Strings attached

The deaths earlier this year of rock legends David Bowie, Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister and Glenn Frey sparked renewed interest in pop culture and its long-term investment attractions. Does the guitar market offer the ultimate and most enduring value for would-be buyers of music memorabilia?

Harvey Cammell, Deputy Chairman, UK Board, Bonhams

Pop memorabilia is big business. Signatures, posters for concerts, tickets, signed albums, even clothing — all attract fans and collectors keen to acquire a little rock and roll glamour. One of the most sought-after and desirable items is the celebrity guitar. A sprinkling of stardust can turn even the humblest instrument into a very valuable piece indeed. A used Vincente Tatay Tomas acoustic guitar, for example, will generally fetch around £250. Add to the mix a world famous musician, the fact that it was his first guitar and used on his debut album and it’s a very different story. Chris Martin’s Vincente Tatay Tomas played by him on the recording of Coldplay’s first album, Parachutes, sold at Bonhams last year for £18,750 — that’s an increase of 7,400%.

Although the media often use the terms ‘Rock Gods’ with a touch of irony and even envy, some iconic artists do inspire a loyalty bordering on the religious. Many fans of the older generation of rock stars have grown up idolising them and, in successful middle age, can afford to relive their youth by owning something used by their heroes.

Bonhams has been selling guitars in its entertainment sales for many years now and instruments owned and played by some of the most famous names in rock music — Jerry Garcia, Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger — have passed through our hands.

On the whole, electric guitars are more in demand than their acoustic counterparts because they have more sex appeal. The  great riffs of rock music are inextricably linked in people’s minds with the sounds of a screaming electric guitar and sometimes the accompanying bad boy — or girl — image.

Collectors follow their passion in a variety of ways. Most will collect guitars and other memorabilia by one artist or group only. Others will be more eclectic and collect from a particular era or style. Some, of course, collect guitars because they’re important musical instruments.

Others buy to invest, less concerned with sentiment or romance than with generating a return. Glamour is important to them only to the extent that it enhances the value of the guitar. As with any investment, people taking this route need to do their homework carefully, to assess whose popularity will stand the test of time and, if they’re feeling lucky, to try and spot the next Bowie or Jagger. In any market, scarcity counts and the world of Rock Legends is no exception. Anything that ends or restricts the supply — death, of course, or retirement — will have an inevitable effect.

Enthusiasm for rock memorabilia shows no signs of flagging and, while nothing is ever certain, logic suggests it will continue to grow. While the path to rock fame and the nature of the music business have changed dramatically over the decades, stars will continue to emerge and join the ranks of established names whose possessions create such demand in the auction room. Although we may never see another Beatles or the Rolling Stones, today’s names are already attracting the attention of collectors. Ed Sheeran’s ‘Green T’ Fender Stratocaster, used on his X world tour in 2015, was estimated at £4,000-6,000 in Bonhams 10 December 2015 Entertainment Memorabilia Sale. The guitar was among the first pieces of Sheeran memorabilia to come to auction, and sold for £12,500. At 25, Sheeran is already one of the world’s biggest recording stars with a stellar career behind him and a glittering future ahead. The fortunate buyer of the guitar might just have got themself a bargain.

So what to look for in a guitar at auction? Bonhams never gives specific investment advice, but there are some general tips which the would-be collector should bear in mind.

An instrument owned by a one-hit-wonder will not attract much attention. Legends of rock, queens of pop, icons of an era — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Madonna, Oasis, Abba, Jimi Hendrix — are some of the most popular artists in the auction room.

Ideally the guitar will either be currently owned by, once have been owned by, or played on several occasions by the artist. A signature is desirable, but ownership more so — buyers want to feel the frets their idol once thumbed, and take home the instrument their hero adored. The American guitarist and singer/songwriter Joan Jett once said: “My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.” An auction provides fans with the opportunity to take home a part of their favourite musician’s legacy.

If the instrument is still playable, it adds to the appeal. The new owner can play their hero’s songs, on their hero’s guitar — not much beats that.

If the instrument itself is a limited edition, or perhaps the artist had just one special guitar they used whilst in concert, that will increase its desirability and price.

Cool factor:
Was this the guitar used during a particularly momentous occasion in musical history?

This article first appeared in Rathbones Review Summer 2016

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