Vintage Guitars: Prices Set To Crash?

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 17 November 2012
I’ve just been reading a really interesting old interview with vintage guitar dealer Chris Trigg, as printed in the February 1995 edition of Guitarist magazine. As a dealer, Chris Trigg was very keen to extol the virtues of old guitars, and his interview definitely did come across as biased. But there were some dynamite assertions among the expected praise for all things vintage. At one end of the scale you had Trigg unashamedly dreambuilding the fairytale of vintage guitardom....

Trigg explained, with great enthusiasm, that the wood used by Fender in the early ‘50s wasn’t new wood. It dated back to the 1920s. So even when those early Fender guitars were brand new they would have been, in terms of tone, perhaps 25 to 30 years old. And the passage of much more time since the interview was published adds a further implication to that. In the course of the next decade, some of those original solid guitars will approach a full century of wood maturity. That certainly conjures up the kind of imagery vintage dealers love their customers to behold.

Rickenbacker 330 semi-acoustic guitar
Perhaps the only realistic way to get a 100% guaranteed genuine vintage guitar in the current climate is to buy brand new and keep the instrument for a quarter of century. This superb 1987 Rickenbacker 330 has been mine from new. I have full confidence that it's entirely as new and all original. That's something I can't really say about any of my older vintage guitars, bought on the secondhand market.

But then came the sobering truth… At one point, Trigg suggested that renowned vintage expert George Gruhn was fooled into believing that a refinished Fender Strat, put together in England, was an all original piece. There was quite a bit of sensationalism in the course of the five page discourse, but that, for me, was probably the soundbyte of the article. You thought to yourself: “If George Gruhn couldn’t spot fakery on a Strat, then a) what chance does anyone have? and b) when a guitar has been authenticated by such a high authority, is anyone, realistically, ever going to de-authenticate it?” Indeed, Chris Trigg spoke in the interview of fakes ‘becoming real’ – not over time, but in the moment...

His exact words: “So if there’s something in front of them that looks right and the guy’s asking the right money then that’ll be another one that’s real”.

The remark in itself makes you think, but the fact it was said eighteen years ago makes you think even more.

And the natural progression from that notion, of course, is the question: does authentication really mean anything at all on a vintage guitar? Well, I suppose as things stand it means the guitar gets sold. But if you genuinely care whether or not you own a real piece of American guitar history from the golden age of hand-building, in its original form and condition, then authentication probably doesn’t mean a great deal more than what your gut instinct tells you.

In previous articles on this site (in particular Where Have All the REAL Vintage Strats Gone? and my Late ‘60s Stratocaster piece) I’ve alluded to the fact that for many years there have been far too many accepted vintage guitars on the market for them all to be genuine – particularly if you take into account the bizarre habit they have of turning up out of nowhere in perfect condition, conveniently sporting the rarest or most desirable finish. But is it possible for the number of 'vintage' instruments on the market to keep on rising, year after year, indefinitely?

Surely, someone, at some point, is going to say: “Hang on; Gibson built eleven blonde single-cutaway Switchmasters in 1961. There are currently 25 of them available for sale online. I simply cannot have any confidence in this market. There’s no way I can spend many £thousands on a vintage guitar, because it’s now odds on I’ll get a fake.” I'm not saying there actually are 25 blonde Switchmasters for sale on the Web, by the way - it's a hypothetical scenario which I imagine could arise in the future. But the point is, could the constant influx of fake vintage guitars, accepted as real, eventually produce such an obvious flood in the market, that any idiot can see the majority of what’s available cannot possibly be genuine? And if that moment does arrive, what happens to the value of the genuine pieces? Reduced demand, versus increased supply, can only mean one thing – price crash.

This is something I believe we’re already starting to see. Obviously, in the past five years there’s been a serious economic crisis spanning much of the globe. Inevitably, that’s going to have an impact on the sale of luxury goods. But is it really the sole explanation for the drop we’ve seen in ‘vintage’ guitar prices? I don’t think it is. Look carefully at the overall market. Yes, ‘vintage’ guitar prices have dropped pretty sharply. But has the price of new guitars been affected in the same way? Well, if you look at Fender’s extensively revamped American reissue range, you notice that far from dropping, prices have in fact increased considerably.

Fender could have budgeted down, but they obviously didn’t feel the need. Instead, they budgeted up. Why, amid an economic downturn would they do that? Is it because they can see a picture emerging, in which people are losing confidence in the vintage market? A picture in which it makes a lot more sense for the buyer to purchase a brand new accurate replica, fully guaranteed as an all-original thoroughbred Fender product, than to purchase a ‘vintage original’ which probably stands more chance of being a fake than being genuine?

My suspicions are that this notion was precisely where Fender’s heads were when they made the move they made. Could it be that a crisis of confidence in 'vintage' instruments – inevitably only set to get worse - ends up bringing the prices of old guitars, or supposedly old guitars, much closer into line with brand new equivalents of comparable quality? It may take some time, but I think that's almost certain to happen in the end. There'll always, of course, be those 100% verified vintage guitars, owned by well known luminaries, tracked throughout their high profile lives, and about which no one is in any doubt regarding their authenticity.  Their prices will, I'm sure, continue to rise - perhaps even more dramatically than ever before. But for the guitars whose full history can't be reliably traced, and their owners, I think there could be a bleak future ahead.

Looking back at the title of this post, what perhaps looked like a bit of exciting news probably seems much less positive now. Afterall, a future in which it's once again possible to buy an 'all-original 1964 Strat' for £2,000 may seem like a dream come true. But if that guitar has, statistically speaking, an 80% chance of being a fake, and is likely to be worth even less in twelve months' time, then do you really want it? I don't.

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