Take a finely crafted object, add exceptional provenance and the passion of collectors with means — the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and actors Richard Gere and Steven Seagal. What do you get? Some of the world’s most expensive electric guitars.
Like most collectibles, vintage guitars have lost value since the financial crisis. At an auction this weekend of guitars and equipment that belonged to late legendary guitar innovator Les Paul, the top estimate for a signed 1968 Gibson is $80,000 — 30 percent less than what it might have gone for five years ago. But prices are still riding high from their explosion in the late 1990s, as buyers who were teens in rock’s infancy got older, and richer. A legendary instrument — one played by a true guitar hero at an important moment — can still fetch above $1 million, or more.
Click ahead to see the vintage guitar with the deepest cred —and some of the highest prices paid by enthusiasts.
By Rachel Swaby
Posted 8 June 12
Notable owner: George Harrison
Price at auction: $434,750
When Fender wanted to add a solid-body Rosewood Telecaster to its catalogue, it shipped a custom prototype to Harrison in December 1968 — flown to England in its own seat next to a courier — in hopes that it would jump-start sales. When Harrison played it in the famous impromptu concert on the roof of the Apple studio the next January, the guitar became an instant icon. A year later, Harrison gifted the guitar to the singer/songwriter Delaney Bramlett, who sold the guitar in 2004 at an auction at Juliens for nearly half a million dollars.
Notable owner: Eric Clapton
Estimated value: $500,000
The guitar Clapton trotted out to play “Rita” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” at the Royal Albert Hall in London on September 21, 1983, is one of only 19 experimental Explorer models Gibson released in 1958. Clapton bought the angular instrument from a fan in Austin, Texas not long before he made it famous onstage that night. In 1999 the guitar sold to an unknown buyer for $120,000 at auction at Christie’s, part of a nearly $5 million sale of Clapton guitars and equipment. These days, experts say, the Explorer would fetch four times that.
Notable owner: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Price at auction: $623,500
“Lenny” was named after Vaughan’s wife Lenora, who picked the guitar up for the then unknown Stevie Ray as a 26th birthday present. Although it was a badly refinished pawn shop find, the Strat with the artsy inlay became famous in SRV’s hands. It became a celebrity-finding snowball along the way. First the guitar got a new neck, given to Vaughan by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. Then Vaughan had a chance encounter with Mickey Mantle at a Houston Astros game, and when he couldn’t locate a bat for Mantle to sign, Vaughan offered up his guitar instead. It was purchased by the music chain Guitar Center at the 2004 Clapton auction at Christie’s.
Notable owner: Ace Frehley (Kiss)
Estimated price: $800,000
Decades of guitar design hit a highpoint in 1959 with Les Paul’s Gibson Sunburst. This particular specimen was blessed with a particularly wide “flame” in the grain of the maple wood that makes up its body. Its value leaped further when Frehley, lead guitarist for Kiss, bought the guitar from a vintage guitar shop in Manhattan, paying $3,500. The store’s owners later bought it back for $1,000 more than they sold it. In the early ‘90s, the instrument sold for just $16,000, but its value has soared since.
Notable owner: Jerry Garcia
Price at auction: $957,500
The last guitar the Grateful Dead frontman played in public, it was designed by luthier Doug Irwin using the “hippie sandwich” tradition of layering exotic woods with maple. The 13.5-pounder, which he dubbed Tiger, was Garcia’s main guitar through the 1980s.
In 2002, the billionaire owner of the Indianapolis Colts, James Irsay, bought the instrument at auction in what Irsay called “a 15 rounder” for $850,000, plus a $107,500 buyer’s premium. “I made the determination that I'd rather have Tiger than all the other Jerry stuff in the world,” Irsay later told Forbes. “For me it was the centerpiece.”
Owned by: Eric Clapton
Current owner: Guitar Center
Price at auction: $959,500
Pieced together from disparate components by Clapton himself, this guitar was one of the artist’s favorites. The instrument, nicknamed “Blackie,” it saw two decades of studio and stage time. The world’s largest instrument retailer outbid all other buyers at Christie’s 2004 auction.
Notable owner: Albert King
Current owner: Steven Seagal
Estimated value: $1 million
Even without Seagal’s celebrity cred, this 1959 Flying V would fetch somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 at auction on a bad day. The reason: The instrument is extremely rare: Gibson made only 17 Flying Vs in 1959. Put it in the hands of a blues legend like King, and the value more than doubles. A significant wear mark on the body only adds to the appeal.
Notable owner: Rick Derringer
Estimated value: $1 Million
Among an already limited run of 1958 Explorer guitars, Derringer’s had a further distinction. “He had one of the rarest Explorers ever made,” says Richard Friedman, partner at the high-end guitar purveyor, We Buy Guitars. ”It had a split head stock that almost looks like a Gibson Flying V.”
The guitar eventually became so valuable that Derringer had a replica made for touring. In the late 1980s, Scott Chinery, the collector and millionaire founder of bodybuilders’ supplement maker Cybergenics, bought it for $10,500, and by 1997, Chinery said he’d been offered $150,000 for the instrument. After Chinery’s death, his collection was sold, and today the consensus value of the unique piece is estimated at about $1 million.
Notable owner: Keith Richards
Estimated value: $1 million
If this guitar could talk, it could write a history of rock ‘n’ roll. The first Sunburst to be adopted for rock play, it was present when the Rolling Stones played The Ed Sullivan Show, was used to record “Satisfaction,” and appears in the documentary of the Stones’ controversial 1969 American tour, “Gimme Shelter.” Its mojo only increased after rumors spread that the guitar had been stolen from Richards while on tour.
It resurfaced in the mid-‘70s, when it was owned briefly by Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake, and again in 2004, when it appeared at a Christie’s auction — where questions about its ownership kept the 1959 Sunburst from selling. In 2006, Richards’ Les Paul was bought by a private investor in Sweden for a reported $1 million.
Owned by: Jimi Hendrix
Estimated value: $2 Million
When Jimi Hendrix played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the Monday morning of the Woodstock festival, he sealed his stardom. He also made his white 1968 Stratocaster an icon of rock history. It now resides in the museum that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen constructed for the guitar after buying it at auction for $1.3 million. The combination of Allen’s obsessive curation and the guitar’s provenance, have raised the value of the piece to close to $2 million, say experts.