Whether you stumble upon an old musical instrument in the attic that you played in a rock band when you were young…or something at a yard sale that a musician played in a string quartet a century ago, it may have significant value as long as it still is in good, playable condition. In fact, some vintage instruments are worth thousands of dollars because they are prized by collectors and musicians.
Bottom Line/Personal asked two experts how to value old instruments…
From the Rock Era
Dan Orkin, Reverb.com
Post–World War II instruments do not have to be made by a famous company such as Fender or Gibson (see below) to have substantial value. Some “department store quality” instruments from the 1950s through the 1970s now are sought after by musicians and collectors, assuming that they still are in good, playable condition—even though they were not especially rare or desirable back when they were made. These instruments have a vintage sound and look that some of today’s musicians desire. Examples…
Harmony Hollow-Body Electric guitars. Harmony sold massive numbers of guitars in the 1950s and 1960s, many through department stores such as Sears. The company went out of business in the 1970s, though its name was sold and other companies have made Harmony guitars in the decades that followed. The guitars made in the 1960s or earlier have always had some limited value—for instance, about 10 years ago, good examples tended to sell for up to $200. But now, vintage Harmony electric guitars with hollow bodies are suddenly in vogue, and many can bring $400 to $800, in part because popular musicians such as Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys play them. The most desirable models, which have gold-foil pickups, can sell for $1,200 to $1,700 in pristine condition. (A guitar’s pickups are the metal pieces located beneath the strings that capture the strings’ vibrations.)
Distinctively styled Japanese electric guitars from the 1960s and 1970s. These were considered lower-cost, lower-quality alternatives to the more famous US guitar brands when they were originally sold. As recently as the 1990s, they rarely brought more than $100 on the resale market. Now some fetch more than $1,000 or more. They’re valued as much for their funky, futuristic looks as their sound—the more outlandish a Japanese guitar from this era looks, the more likely it is to have significant value.
Example: A Teisco Spectrum5 from the 1960s can sell for more than $2,000 in pristine condition…a Teisco May Queen from the 1960s can bring $1,000 or more. Other brands with value include Norma, Electra, Aria, Univox and Ibanez.
Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos from the 1960s and 1970s. These instruments, which used physical hammers like acoustic pianos and electrical pickups like electric guitars, fell out of vogue in the 1980s and 1990s as keyboard players purchased all-electronic synthesizers instead. Now some musicians are again seeking out electric pianos, pushing the values of vintage examples in playable condition to between $1,200 and $4,000 or more. Many old electric pianos are not playable—there’s a lot that can go wrong with them, and they can be expensive to repair—so if you have a playable one sitting around, you have a valuable collectible.
Guitar amps containing vacuum tubes. If you have an old electric-guitar amplifier, take the panel off the back and peek inside—if you see glass vacuum tubes rather than modern “solid state” technology such as transistors, the amp is probably worth at least a few hundred dollars if it still is working. Many of today’s musicians prefer the warm, rich sound of an old tube amp.
Source: Dan Orkin is content director with Reverb.com, an online musical instrument marketplace. Based in Chicago, he edits Reverb’s integrated Price Guide.
From the Pre-Rock Era
Frederick W. Oster, Vintage Instruments Inc.
Four years ago, a violin made in 1731 by Antonio Stradivari was discovered in the closet of a New York home where it apparently had been sitting out of sight for decades. It has been valued at close to $10 million. The vast majority of these famously treasured instruments are in the hands of top collectors and musicians. (The one that turned up in New York in 2011 was in the closet of the reclusive, wealthy heiress Huguette Clark, who passed away at the age of 104.) But don’t rule out the possibility that some musical instruments with significant value to musicians and collectors could end up in yard sales, flea markets or dusty attics, waiting to be discovered…
Early- to mid-19th-century Italian violins. As recently as the 1950s, you could purchase some of these for as little as a few thousand dollars. They were the sort of violins that an ordinary professional musician or a fairly affluent amateur might play. Today, some sell for more than $100,000.
Examples: A violin made by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda in the 1830s or 1840s that might have sold for $5,000 in the early 1950s would be worth $300,000 today and possibly more. A violin made by his most celebrated pupil, Giuseppe Rocca, in the 1840s to 1860s would bring at least as much.
