Playable Art: Inside the Secret World of MI Auctions
Kerry Keane was hunched over his desk one chilly day in March 2004, inventorying a large cache of product. Diligently, methodically, he had gotten through 10 of the 56 pieces, which were to be auctioned off to raise money for the client’s worthy cause.
“I realized I was approaching it too academically,” he says slyly. “I went into the vault, grabbed an amp, pulled it to my desk, and started to play the rest.”
The client, Eric Clapton; The product, his guitars; Clapton’s cause, Crossroads Centre in Antigua, his island home where this center reaches out to help recovering alcoholics like himself. Keane reports that Clapton was nervous about putting up what he called “his A-Team” of mostly Fender Strats, the “cream of his collection.”
“His choice in guitars was wonderful, they all sounded and played magnificently,” Keane says. A connection with the “Guitar God” himself would suffice mediocre instruments; “but they were superior guitars.” The event is reported to have earned $5,072,350.
At Christies, the pop-related market has become a growth market, and it has spurred them out of dealing with primarily the violin family. Specifically, it’s fine American guitars that are attracting their deep-pocketed clients attention.
For ROI, though, it’s hard to beat the classic violin: In 1971, history was made at Sotheby’s when the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius of 1721 was sold for the equivalent of a record-breaking $140,000. In 2008 it sold privately for nearly 40 times that amount, $5.7 million. Sotheby’s deals almost exclusively with violins, and the name of the maker and the player both contribute to value.
“Most great violins have a name of a performer attached to it,” Sotheby’s Tim Ingles says. “Take for example, Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius. It used to be played by the great Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882–1947).” That added value to the instrument, though “whether it now being Bell’s instrument will add value to it [in the long run] is debatable.”
(That instrument has a great story, too: In 1985 it resided incognito for months in the Danbury home of Edward Wicks, where its “owner,” a thief named Julian Altman, who was on his way to jail, had brought it for safekeeping. Within months of his imprisonment, Altman was near death from stomach cancer. On his deathbed, according to his wife, he divulged that the violin he had played for nearly 50 years was the Gibson Stradivarius that had been stolen in 1936 from Huberman at Carnegie Hall. Bell acquired it in 2001 for a price of $4 million.)
Skinner, Inc., one of the world’s leading auction houses, has seen its own profile – and that of auctions, and music-related auctioning – raise significantly through ties to a popular television program: “A lot of people come to us through PBS’ ‘Antique Road Show Series,’ for which I am one of the appraisers,” explains David Bonsey, who runs Skinner’s Fine Musical Instrument department. “Many of these instruments were actually found under beds in homes of people who really had no idea of the value until they did an Internet search and found out about these instruments being sold at Skinner’s. So we do get a lot of these instruments from the original owners’ families, which is really important when you’re doing auctions. We try as much as possible to get stuff that is fresh – things that haven’t passed on from hand to hand from dealers and musicians, because those are the items that really do the best in the marketplace.”
These music auctions are still “live,” per the cliché branded into our minds from movies. Not surprisingly, they also include technology that reaches a slightly larger audience – as in the world. “It’s a live auction, so people will bid live in the room, but also people are able to bid by telephone as well as absentee bids via an Internet portal called Christie Live,” Keane says. “Clients can bid in real time on the Internet from the privacy of their own time – it’s not static the way eBay is. You’re linked right up to the room, and the auctioneer looks right at you. It’s a personal connections, and has opened up the process to a very global audience.” Sotheby’s offers similar services.
Keane, with Christie’s for 10 years, is department head for MI with the respected auction house, which was founded in 1766. In 2008, Christie’s did $5.1 billion in private sales, with musical instruments being a growing piece of that gross. Keane previously worked for Skinner in Boston, where he launched their MI department. A musician and instrument maker himself, he’s worked with both guitars and violins prior to embarking on his auction house career.
On December 3, Christie’s experimented with a Country Music Sale, the first sale dedicated to the creation, history, and evolution of country music. The foundation of the sale is property from the estate of songwriter and “King of Western Swing” Hank Thompson. Included were musical instruments, stage outfits, and hand-written lyrics from American artists including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Buddy Holly, Johnny and June Carter Cash, among others.
