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Guitar World
The 10 Most Expensive Guitars

May 1997
by Chris Gill



Link to Guitar World Magazine

Think you had paid a lot for your new handmade acoustic or custom electric? Get a load of the prices paid for these babies.

   What inspires a collector to spend six figures on a guitar? Judging from the elite collection of instruments, listed below, that have commanded such princely sums, the guitar must be extremely rare, historically significant or both. In addition, it likely possesses an unworldly combination of attractive looks, impeccable craftsmanship and stellar sound.

   Unlike instruments whose great value stems from their connection with a particular artist or group of artists, these guitars stand on their own. Whereas prices of late-Fifties Gibson Les Paul Standards have skyrocketed because of their association with several rock demigods, the guitars on this list are rarely spotted on stage or heard on records. In fact, most of these instruments are preferred by jazz or folk musicians.

   To keep the list from being dominated by a few models, we have categorized each entry by the most expensive example of each particular type of guitar (otherwise, the list would consist almost entirely of Martin D-45's and D'Aquisto archtops). We also narrowed things down to modern, six-string guitars, which eliminates other expensive guitars that are primarily of interest to museums, such as a 1680 five-course Stradivarius guitar that sold for $250,000. And you thought a four-course meal at Spago was costly? Oy Vey!

1). 1949 Fender Broadcaster Prototype

   This may not be the most beautiful or finely crafted guitar in the world (in fact, it's downright butt-ugly), but it is undoubtedly one of the most historically important instruments of the 20th century. In 1949, Leo Fender completed his first solid body prototype, which became the template for one of the most popular and enduring guitars ever built, the Broadcaster (which was later dubbed the Telacaster). Although the prototype differs slightly from the final version of the Broadcaster (the prototype has a three-on-a-side tuner configuration, a small pickguard, angled controls and a crude sliding pickup cover), it has the same body shape, angled bridge pickup and bolt-on neck construction as the Broadcaster.

   After being displayed to the public for the first time ever in 1994, as part of the Fullerton Museum's "50 Years of Fender" exhibit, the guitar was sold to a private collector for $375,000, the highest price ever paid for a guitar. There may be earlier solid body guitars (such as those made by Les Paul, O.W. Appleton and Paul Bigsy), but this axe was the cornerstone of the world's largest and most successful electric guitar company.

2). 1998 D'Aquisto Avant Garde Prototype

   James D'Aquisto became an apprentice to acclaimed archtop builder John D'Angelico when he was 17 and started making guitars under his own name when D"Angelico died in 1964. Before his own death in 1995, D'Aquisto had earned a reputation equal to that of his mentor. In the opinion of many collectors, D'Aquisto's archtops were actually superior to D'Angelico's legendary instruments. The Avant Garde model is considered one of D'Aquisto's finest achievements. D'Aquisto made this Avant Garde prototype in 1988 for vintage guitar dealer/collector Hank Risan, of Santa Cruz, California's, Washington Street Music, who supplied the luthier with many ideas about its construction as well as the model's name. Risan sold the guitar to a private collector for $140,000. Perhaps the most valuable D'Aquisto is a one-of-a-kind Advance model that was made for renowned vintage guitar collector, Scott Chinery. The estimated value of this guitar is $250,000, but, according to Chinery collection curator, Mike Carey, it is not for sale.

3). 1940 Martin D-45

   The fanciest production dreadnought in the Martin line, the D-45, is the Rolls Royce of the flattop acoustic guitar world. The first D-45 was built for singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1933, and D-45's built prior to World War II are the most desirable and collectable versions of this guitar. Only 91 D-45's were made from 1933 until 1942, when production stopped during World War II due to material shortages. Production of the D-45 didn't resume until 1968, leaving a generation of singing cowboys, among others, in the lurch.

   This near mint 1940 D-45, which was sold by Hank Risan for $175,000, may be the finest pre-war example in existence. Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee, has sold a pre-war D-45 for $125,000, and Mandolin Brothers, in Staten Island, New York, recently sold a pre-war D-45 for $100,000-not bad for guitars that originally fetched between $200 and $250.

4). D'Angelico New Yorker Teardrop

   Vintage guitar collector Scott Chinery made history when he bought this one-of-a-kind D'Angelico New Yorker from Mandolin Brothers in 1993 for $150,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a non-celebrity-associated guitar. John D'Angelico, considered by many to be the premier archtop guitar builder, made this custom-order guitar for Peter Girardi of Queens, New York, in 1957, and sold it to him for $500. Featuring a distinctive, elongated, sharkfin-shaped lower treble bout, this is by far the most unusual archtop ever made by the master builder.

   "It is, without question, the most recognizable and valuable vintage guitars in the world," says Chinery. "It possesses everything that makes a guitar collectible. It's the centerpiece of my collection, which numbers more than 800 instruments."

