The Twenty Million Dollar Guitar Auction That Wasn’t: Guernsey’s Aims High With ‘Artistry of the Guitar,’ Comes Up Very Short

Guernsey's Artistry of the Guitar. (Courtesy Guernsey's Auctioneers)

Guernsey’s Artistry of the Guitar. (Courtesy Guernsey’s Auctioneers)

In the vintage guitar world, it is rare for a single instrument to fetch six figures. So when the Transom heard that boutique New York auction house Guernsey’s had assigned estimates of $100,000 or more to dozens of the 265 vintage fretted instruments on the block at last week’s Artistry of the Guitar auction, we knew that a guitar auction with prices comparable to a Phillip’s contemporary art day sale was not to be missed.

The auction was held over two nights at Bohemian National Hall–a squat Gilded Age building on East 73rd street that houses both the Czech consulate and a variety of event spaces. Down the hall from the Czech diplomats, around 100 vintage guitar dealers, collectors and enthusiasts packed a high-ceilinged auditorium to commence bidding at around seven o’clock both nights.

Or rather, an auctioneer coaxed the crowd repeatedly for bids–“Do I have interest in the room at fifty thousand? How about thirty? Do we have a bidder at twenty thousand?”–but most pleas went unanswered.

Buyers were hesitant to bid from the start. Ultimately less than half of the instruments up for sale were sold, and those that did sell were scarcely within shouting distance of the final estimates published by Guernsey’s earlier this week.

Manhattan-based vintage guitar dealer Laurence Wexer, whom Christie’s consulted before the auction house sold acoustic guitars owned by Eric Clapton in 1999 and 2004, wasn’t surprised. “The estimates,” he told the Transom after the auction, “alienated buyers. They were decimal places off, and that resulted in many unsold lots.” Wexer also pointed out that a number of the instruments had significant condition issues that were not readily apparent in the catalogue.

Despite falling short of sky-high expectations, the auction did send more than a few buyers home happy. Alex Whitman and Tom Crandall, who used to work together at the iconic Matt Umanov Guitars in the West Village, bought two gorgeous Martins and a Gibson–each between 60 and 80 years old–for their new east side shop, TR Crandall Guitars. And gurus from the famed CF Martin & Co., which built dozens of the guitars in the auction, took home the star of the show.

For a staggering $300,000, representatives from Martin bought a striking 1930 Martin OM-45 Deluxe adorned with tuning pegs made of pearl and plated gold. The guitar will be displayed in the Martin Guitar Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, alongside other instruments that trace the evolution of America’s best-known acoustic guitar manufacturer. “We are extremely happy and excited that this guitar is coming home again,” Michael Dickinson, Martin’s current Exotic, Alternative and Sustainable Wood Sourcing Specialist, told the Transom. Undoubtedly, paying an order of magnitude less than the estimate settled on by Guernsey’s–a whopping, and ultimately laughable, $2 million–didn’t hurt either.

Given the hype surrounding the auction and the frenzied bidding that was sure to ensue, we expected everyone involved to be tired out by the time the final lot sold. However, as the auction wound down Thursday night, the fatigue that blanketed the room seemed brought on by disappointment rather than a deluge of activity.

One bidder’s muttered reaction, shared aloud to no one in particular after yet another guitar went unsold, said it all: “Maybe you should try lowering the prices.”