“It’s the first time for Christie’s – or any other venue for that matter,” states Keane. This project evolved from his visits with Nashville clients (which include classical and country/pop clients). “On every trip, I was shown property specific [to the country genre], but I kept saying, ‘Let’s wait until we can do a special sale around country music.’” Recently, when Christie’s secured the Thompson estate as a client, Keane knew it was time to reach out to all the “wonderful property” he has seen over the years that would compliment the event.
Deciding the value of a particular musical instrument is part art, part science, and filled with surprises.
“The first step is really to attribute work to a specific maker,” Keane explains. “We want to know the time period. With guitars specifically, we want to know makers, model, and when it was made.” This information is usually fairly easy to access via serial numbers, but not always. Manufacturers with a long history weren’t always as particular to the whole “chronology” thing when it came to numbers that one might think. “At the end of the day, we really need to see the instrument. Only then can we determine its age, condition, and originality.”
Keane outlines the five fundamentals of deciding if an instrument is worthy of a live auction:
- Attribution: Who made it;
- Quality: That aside, an instrument tied to an artist has some more value;
- Condition: How is it going to be accepted by the knowledgably buyer?
- Freshness: An instrument that hasn’t been seen for years, or better yet – has yet to be discovered. Something that inspires a collectors sense of discovery; and
- Provenance: If it comes from Eric Clapton, etc., “the temperature of a passion influences a lot of a sale.”
When one enters the stratosphere of this caliber of auctions, an artist signature on it can actually devalue more than value it. Exceptions exist: In 2004, Johnny Cash took his 1965 Fender Malibu and scrawled in his own shaky, barely decipherable hand: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” “What a great phrase,” sighs Keane. “It’s taken from one of his greatest songs, in his hand, on an iconic guitar.” But that is rare, as more often, say, with a Jeff Beck signature on one of his many Fender Stratocasters, it can be a turnoff to deep-pocketed participants.
Sometimes the best of both worlds collide: An artist association meets the historical implications. This past April, Christie’s sold a guitar that was Roy Rogers’. Fair enough. But it was a 1930 Martin OM45 Deluxe. Oh wait. It turned out to be the very first OM45 Deluxe – a prototype in fact. The good people of Martin produced it, shipped out to a Sherman Clay store in San Francisco, and by 1933 it had landed into the hands of Rogers. “Rogers had bought it at pawn shop, as it was the height of the depression,” says Keane. “This specific guitar was undiscovered. When it came to the surface, only 14 of these OM45s were thought to have been made.” This one made that number 15. Keane raised eyebrows when what many thought was a $150,000 to $250,000 guitar was declared by him worthy of $350,000 winning bid. When a collector who recognized its importance paid $554,500 for it, it proved that even Keane himself had underestimated its potential.
“Prior to the sale, there was a great debate – what would drive its value? The historical aspect or the association with Rogers? People are still arguing that. But for me, they can’t be separated.”
And who is dabbling in all of this?
“It’s a very broad spectrum,” says Keane. “There of course the private collectors, who harbor a deep passion in the property be it violin bows or electric guitars. They come to the process with a great love of the item and an in-depth historical knowledge.”
Those who have only passing knowledge of how auction houses distribute high-end collectables may recall the 1980s boom on impressionistic paintings: Collectors spending so much money on your Van Goghs and Picassos that the only thing they could reasonably do with them was lock them in their private safes as they were essentially uninsurable. Luckily that is not the case with most of these instruments.
“The guitar collectors are by and large all players and uniquely talented,” says Keane. “The buyer of some special electric guitar might be a patent attorney in New York City, but on Thursdays, he plays in a blues band in New Jersey.” With the exception of your late 16th or early 17th century guitars, most acquisitions are played, even if not professionally.
“One of the finest collections is owned by a gent out in LA named Jonathan Kellerman [novelist]. He’s built a wonderful private collection, and is a very talented musician. He enjoys them, and has a great passion for them.”
Keane says he does hear from MI stores – especially those who are closing up business with no kin ready, willing, or able to take over. “They often have a collection of vintage instruments they want to sell. There’s a relatively vibrant market in the private sector for those.” If you’re wondering if Keane thinks his company is better than your eBay, etc.: “I think what auction does for many clients is offer a transparency in the process. There’s no secret to what we think it’s worth, what its worth after it sells – it’s all true capitalism.”
