In 1990 a scruffy unknown named Kurt Cobain walked into a San Francisco pawnshop and plunked down a few hundred dollars for an otherwise unremarkable 1960s Mosrite Gospel Mark IV guitar. A year later, Cobain's band, Nirvana, released Nevermind, an album that would change the course of pop music. For a while, however, it looked like Nevermind would flounder and in early 1992, presumably in need of money, Cobain sold the Mosrite for a few hundred bucks. Last April, the buyer of that guitar sold it at auction for $117,500. The price was somewhat less than the $434,750 paid in 2003 for George Harrison's "Let It Be" sessions Fender Telecaster, but for sheer appreciation, it's the best recent indicator that the super-hot collectible-guitar market may be reaching beyond its baby boomer vanguard.
"Over the last two to three years, the market for vintage guitars has really expanded," says Jeff Woolf, a former consultant for Dallas-based Heritage-Odyssey, which sold the Cobain guitar. "The sale price of the guitar confirms that as long as a guitar is associated with an icon remembered by his generation, then it'll always increase in value."
As a consultant, Woolf understandably speaks to the financial end of the trend, but, like all collectibles, coveted guitars lie somewhere in the fuzzy area between sound investment and deep-rooted nostalgia. Few vintage instruments yield gonna-be-a-star rewards, but this hardly matters to collectors. Most are amateur players themselves who see guitars as functional art first, investment second.
"We always say, 'You can't take a share of Cisco off the wall and play "Hey Joe" on it,' " says Alan Greenwood, coauthor of The Official Vintage Guitar Price Guide 2004. "Most people aren't buying guitars to make money off of them. They're something to enjoy."