Peer into the old violin’s “f hole.” If you see a label indicating that it was made in the 19th century or earlier, no matter where it was, it might be worth paying a violin appraiser for a written appraisal, particularly if you need a formal estimate of value for insurance or estate purposes. Labels can be misleading, so don’t get your hopes up too high. The quality of the workmanship of the “scroll” at the end of a violin’s neck, as well as the carving of the top and back, the details of the f holes and corners, the internal construction and wood choice are far more reliable indicators of the violin’s age and quality, but these things are very difficult for an amateur to judge.
Early 19th-century German violins in general are less rare and less valuable than their Italian counterparts.
French violin bows from the 19th- and early-20th century. A violin bow might look like little more than a stick, but old bows sometimes are worth much more than the violins they are found with. The most valuable can sell for six figures. An old bow can be valuable even if the hair is missing or other maintenance is required. Small fissures in the wood or missing parts can be disastrous to value, however.
Bows made in France are very desirable. French violin bow maker François Tourte is credited with helping to develop the modern bow in the late 18th century, and French bows have been especially prized by musicians ever since. Even French bows dating only to the first half of the 20th century can sell for five figures in some cases.
Example: A bow made by Eugène Sartory, a Paris bow maker who died in 1946, might have sold for perhaps $35 when it was new in the 1930s or 1940s—yet it could bring up to $20,000 now. Other French names to look for on bows include Acoulon…Bazin…Beare…Fetique…Germain…Lamy…Simon…Richaume…Thomassin…Vigneron…and Voirin. Their values can be well into the thousands. But again, don’t get your hopes up too high if you find a bow with one of these names—there are lots of copies and fakes. Even more valuable—but less likely to turn up—are bows by earlier French makers such as Dominique Peccatte and François Tourte. Values can be in the mid-to-high tens of thousands. Bows made by top English makers Dodd…Tubbs…and W.E. Hill & Sons can have values in the thousands as well.
Pre-1945 Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars. In the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, the Martin and Gibson companies took advantage of advances in engineering, construction methods and wood selection to create guitars of tremendous quality. In the decades that followed World War II, guitar manufacturers began to shift to different manufacturing methods that produced guitars in larger numbers for an exploding market—but these new guitars lacked some of the characteristics of those made during the golden age. Today, prewar Martins and Gibsons can be very collectible.
Examples: Martin Style 45 guitars were the company’s top of the line. They feature abalone pearl inlay even on their sides and backs, among other flourishes. A Martin D-45 made between 1933 and 1942 is particularly rare and can sell for $250,000 or more. Other acoustic guitars that could sell for six figures or close to it in top condition include the Martin 000-45 (1928–42)…Martin OM-45 (1930–33)…Martin D-28 (1931 to present)…and Gibson SJ-200 (1938–42).
The model number of a Martin acoustic guitar made in the late 1930s or later usually is etched into its neck block. To see this, look through the guitar’s sound hole toward the joint between the neck and body of the instrument. A serial number likely will be stamped here, too, and can be used to determine the guitar’s year of construction.
Gibson guitars might have a label or tag inside that identifies the model. If not, they can be tricky to identify and date—it’s worth taking an old Gibson to an appraiser. Expect to pay perhaps $50 to $75 or more for the appraisal.
Electric guitars made by Gibson, Fender or Martin in the early 1960s or before could be valuable, too, though electric guitar values have fluctuated wildly. Gibson Explorers, Flying Vs and Les Paul Standards from the late 1950s have sold for six figures in top condition.
Ukuleles. An old ukulele won’t make you rich, but the best vintage ukes have increased in value lately as these small stringed instruments come back into fashion among musicians.
Examples: A prewar Martin Style 5K ukulele (one made between 1922 and 1942) can bring $5,000 or more, depending on condition. A Martin Style 3K from the same time period can sell in the low four figures. The Style 3K and 5K are very similar, but the Style 5K has elaborate inlay in the fingerboard and headstock.
*Photo of violin: Courtesy of Corilon violins (Corilon.com).
Source: Frederick W. Oster, founder of Vintage Instruments and a Philadelphia-based musical instrument dealer and appraiser for more than 40 years. He has appeared frequently on the PBS program Antiques Roadshow and has served as an instrument consultant and appraiser for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Christie’s auction house, among other institutions. Vintage-Instruments.com