Beyond the guitar? Not much. Years ago they sold a trap set used by The Who and it broke records, but that proved to be exceptional. “There’s a small community of percussion collectors, but its not nearly as vibrant,” Keane says. “The guitar is an iconic American symbol and represents popular culture.” Not to say that’ll always be the case – for example, if the Rhodes piano Billy Joel played “Just the Way You Are” surfaced, that would be of interest; but again, the community willing to bid on it would not be as large.
(As for Keane, he says he very much enjoys his job, which is easy to understand as “only those who work in Christie’s musical instrument department and the wine department get to sample their wares.”)
When asked what types of instruments come into the Skinner’s gallery, Bonsey is quick to reply. “The instruments we usually handle for our fine musical instrument sales, pretty much fall into the category of string instruments and from time to time we also do wind instruments — we don’t really handle keyboards. Most of the items we do are from the violin family, I would say that’s about 75 percent of our business.” The rest of Skinner’s inventory is made up of about 20 percent guitars and other fretted instruments and five percent assorted wind instruments.
Although Skinner Inc. carries a variety of interesting instruments, Skinner’s bread and butter with respect to fine instruments are their selection of stringed instruments. “The highest price per unit would be violins and guitars easily,” says Bonsey. “The violin market has been extremely strong for all of the 10 years I’ve been doing this. I mean, we sold one Stradivarius for 1.43 million. Ten years ago at the very first auction sale that I did we had a Neapolitan violin from the mid 1700s by Alessandro Gagliano that reached a world record price of 200K and that’s still actually a world auction record,” says Bonsey. To gauge prices of any given sale, Bonsey takes an average lot level. “We take a number of lots in a sale and add up the gross receipts from all of those instruments in a certain class and we’ll get an average lot level. So we have different categories,” explains Bonsey. “We’ll have maybe 40 or 50 violins within the under 10K level, we might have up to 10 or 20 violins in the 10-20k level and we might have even several of the 50-100K and above price range. Generally, the guitars will be anywhere from the 5k range up to 25k range,” says Bonsey.”The wind instruments are usually good vintage saxophones, trumpets and collectable flutes — especially from American makers. We kind of refrain from commercially built wind instruments from the 20th century and we generally don’t handle the old marching band instruments and things like that from the ’20s and ’30s because there are not a lot of calls for them,” says Bonsey.
In the past, Bonsey has sold guitars for as much as 611k. “That was for a 1957 Gibson Explorer, which was really in near perfect condition from the original owner. It had been purchased by the owner’s father for him in Chicago in 1963,” says Bonsey. It was one of those Explorers that were finished in 63 out of partly 57 parts and partly 63 parts. These Explorers had actually been sitting unfinished for a while at the factory. They bought it in Chicago, and it was sent back to the factory because the father really wanted it to have a Bigsby vibrato on it. So, it came back from the factory with the Bigsby vibrato and a little plate over the stop tailpiece holes that said ‘custom made,’” explains Bonsey. “It was a pretty near perfect piece and it was sold at the height of the market. So there was some very strong bidding from collectors that finally brought it to 611k and that was actually at the same sale where we sold the Stradivarius. That was a good day for us.”
Making the Market
In addition to buying and selling some very rare instruments, auction houses have often created a market for little known instruments. “I can pretty much say that Skinner made the market on the Lloyd Loar F5 mandolins,” says Bonsey. The very first one that we had came to us at a time when the retail blue book value was at about 40k. This one came to us in beautiful condition. It had a one-piece back and it was a later fern inlay so it was towards the end of Lloyd’s tenure at Gibson. That one sold for 80k and we’ve sold probably half dozen or more after that — eventually reaching an auction price of 129K for one of the very beautiful two-piece flame maple back. Not long after that the retail prices reached about 200k, maybe a little bit over for the Lloyd Loar instruments.
“We were pretty important in the rise of the prices for the 59 Les Paul as well,” says Bonsey. “We sold one some years back for 293k. That one was a 59 Sunburst that was actually in pretty well used condition. It had a medium amount of fade from the color on the top but nonetheless it was at a time when the market was hot. That one I brought out of Minnesota in February. So you can imagine, I flew up to Minnesota and drove halfway across the state to meet someone in a very small town who had this guitar,” laughs Bonsey. “It was quite amazing bringing it back. That one sailed past an estimate of 120k so it did quite well. Interestingly enough last year we had another 59 burst that was the very previous serial number from the one we sold years back and that one was in near perfect condition from the original owner, although that one sold for a bit less (235K).”
