With manufacturers increasingly releasing new guitars intended to evoke a vintage vibe, what effect does this have on sales – and prices – of the ‘real thing’? Norman Mitchell of Old Hat Guitars is, perhaps surprisingly, in favour of such replicas. ‘Fender’s Masterbuilt range, Gibson’s Custom Shop stuff are a good thing. People are riding that wave of desirability, as are makers. Because of the premium of the real thing, it gives people the taste of them without the bulky price tag.’
Vintage enthusiasts still visit his shop in Horncastle, Lincolnshire just as often. ‘They desire just as much – the problem is they’ve lost their buying power due to taxation, unemployment, or what have you. There has been a flattening of prices and demand, but I don’t think that’s because the market itself is in a depressed state. I think it’s a reflection of the state of everyone’s liquidity.’
So, accepting the vintage boom has levelled out in monetary terms, will the market pick up? Given that you can’t make any more real vintage guitars, will the scarcity of instruments mean that prices will rise again?
‘The hard core is maintaining its desirability and, of course, it’s a finite supply,’ Mitchell says. ‘There are only so many ’63 Telecasters about and most of them have had a hard life. So investment-grade ones are in short supply… and that applies to most of the classics. There aren’t that many about.’
Fender Strat prices that leapt forward four or five years ago in common with Les Pauls have, Mitchell reveals, ‘softened by as much as 15-18 per cent. But if a good, clean example comes along with good provenance they will always command extremely high prices.’
In the States, Kerry Keane of Christies in New York sees collectors slowly returning to the vintage market, but being more selective. ‘As long as this demographic continues to purchase and there is growth in the number of newer collectors entering this category, we will see vintage guitars start to change hands more regularly but at prices recalibrated since 2006,’ he offers. ‘The growth we witnessed in the vintage market from 2000 to 2007 was fuelled largely by two types of buyers –passionate collectors and speculative buyers. With the absence of speculative capital the market will remain soft, yet I do not think this is necessarily a negative. Informed and passionate buyers who are growing their collections or redefining them through de-accession will equate to a more stable market… albeit one of slower growth.’
George Gruhn believes the market has stabilised because the speculators vacated the market several years ago. ‘It has taken some time for utility tool users and true collectors to reassert their position, but I feel that prices have now stabilised and should continue to hold their own.’ Interestingly, George Gruhn sees one of the greatest threats to the vintage guitar market as governmental pressure to regulate international trade in vintage instruments containing Brazilian rosewood and ivory, the two species listed on Appendix I of the CITES Treaty. ‘We cannot retroactively change the content of vintage fretted instruments,’ he points out.
And as ’80s music is enjoying a nostalgia boom, could guitars from the ’80s or ’90s one day be considered vintage? Opinions differ. Norman Mitchell believes ‘time will create collectability if the instrument survives in good order’, while Rick Zsigmond is not so sure. ‘In the ’80s a lot of makers realised their best product was from their golden period, so all they did was reproduce reissue flame-top Les Pauls, ’50s Strats, Teles, etc. It’s generic product, copying original designs. I can’t see how they’ll ever be worth a ton of money.’
So if the vintage boom is over, it’s arguably no big deal – unless your savings were invested in wood and wires at the top of the market. Rock’n’roll will never forget its history – after all, the McFly generation see Gibson and Fender as the equivalent of a designer label. In 20 years’ time, players may consider digital ‘robot’ guitars the ones to own.
There will always be an attraction in having an asset that gives enjoyment rather than a stock or a share or a point on the computer screen. But, sadly, many top-price vintage guitars return to the market via the relatives of the deceased. Collectors and investors of a certain age should perhaps take Phil Harris’s advice and enjoy their purchase now. ‘Guitars shouldn’t be stuck in vaults and seen once a year as a Christmas present to yourself.’ Oh, and in case you’re still envious of Marty McFly, don’t be. He made it back to 1955, but the ES-345 wasn’t introduced till 1958…
4. Old Fashioned Values - The Vintage Guitar Market