Extraordinary Vintage Gibsons Command Record
Prices at Skinner Auctions
1928 Nick Lucas Special
sold for $14,950
1939 Super 400
sold for $14,950
1923 Master Model F-5 Mandolin
sold for $127,000
1959 Les Paul Standard
sold for $292,000
David Bonsey has the job that every guitar lover dreams of. As the reigning instrument expert at the Boston-based auction company Skinner Inc., he’s discovered and brokered some of the world’s most breathtaking and legendary vintage Gibson guitars. One of his favorite stories centers around a Sunburst ’59 Les Paul Standard that was auctioned last spring.
“It had been pretty heavily played, but it also had nearly all its original parts,” he recalls. “The owner and his wife were retired. They were living in a trailer and were hoping to get enough money from the sale of the guitar to build a log home. The owner figured the guitar was worth around $100,000, but in fact the guitar ended up selling for $295,000. They built themselves a really nice log home. Above the fireplace there’s a plaque that says, ‘The House That Les Paul Built.’”
Stan Jay, president of the vintage dealer Mandolin Brothers of Staten Island, New York, has similar tales. “Not long ago we sold a Gibson 1924 Lloyd Loar-signed F-5 mandolin on consignment,” he says. “The mandolin had been passed down through generations, and when we told the family the value of the instrument they nearly sank to their knees. The proceeds were used to put the great granddaughter of the original owner through college. The bizarre part is, when we drove to the family’s house, a small dog ran up to greet us. When I asked the owner the name of the dog, she said, ‘His name is Gibson.’”
Stories such as these are becoming more and more common. Propelled by a host of factors, vintage Gibson instruments of certain models are commanding prices unimaginable just a few years ago. George Gruhn of Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars points out that Les Paul Standard Sunbursts that could once be bought for $100 are, in some instances, now selling for more than $300,000. And while solidbody electrics remain the stars in the vintage field, Gibson acoustics, mandolins, and banjos of a certain era have soared in price as well.
“When I started out collecting in ’63 and ’64, nobody cared about collecting solidbody electric guitars,” says Gruhn. “And even today, there are Gibson banjos that rival some of the sunburst Les Pauls in value. A Gibson Flathead 5-string Granada model, with a one-piece flange, could go for $250,000. And a good-condition Lloyd Loar-signed 1923 F-5 mandolin could fetch close to $200,000.”
The market for vintage Gibsons has always been strong, but according to Gruhn, the upwards trend in prices “went berserk” starting in 2002. Mandolin Brothers’ Jay attributes the spike in prices to increased demand on the part of aging baby boomers. Among the factors that ratcheted up that demand, he says, are high-profile auctions and boomer wealth in search of a good investment home.
“The baby boomers have reached a point where the last kid is out of college, the house is fully paid for, and their incomes are at a level where they’re looking for ways to invest,” says Jay. “The Eric Clapton auction at Christie’s in 2004 showed that the pieces they’ve always dreamed of owning—when formerly owned by someone like Mr. Clapton—can reach astronomical prices. When they see that a Gibson acoustic or electric from the ’50s or ’60s is considerably under-priced relative to those massive auction prices, they think, ‘Aha! I can afford this!’ High demand combined with low supply has resulted in escalating market values.”
Bonsey concurs, adding that many people would rather invest their money in a Les Paul than a Certificate of Deposit. “There are lots of financial types or professionals who are maturing now and have lots of disposable income,” he says. “They’re at a time in their lives where they’re ready to own something that’s fine and tangible. It’s an alternative to owning something like stocks. The more they spend on an instrument that’s investment-grade, the more likely they are to reap an increase in value. Not only do you have an instrument you can play, but if you take care of it, that instrument is going to be a solid investment.”
Any talk of vintage instruments must start with the question: What exactly does “vintage” mean? Jay says the term must include the notion of “from a good period” in its definition, noting that the ’58, ’59, and ’60 Sunburst Les Pauls are “the prized property for which every player and collector yearns,” with the ’59 model being “the holiest of these hallowed grails.”
