x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Auction houses harmonise with music-focused collectors

Investors are eager to own a piece of music history - everything from rare Stradivarius violins to guitar shards left on stage by Pete Townsend or Jimi Hendrix.

John Lennon's 1958 Hofner Senator guitar was predicted to fetch £100,000-150,000. It ended up selling for £205,250.
John Lennon's 1958 Hofner Senator guitar was predicted to fetch £100,000-150,000. It ended up selling for £205,250.

Pop icons like the Beatles are striking a lucrative chord at auction houses eager to supply fans with unique memorabilia. Tony Glover reports

The acoustic Hofner Senator guitar John Lennon played in the early days of the Beatles cost less than £16 (Dh93), yet Christie's auctioned the same instrument for £205,000 in 2009.

There is also a strong investment market in older classic instruments. According to some auctioneers, the value of top-quality classical instruments such as Stradivarius violins has roughly doubled in the past few years.

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Tips for would-be buyers of music memorabilia

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But apart from their investment value, what links an old acoustic guitar once owned by Lennon and the superlative violins created by the great artist and craftsman Antonio Stradivari?

Auctioneers and dealers believe that it is the desire of collectors to possess precisely those instruments once used by their music idols.

Classical musicians will pay high sums for a Stradivarius to improve their playing.

But the market for pop instruments is powered by a rapidly swelling number of Baby Boomers with pockets deep enough to buy any kind of memorabilia owned by their guitar heroes of almost half a century ago.

And although ageing pop fans will pay a premium for any item owned by members of 1960s groups, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, it is guitars, even pieces of the ones smashed up on stage, that command the greatest interest.

"Guitars are the most sought-after pop items, the pièce de résistance," says Neil Roberts, the pop memorabilia expert at the London-based auction house Christie's.

For collectors, the Beatles remain the royalty of rock 'n' roll, eclipsing contemporary rivals such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, especially in countries such as the UAE.

"There is an established market for pop memorabilia in the Middle East," says Mr Roberts. "But the main interest there is in the Beatles rather than rock 'n' roll memorabilia in general."

He believes that interest is growing because of the Beatles' seminal influence on western pop music and the fact that the group's records still consistently outsell those of more modern performers.

The global market for rare musical instruments is developing at a speed that is surprising even for experienced auctioneers, such as Christie's and Sotheby's.

When Christie's put Lennon's old 1958 Hofner Senator guitar on the market, they expected it to sell for about £150,000 at the most. But, because guitars owned by Lennon rarely appear on the market, this guitar commanded £205,250.

It is thought to be the instrument Lennon used while composing early hits such as Please Please Me; Do You Want To Know A Secret?; There's A Place; I Feel Fine; Help! and Ticket To Ride.

But, as with many other collectable items that appear on the auction block, a guitar's history, what is called its "provenance", is crucial.

In the case of Lennon's Hofner, this was provided in the form of a typescript letter from fellow bandmate George Harrison, also now deceased, stating: "Hofner is one of the first guitars of John's going back to the early days in Liverpool [1960-ish]."

However, Christie's failed to match the instrument with the guitars Lennon was holding in photographs of the early performances of the Beatles.

This led the auction house to conclude that the instrument must have been a guitar that Lennon kept for writing purposes. But, as the stage performances of 1960s groups were frequently photographed and sometimes filmed, pictures are now increasingly used to identify specific instruments.

"Photographs of the time are often used to identify specific instruments," says Mr Roberts. "For example, a photograph of the Rolling Stones' original line-up playing at the Marquee Club in London was used to identify the wood grain of a specific guitar. It also had good provenance coming from someone who had played with the Stones back in the day."

The guitar in question sold for £79,250 against an expected £30,000 to £50,000. But, in the current market, even memorabilia of groups like the Who, who never quite achieved the global popularity of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, is now also sought after by collectors.

A guitar that Pete Townsend played while on tour in the US in 1971 went for £49,250, against an estimated £20,000 to £30,000.

Mr Roberts says the market for pop memorabilia is also maturing, and groups from the 1970s are attracting more attention.

"Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols guitar sold for £16,500 against an estimated £10,000 to £15,000," says Mr Roberts.

The instruments themselves were often of standard or indifferent quality and frequently not even the musician's preferred choice. This is particularly true of instruments purchased when the performers were broke teenagers. For instance, Lennon's Hofner was purchased at a time when the American electric guitar that later came to dominate the music scene was not available outside the US.

Collectors of classical items, however, are not merely looking for musical memorabilia, but are also seeking the best-sounding instruments. "As the world becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, there is growing international competition for a limited number of instruments," says Kerry Keane, the head of musical instruments at Christie's New York showrooms. "There is, for example, a growing interest from collectors in the Middle East, where there are some very strong competitors."

Unlike pop fans, collectors of classical instruments are drawn to an instrument's musical tone as much as its history. The most sought-after instruments are violins made hundreds of years ago by the great masters. These instruments are sometimes purchased by academic institutions anxious to give their students a chance to play on the best instruments the world has to offer.

"The violins of Antonio Stradivari are at the very top of the pyramid. His only serious rival is Giuseppe del Gesu," says Mr Keane.

"Stradivarius violins are unrivalled in the use of the finest materials combined with fantastic craftsmanship. But Giuseppe del Gesu's are a little more eclectic and were not always made of the finest wood. Acoustically, they offer something different from a Stradivarius."

A Stradivarius violin was auctioned in 2007 for US$3.5 million (Dh12.8m). The price reflected the rarity of "golden age" top-quality Stradivarius violins. There are only thought to be 620 genuine Stradivarius violins in existence and some auctioneers believe that the value of a similar instrument could be as high as $7m if one were to come to auction today.

But not all rare violins command such high prices. Sotheby's autumn sale offered a 19th-century violin made by Giuseppe Rocca that went for £169,250 as opposed to the estimated price of £80,000 to £120,000.

According to Sotheby's, the Rocca violin "is a supreme example of the craft as illustrated by the strikingly flamed maple at the back and the perfectly executed single cut of the knife at the final turn of the scroll".

According to Mr Keane, it is not only violins, but also violin bows, particularly those made in Paris in the 19th century, which can attract six-figure sums.

Although anyone investing in classical instruments has the comfort of investing in items that have consistently risen in value for centuries, the collectors of more recent instruments would be wise to exercise caution.

The massive musical impact of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan's harmonica playing during the 1960s, for instance, has had little effect on the value of his old mouth organs. According to auctioneers, his harmonicas were often used for a single performance and left on stage. Dylan is also said to have had a habit of giving signed harmonicas away to fans.

At the other extreme, there is a bizarre but growing market for parts of guitars that were smashed to bits on stage at the climax of performances by stars such as Jimi Hendrix and the Who.

"Even guitar parts from guitars Jimi Hendrix destroyed on stage attract huge interest," says Mr Roberts. "The body of one these was produced by a member of the Frank Zappa family."

But the current fascination with memorabilia, rather than music, could also be a danger for unwary investors. Baby Boomers who now feed demand in the market will one day be in shorter supply, and memorabilia fans can also be fickle. Rare classical instruments, on the other hand, have been proven to retain their long-term value as well as their superlative tone.

pf@thenational.ae