Tips of the Trade
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Dan Elias talks guitars with appraiser David Bonsey.
Electric guitar collectors value rarity.
With Martins and other guitars, older is not necessarily better.
The "D" in this Martin D-45 stands for 'Dreadnought,' a battleship.
Folk guitars have a big hole in the center of their soundboards.
For many middle-aged guitar-players, finger-picking abilities probably have faded some over the last few decades. But that's okay, because many mid-life guitar players probably now have something largely absent in their guitar-playing heyday: some spare "Dough-Re-Mi." David Bonsey, director of fine musical instruments at Skinner, Boston, says that you don't need to live in a Mansion on the Hill to enter a collectible market still in its infancy: that of the acoustic guitar.
Helpful guitar tips for the 'picky' musical collector
"The emerging collectors are baby boomers who have disposable income and an appreciation of fine work, but not necessarily fine arts," David explains, adding that "lots of today's collectors are people who started out with the romance of becoming a professional musician." Over 14 million Americans now consider themselves guitar players, whether three-chord bangers or jazz-chord junkies. "Compared to collecting fine paintings, guitars are a very usable collectible," David says. "And compared to antique violins, collectible guitars are very inexpensive."
The guitar's coming-of-age as a collectible was heralded by the "Dangerous Curves" exhibit held in 2000 at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the first major museum to celebrate the guitar as a work of fine art. David, a guitar-playing graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music, says that acoustic-guitar collectors also care deeply about the craftsmanship in an old guitar, and are often less interested in an instrument's rarity or provenance.
"Value comes from intrinsic workmanship and a guitar's sound," says David of collectible acoustic guitars.
In contrast, the value of an electric guitar is established by a guitar's or model's rarity and provenance. Gibson's electric Flying V, one of the guitars from the MFA's "Dangerous Curves" exhibit that David showcased on Boston's ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, is worth over $50,000, in large part because of its rarity. If a guitar player such as Elvis Presley had rubbed hips with the guitar, baby boomers might dip even deeper into their trust funds to take it home.
Older Is not Better
But unlike wines and violins, acoustic guitars don't necessarily appreciate with age. "It's not 'the older the better' with guitars," David says. "Martins made before 1900 are considered a grade C by collectors," David says of the topflight guitar brand. That does not mean that the reverse is true, as most acoustic guitars made since the mid-50s are less desirable as collectibles. Guitars were increasingly mass-produced since the mid 1950s and some of the premier guitar materials, such as the rosewood in a guitar's body, became less available. An exception for beginning collectors, David says, is the Martin D-28, made throughout the 1960s. It was constructed from the last of the cherished Brazilian rosewood.
In another caveat, David recommends collectors avoid the so-called "collector's re-issue" models, advertised as exact replicas of classic guitars. Although they might sound fine, they usually are not exact replicas of their handmade forebears and "are not collectibles," David asserts.
Bigger Is Better
"Collectors desire bigger guitars over the smaller parlor ones," says David, noting that collectors value a guitar's ability to fill up a room. Size and style join forces in one of the most sought-after Martins of the 20th century, the D-45 (the D stands for "Dreadnought," the name of a battleship of the era). With its abalone inlay, the D-45 was first made in 1933 as a special custom-order guitar for Gene Autry. D-45s are worth $140,000 - $180,000 today, far more than their smaller ancestors.
Still, you don't have to take a Freight Train Five Hundred Miles or even wander the Streets of Laredo to find an affordable folk guitar. David notes that the Martins built from the 1880s until about 1910 were carefully constructed by talented craftsmen. "Their sound is beautiful," David says and can be had for between $1,000 and $2,000 today. He says You've (also) Got a Friend in the fine-sounding Washburn parlor guitars of the same era, with their ornate inlays, which sell for about the same price.
The Gibson Alternative
Alternatives to the prized Martin guitar are their poorer cousins, the Gibsons. "Any old Gibson is a nice collectible," David says of the other early large-body guitar maker. "They just don't get the really high prices the Martins do." The high-end star of the Gibson large-body line is the Nick Lucas Model, which came out in 1926. Skinner sold one of these in November 2000 for $16,000—a large chunk of change, but far less than the sale prices of the best Martins.
The advantage Gibsons do have over the Martin brands, though, is that Gibsons come in a more varied styles. During the Second World War, the company went so far as to compensate for wood shortages by mixing and matching parts from different guitars. "People used to joke that Gibson would do anything for a buck," David says.
But Gibson's loosey-goose style has resulted in more earth-bound prices. "You can get certain large-bodied Gibsons made in the 40s for under $2,000," David says of the popular brand. So whether you play with Amazing Grace or you're just a Froggy Gone a Courtin', David says you can find a quality vintage guitar that will give lots of bang for the buck.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Musical Instruments category:
Breaking Down Your Fender (Don't Try This at Home) (Bismarck, 2006)
Violins: Buy American
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.