Gruhn agrees. “Everything came together nicely then.”
Bonsey adds that the angle of the neck, the shape of the neck, the woods, and the electronics all formed a “sweet spot that’s never been reproduced.”
And what about Gibson acoustics? On a relative basis, have prices of vintage models kept pace with the solidbody electrics?
“Percentage-wise, not as much,” says Gruhn. “But still there are some vintage Gibson acoustics that can go for in excess of $50,000. The pre-World War II Advanced Jumbos and pre-World War II SJ-200s are in that category. And the 1950s Gibson flat-top acoustics have appreciated considerably.”
Bonsey concurs. “The 1937 through 1939 Advanced Jumbos are among the best guitars of that era,” he says. “It was a period when craftsmanship was paramount, and great materials were readily available.”
It’s commonly assumed that the value of a vintage Gibson is commensurate with its rarity. But Gruhn, whose knowledge of the history of fretted instruments is encyclopedic, points out that rarity alone doesn’t necessarily imply high value.
“Something might be rare because it had a lousy design, so much so that customers simply didn’t want to own the instrument,” Gruhn says.
When rare models do become valuable, he says, it’s generally the result of events or trends that create a demand which didn’t exist at the time a quality instrument was being manufactured.
“The Lloyd Loar F-5 mandolins are a good example of that,” he says. “Those came out in mid ’22, which was too late for the mandolin orchestra boom and too early for bluegrass players. It was only after Bill Monroe picked one up, much, much later, that the demand kicked in. A similar thing happened with the flathead Gibson Mastertone banjos of the ’30s. They were introduced around 1933, but the big tenor banjo boom had already ended by that time. The instrument was too late for that, and too early for bluegrass.”
Gibson Flying Vs and Gibson Explorers offer yet another example. “Those guitars came out in ’58, and both were simply too far ahead of their time,” says Gruhn. “They were thought to be goofy-looking and they didn’t sell worth a damn.”
And yet, says Bonsey, in October 2006 a ’58 Explorer sold for more than $600,000.
So, suppose you are fortunate enough to own a vintage Gibson—or perhaps have in hand a recently manufactured Gibson that might someday qualify as vintage. Proper care is paramount, say Gruhn, Bonsey, and Jay, and all agree that maintenance is neither difficult nor expensive.
Jay explains: “First, when the instrument is not in your arms being played, it should be in its case with the case latched. Second, dryness is an instrument’s worst enemy. Instruments that are not humidified in the wintertime—that is, when the central heat is on —will self-destruct. You can stave off the effects of dryness by properly using a humidifier inside that closed case. Or, you can buy a multi-room humidifier. Make sure the humidifier always has a full reservoir of water, and leave it on at least 12 hours a day in the room in which the instrument is stored.”
Any temptations to customize the instrument should be resisted as well.
“The most common problems we run into with vintage instruments,” says Gruhn, “stem from having to undo other people’s bad customization or bad repairs. The do-it-yourself repairman or do-it-yourself customizer causes more problems than anything else. Whether it’s an acoustic or an electric, a huge percentage of the work we do consists of undoing other people’s bad work. Oftentimes it’s work the instrument didn’t need in the first place.”
And how do you determine if you have a future vintage Gibson on your hands? Experts though they are, even Jay, Gruhn, and Bonsey claim no ability to predict the future value of recently manufactured models. They do agree, however, that the quality of Gibson instruments being made today is of the highest standard.
“In our opinion the quality and sound of new Gibson guitars, banjos, and mandolins has not been as fine in 50-plus years,” says Jay. “People who play the Gibson Master model or Distressed Master mandolins are awe-struck by the devotion to the standards set forth by Lloyd Loar. And people who play a new Gibson acoustic guitar are often heard to say ‘I’ve never considered a Gibson before, but this one is blowing my mind.’”