skilled and experienced appraiser to take all of these factors into consideration. In order to do an appraisal one must first properly identify the piece. Not only must one determine the make, model, and year, but one must be certain that it is in fact original and one must determine the extent of any modification or repair. After forty years of virtual total immersion in this market I use my knowledge and "gut feel" rather than any "blue book," but I am still learning every day. I don't claim to know it all.