Column: The Vintage Market

December 21st, 2011

The market’s massive end-of-decade correction means that formerly untouchable guitars are now within reach.
By Tom Beaujour

When Guitar Aficionado launched in early 2009, the global financial meltdown was just a few months old. Before this economic contretemps, the value of vintage guitars had become grossly inflated, as scores of speculators seeking to invest in “tangible assets” increased demand for even the most unremarkable instruments. At the time, we here at the magazine thought it might be prudent, or at least tactful, to hold off on publishing a column devoted to a vintage guitar market that was mired in doom and gloom.

I’ve realized, however, that many collectors were not badly hurt when the market corrected itself; we had, for the most part, been spooked—or, more accurately, repulsed—by the stratospheric pricing. If anything, far from buying guitars, we were busy selling our instruments to the highest, most frenzied bidder. At the time, it was excruciatingly tempting to unload one’s hard-won collection, and many of us guitar lovers were only dissuaded by the fact that we would never be able to replace the instruments if prices continued to climb.

They did not, and now it feels like buying time again. Sure, top-quality vintage guitars are still very expensive, but current pricing seems, dare I say, somewhat sane. The market may dip further when downsizing baby-boomers reach retirement and dump their collections into the marketplace; as Richard Rybinski of Hoboken Vintage and Classic Guitars points out, “Nobody is going to want to retire to Florida with 20 guitars.” Also, many of the guitars that were snapped up at the top of the market in 2006 and 2007 are still out of circulation. Speculators are reluctant to part with instruments at what can sometimes be close to a 50 percent loss, and they are biding their time in the hope that prices will miraculously rebound. In all likelihood they will not, and eventually the owners of these “Bubblecasters” will sell them at a loss and increase inventories, thus causing another possible price dip.

Having said all this, I think that this is one of the best times in the past decade to buy guitars. Repaired and modified instruments are almost affordable purchases for real working musicians. High-end classics, while not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, are no longer obscenely priced, and if you purchase one, at least you won’t be afraid to play it. Take, for example, a 1954 Fender Stratocaster. In 2007, this instrument would have fetched $60,000 or more. Now such an instrument can be had for $30,000. I think it’s safe to say that, 15 years from now, when you go to sell your collection and get ready for your own move to the Sunshine State, it’s highly improbable that the value of the guitar will be halved again. Stranger things have happened though, so I’ll leave you with one piece of advice that holds true regardless of market conditions: buy guitars that you really like to play; that, in the end, is their real worth.