   The guitar is currently on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where it is on display at the Museum of American History. Chinery's insurance company estimates the guitar's current value at $500,000.

5). 1950 Stromberg Master 400

   The father and son team of Charles and Elmer Stromberg built approximately 640 guitars from the thirties until 1955, when they died within a few months of each other. Late-model Strombergs, particularly the top-of-the-line Master 400, are considered some of the finest archtops ever made, renowned for their sustain volume and exceptional base and treble response.

   The guitar is particularly desirable because it is the only known small-bodied Master 400. Most Master 400's measure 19 inches across the bottom bout, but this one measures only 17 and inches across at its widest point, which suggests that it was built on a special order basis. Adding to the guitar's value is its cutaway; only seven Strombergs with cutaways are known to exist.

   Hank Risan sold this guitar for $140,000 to an anonymous collector. Risan also sold a near-mint 1947 Stromberg Master 400 for $100,000.

6). 1930 Martin OM-45 DLX

   Martin used only the finest materials to construct the OM-45 DLX, which many collectors regard as the company's finest and most exquisite guitar ever. Appointments on this OM (Orchestral Model) include a fancy flower design pearl inlay on the pickguard, an ebony bridge with snowflake inlays, engraved gold-plated banjo tuners with mother-of-pearl tuning buttons, ivory binding, abalone purfling and fancy flowerpot-style headstock inlay.

   Although the Martin OM-45 DLX is much rarer and fancier than the prewar D-45, these guitars have yet to command the same lofty prices as the larger guitars. Martin built only 14 OM-45 DLX's (DLX means Deluxe), all during 1930, and just five are currently accounted for. This example was purchased by Hank Risan for $125,000.

7). Gibson L-5 Special

   The Gibson SJ-200, originally custom made for cowboy movie stars like Ray "Crash" Corrigan, Ray Whitley and Gene Autry, is the king of Gibson's acoustic flattops. This guitar, which bears a label marked "Guitar Special L-5," is purported to be one of the prototypes of the SJ-200. It features the same type of neck found on an L-5 and a Super-400 style pickguard, but its body dimensions are the same as those of the SJ-200. Ray Whitley's custom-made SJ-200, which was long thought to be the first, has a similar neck and pickguard.

   Collector Ken Grosslight purchased this guitar from Gruhn Guitars for $100,000, setting a new record for an SJ-200 style guitar. Like the Martin D-45, pre-war SJ-200's are rarer and more desirable than their post-World War II counterparts.

8). 1850's Stauffer Martin

   The German-born Christian Friedrich Martin (1796-1873) is considered the forefather of the American flattop acoustic guitar. This 1850's Stauffer-style Martin demonstrates why he earned that distinction. Before he came to America in 1833, Martin was a foreman in guitar maker Johann Stauffer's shop, but he later developed many innovations that improved on Stauffer's designs. This guitar is one of the earliest Martins to feature internal top braces arranged in an x-shaped pattern, a design that the firm perfected several decades later in their first steel-string guitars. Guitars made by other manufacturers during this era feature a fan-shaped bracing pattern.

   Also notable is this guitar's attractive abalone inlays, which are similar to those found on the D-45 and OM-45. The six on-a-side headstock, a common feature on guitars in the 1800's, was discontinued on later Martin instruments. In fact, this style headstock did not emerge again until almost 100 years later, when Leo Fender adapted the idea to his Broadcaster electric solid body.

   This Stauffer-style Martin belongs to Scott Chinery, who paid $100,000 for it.

9). 1934 Martin 000-45

   The 000-45 was Martin's largest and fanciest model when the company started shifting its emphasis away from gut-string instruments, and it remained their top-of-the-line guitar until the introduction of the D-45 in 1933. Although this model was subsequently overshadowed by the D-45, it is an especially attractive guitar that is highly prized by fingerstyle players for its well-balanced tone and compact size.

   This example from 1934 features an OM-style scale length and a neck that joins the body at the 14th fret. The guitar boasts several classy, understated embellishments, including engraved tuners, invoroid and abalone binding and snowflake fingerboard inlays. Hank Risan sold this guitar for $100,000 to an anonymous buyer.

10). 1932 Martin D-2

   The D-2 was the prototype of the D-28, one of the most popular dreadnought flattops ever made. Only seven D-2's were made from 1931 until 1934, when the guitar's designation was charged to D-28.

   The D-2 varies slightly from the D-28. The most notable attributes are a neck that joins the body at the 12th fret (only a few of the earliest D-28's have this feature) and a slotted peghead instead of a solid peghead. The D-2 and D-28 share the same herringbone top purfling, zig-zag-pattern backstripe, unbound ebony fingerboard, slotted diamond-shaped fingerboard inlays and ivoroid body binding. Ken Grosslight bought this D-2 for $90,000, the highest price ever paid for a dreadnought other than a D-45. End

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