While appraisals can be subjective, based on the appraiser’s feel for the market at that moment, there are certain factors that form the foundation of virtually all appraisals.
Instruments made by famous luthiers or manufacturers are typically more valuable than those by lesser-known makers. This makes sense; Martin, Fender, Gibson, D’Angelico, Stromberg, etc., became famous because their instruments were superior to those of the competition. A great guitar by an unknown maker will rarely sell for as much as a similar model by a famous maker.
Some models are far more sought after than others, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the cost of making the guitar. A smallbody Martin, for example, costs almost the same to manufacture as a dreadnought, but the demand for dreadnoughts makes them significantly more valuable than the smaller sizes. In the electric market, new Jazzmasters and Jaguars were more expensive in the early 1960s than Strats and Teles, but the market demand is much higher today for Strats and Teles, so they bring more money.
Older is not necessarily better. Typically, the most desirable instruments are from a maker’s accepted “Golden Age.” Martins made before the advent of steel-string bracing in the late 1920s are not as highly sought or as valuable as the newer (relatively speaking) examples from the 1930s.
With individual luthiers, the finest instruments by any hand-builder are likely to be the most recent ones, since a luthier almost certainly is a better builder now than he was when he was just starting out. That same pattern holds true through Gibson’s original production period for Les Paul Standards (1952-60), where the original goldtop is the least valuable and values increase with each newer version of the model up to 1959.
Generally, the cleaner the better, but structural condition is equally as important as cosmetic condition.
Collectors place a great premium on a fully original, pristine example of a prime collectible, but such pieces are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Repair and restoration is a controversial issue. An instrument that has been refretted will bring less than one with original frets, but if an instrument is good enough to be played with any regularity, a refret is inevitable. As pristine original instruments become scarcer, collectors are becoming more and more accepting of routine repairs. The better the repair and restoration work, the more valuable the instrument will be, although it will never regain the value of a pristine, unaltered original.
Supply and Demand
Rarity does not always equate with value. It usually does equate with low sales and lack of public interest at the time the model was new. Some of the most valuable instruments today, such as prewar Martin D-45s or 1958-59 Gibson Flying Vs, fall into that category. Numerous other instruments are rare simply because they were not good instruments, and they deservedly have little or no vintage appeal. On the other hand, some highly desirable instruments, such as pre-CBS Stratocasters and 1958-60 sunburst Les Pauls, are not nearly as rare as some other models, but demand is still greater than supply, and that translates to higher prices.
Planned rarity doesn’t count. Limited-run “instant collectibles” fall into the same category as limited-edition commemorative plates or coins. While many are exceptionally fine guitars, the majority never generate any higher level of demand – or value relative to the market – than when they were new.
Sound and Playability
In evaluating vintage instruments or setting prices, the sound of an individual instrument makes relatively little difference. A 1959 Les Paul with a highly figured top and average sound will bring more money than the bestsounding example with a plain top. A clean 1937 Martin D-28 with average sound will bring more than a beat or refinished one with a fantastic sound.
Just as a home appraiser uses “comps”– prices of comparable houses that have recently sold – I consider previous sale prices, gained from my own experience and from other dealers. Unfortunately, there is no database for comparable guitar prices as there is for homes. The price guides are not comps; they are asking prices. Just as in the housing market, asking is not getting, and the true market value may not be anywhere near asking prices.
Celebrity ownership can push the value of a guitar far beyond its collectible or utilitarian value. I take into account the importance of the celebrity owner, how extensively they used this particular instrument, how many instruments they had, and how frequently their pieces come on the market. Needless to say, documentation of celebrity ownership and use is critical.
The bottom line is that an instrument’s value is the amount someone will pay for it. It’s ultimately a guess, but if all of the above factors are considered, the guesswork is minimized.
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter) is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit www.gruhn.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.