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On The Auction Block: The Stradivarius Of Guitars

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On The Auction Block: The Stradivarius Of Guitars

Music News

On The Auction Block: The Stradivarius Of Guitars

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, acoustic guitars - a lot of them. More than 260 go up for auction tomorrow in New York City. They include Martins, Gibsons, rare classical guitars, and some form a legendary Greenwich Village luthier. Some of them date back to the 19th century. NPR's Margot Adler reports on the collection and whether the guitars will sell.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The Guitar Center on 14th Street in Manhattan is filled with people trying out guitars, mostly electric. But in a special room devoted to acoustics, some of the items up for auction are on display.

ARLAN ETTINGER: I'm looking at a wall with about 30 guitars, which is about a tenth of what will be sold.

ADLER: That's Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, the auction house selling the instruments. Among them are about 50 Martin guitars, but one made in 1930 is considered the prize.

ETTINGER: And they called it the OM45 Deluxe, the best of the best.

ADLER: Martin only made about 11 of them, and this one is going for a reserve of $800,000. That means if nobody is willing to pay that, it won't sell at all. The prices have thrown collectors and dealers for a loop.

GEORGE GRUHN: Starting bid prices are out of sync with the reality of the market.

ADLER: George Gruhn, owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, says some of them are...

GRUHN: More than 10 times what I would be asking for a similar instrument.

ADLER: But others say the guitar market is showing signs of stabilizing after it crashed during the financial collapse that hit collectors hard. Guitar maker Bob Benedetto says many collectors are not actually players.

BOB BENEDETTO: Most of the collectors that I've known over the years just loved the instrument and had the disposable income to collect.

ADLER: In fact, Arlan Ettinger told me about a previous Guernsey auction of two guitars that belonged to Jerry Garcia, of The Grateful Dead. He held a preview called White Collar Deadheads, and all these businessmen from Wall Street arrived in their expensive suits and knelt in front of the glass case.

ETTINGER: Put their nose against the glass, begging us then to open the glass so that just for a brief instant, they could put their finger on something played by Jerry. For them, it was absolutely a religious experience.

ADLER: The collector selling the guitars in the current auction is Hank Risan. He heads a tech company, which paid out almost a million dollars to settle a lawsuit with three record labels for selling unauthorized remastered music tracks by The Beatles. That may have something to do with why the collection is being sold. There has been a lot of online chatter about the prices of these guitars but as for authenticity, Fred Oster - of Vintage Instruments, in Philadelphia - looked over all of the guitars. While a few had been partially refinished and one Gibson had a new neck, in general, he says...

FRED OSTER: Most of these guitars being quite original, very desirable for what they are.

ADLER: Eleven guitars and one mandolin in the auction were made by John D'Angelico, who had a small workshop in Manhattan starting in the 1930s. His instruments are often called the Stradivari of guitars. Musician David Bromberg told me that he once owned one of the only two round-holed guitars that D'Angelico ever made.

DAVID BROMBERG: I had an extraordinary collection of guitars.

ADLER: Most of them sadly sold long ago.

BROMBERG: I'll never be able to duplicate the collection that I used to own. I just will never have enough money to buy back the guitars I sold or similar guitars.

ADLER: Whether or not any of the instruments being auctioned at Guernsey's will sell for anything close to the prices being asked, or even sell at all given the high reserves, will be determined when the auction begins tomorrow night.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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