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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 3)

"Most vintage guitar collectors are students of music, music making and instruments," Levine says. "You could spend your whole life learning about the instrument itself. The majority of celebrity guitars on the market appeal to a different sort of collector. Seventy percent of what we sell is what we call "signer" guitars. Probably something that a fan or roadie got a performer to autograph. Then there's a smaller percentage of really fine celebrity instruments, the historically significant guitars--something used on a recording or shot for an album cover or played in concerts. A good example would be the 'Smashed Hendrix,' a fragment of the Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix wrecked during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. It sold in June 1992 for $8,800.

"For the most part, the celebrity guitar buyer will either be a corporate buyer, like the Hard Rock Cafe, or a private individual who's a huge fan of a particular artist," Levine adds. "If you look at the prices, often the signer guitar can be had for between $500 and $3,000, depending on the signature. A Pete Townsend or [Bruce] Springsteen [guitar] might command a little more. Then you jump to guitars that were played in concert, with letters of authenticity or photos or a video of the performer playing them, and those might go from $3,000 to upwards of $10,000."

Prices then head for the stratosphere. "Finally," Levine says, "you have the historically significant guitars like Buddy Holly's Gibson J-45 that Gary Busey bought for $242,000 in 1990, or the 1969 Fender Stratocaster that Hendrix played at Woodstock, which went for $320,000, also in 1990." Add to those prices the $149,000 paid for a Sunburst Les Paul Standard and the $400,000 for the first solid-body Fender electric and you start to wonder, How high the moon?

According to the experts, the day of the million dollar guitar is coming. Jay Scott, for one, thinks it will be a D'Aquisto. "One of Jimmy's modern series. It may not be until the twenty-first century, but I think it's going to happen."

For those who don't want to wait, or can't come up with the $100,000 or more to buy a D'Aquisto now, there is another way to chase that elusive million. It's by discovering a legendary guitar called the "Moderne," which either was, or wasn't, built by Gibson in 1957. If it was built at all, it's nearly impossible to know how many were made. Referred to by some as the "Holy Grail" of the guitar world, the first one to surface might command that million dollar price tag.

Does the Moderne actually exist? Ask five experts, get five opinions.

"Nobody knows if Gibson actually made the prototype," says Larry Acunto. "The patent drawings exist and there's incredible folklore about it, but no one has ever been able to find one. If they built a prototype, then they probably built more than one."

"I don't think anyone really thinks it exists," declares Jay Scott. "The one that surfaced in the '70s might be the real thing, according to a well-known dealer who has since died. But it was judged to be a fake by George Gruhn, who is one of the acknowledged experts."

Gruhn recalls inspecting that guitar. "There doesn't seem to be any real evidence that any original early ones were made," he says. "As for the one that was supposed to be real, an employee of mine bought it. I was excited and went out to his home at night to see it. I got there and he was outside, holding it in his hand, and in the dark I could see it was a fake. We got our money back. It was eventually sold, as an original, to a Japanese collector. It's just a homemade body with a Gibson neck stuck onto it. It's laughable."

Chinery thinks a few Modernes may truly exist. "It may or may not be out there," he says. "According to people who worked for Gibson at the time, somewhere between one and 11 were built. It was dropped by Gibson after a showing at a trade show where people laughed at the way it looked, but some may actually have been shipped to music stores. It's a million dollar guitar, which is pretty good considering that, basically, it's just a slab of wood."

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