Bonsey is confident that the market will continue to grow. “When you’re selling at an auction, prices are really going to remain constant. Because of the conservative nature of auctions, prices don’t go up and down so much like retail prices do. The violin market is by nature very conservative so that never really goes down,” says Bonsey. “The guitar market, although it’s a little more volatile, is similar. It’s seen the biggest spikes but recently it’s been leveling off,” says Bonsey. “The more conservative market for steel string acoustics like the nice old martins has been pretty steady too. I haven’t seen that market go down at all. I think the biggest hit has been to the solid body electrics. They’re not really extremely rare, they just have a big demand in the mass market and in the pop culture market,” explains Bonsey. “Guitars can be very, very hyped so that people will go on a buying frenzy and then things will inevitably cool off so the electric market has taken the biggest hit in recent years, but I think it’s just a matter of time before it comes back to where it was,” says Bonsey.
“Some of these instruments are so old and so rare that they don’t really fluctuate in price. The very highest ones do appreciate at a higher rate. In other words, the top Stradavari violins will appreciate sometimes on an average at over 10 percent per year and they can spike at an auction when there’s a crisis,” explains Bonsey. “Actually the very best violins will shoot up in price because people will see fine tangibles as a safer place to put their money — rather than in the stock market where it can go up or down. The great thing about auctions is even in slow retail times and times of difficult credit, there are people with money who will buy the very finest examples of these violins, so prices do remain steady on the overall scene. Like I said, they’re pretty conservative to begin with so they never really go down, they just have a steady climb upward.”
Tim Ingles, head of musical instruments of Sotheby’s, says he plays cello, though refuses to call himself a cellist. He’s been in the music instrument department of the auction giant for 15 years, and heading it for 10. The department consists of himself, and another expert, and support staff. A bookseller founded the company in 1744.
The MI department deals almost exclusively with violin family instruments. “It’s a steady market,” he says. “Obviously, the size of the market moves according to fashion to a certain extent.” He sites Japan’s economic boom of the 1980s as a period when many treasured violins were sold at astronomical prices. “This will repeat itself as the Chinese market opens up – I’m told there are 10 million people in that country learning the violin at the moment … assuming even a few of those reach greatness, then it’s inevitable that that market will become even stronger.”
The reality is there is a limited supply of premium Italian violins (300 years old or more), so they will forever increase in value. While it’s hard to imagine someone spending a couple of million on a Jeff Koons sculpture and putting it out so people could climb on it, similarly priced instruments are being played. “In the last century, there were private customers who hoarded instruments, but to be honest, most collectors choose to loan instruments to professional players.” A collector who spots an up-and-coming talent who eventually becomes a household name and loans him or her an acclaimed violin can add value to the instrument (in addition to joy to the music-loving world, of course).
MI storeowners need not spend time in their store’s attic looking for that undiscovered gem, however. The days of tripping across that long overlooked million-dollar cello are “rarer and rarer,” and when something is discovered, it tends to be something of a more modest value.
Beyond strings, Sotheby’s has worked with clients selling pianos and harpsichords, but to a much lesser extent. Ingles says there’s less demand for keyboard instruments, though they do sell collectable Flemish and English harpsichords, particularly those built before 1820. “These are much more likely to end up in a museum, though,” he adds. And they usually aren’t played: unlike centuries-old violins, the owner has a dilemma: to make it playable, original parts need to be replaced, thus automatically devaluing the instrument. “It’s a conundrum of originality versus playability.”
Ingles gets asked all the time why these old instruments are so valued. “There’s a good reason for that: Pianos are a branch of engineering that has seen constant improvement, whereas with violins, there has been absolutely no improvement in engineering over the last 300 years. The object that is someone’s day job just happens to be an antique.” He admits that it’s ultimately a mystery, because experts can recreate a Strad from the 1600s but still fall short of greatness. To the unbiased ear, the old violin sounds different; to the biased ear, much better. “You can hear the difference – the older violin’s sound is more complex, so the aging process plays a roll but not completely… it’s a fascinating world.”