Why are vintage guitars so astronomically expensive?

Late 50’s Gibson Les Pauls for example can go for over a hundred grand. Is there a difference in the workmanship between one made in 1959 compared to one made today or is it just the comparative rarity of them among collectors bidding up the prices?

Also, what would one look for on a guitar being sold as say a '59 Les Paul that would prove when it was manufactured? Not just a sticker on the inside saying “made in 1959”. What things would be very difficult to counterfeit?

They are collectibles; they’re not being purchased for playing, although they can obviously be played well. Watch Antiques Road Show; they just did a 1950’s guitar worth $30,000 a few days ago. Guitars have several stamps and IDs on the various components.

Limited supply + wealthy collectors = high prices

The same holds for old toys, baseball cards, even comic books. As long as they are rare and can be authenticated, the price can climb.

The prices of vintage electric guitars and basses has skyrocketed in recent years, to the point where even hard core guitar wankers admit that the prices are way off the reality scale. Les Pauls were classy guitars to begin with - even funnier when an old Fender Precision - an extremely basic instrument made from the easiest available standard lumberyard woods, and to be had for little money from pawn shops and carage sales, now can command a price tag of a nice used car.

The debate over whether old guitars are better than new ones has raged on for ages, but I don’t think anyone thinks a -59 Les Paul is 20 times better a guitar than a new one.

ETA: what telemark said.

I’ve owned a '70 Fender Mustang, which, if I’d babied it and kept it stock and not sold it, would have fetched $1000 or more. This was probably a $150 guitar, 38 years ago.

I do own a '71 Gibson SG, which might fetch several grand if in good, original condition. Its not in original condition, I’ve modified it considerably, and is in fact beat to hell. I bought it for around $200 around 1977. I suspect, given the present market, I could still sell it at some premium on what I paid.

I also own an early '80’s Fender Strat clone. Its a much better guitar than the two above, and I actually like it quite a lot for playing. It has very little, or close to no, resale value.

All of which tells you that the vintage guitar market is completely insane – it’s all about too many people chasing a diminishing number of old instruments, and treating them like baseball cards or other collectable items, not like instruments.

For the most expensive vintage guitars, the desirability of the instruments is based on a combination of factors that include quality of materials and workmanship and rareness. One of the highest priced acoustic guitars is the Martin D-45 from the late 30s and early 40s. These were high-end guitars at the time, and very few were made (fewer than 100 total). People who have had the opportunity to play one claim that they sound better than just about any acoustic guitar ever made. Better enough to justify a $100K price? Probably not. The same goes for Les Pauls on the electric side. Relatively few were sold. The design details were tweaked each year until they reached what is now considered the best configuration in 1959 and 1960, I believe. I’m sure WordMan will chime in here and correct me if I’m wrong. Again, these guitars play and sound “better” than new ones, but that is a small part of the current high prices.

Determining the age of the major components of vintage guitars is now fairly simple. A lot of research, the result of which is widely available in books and on web sites, has been done on serial numbers and dates for Martin, Gibson, Fender and a few other brands. That allows one to date the part of the guitar which bears a serial number. With other replaceable parts, determining if they are original is a combination of art and science. Volume and tone pots and pickups often have dates on them, or codes which indicate a year of manufacture. There’s lots of info available on what other hardware is “supposed” to be on a guitar of a given vintage.

As others have stated, this is a collector’s market, which means that most of the price is driven by factors other than intrinsic value. My only vintage guitar is a '65 Fender Mustang (how about that, squeegee?), which I was able to buy for under $500 because a previous owner had stripped off the paint. All of the components are original, but it is worth far less than one with the finish still in place. I get all of the intrinsic value (tone, playability) without the vintage price.

You can substitute the name of just about any antique piece for “guitar” in this discussion. There are just some people willing to buy something for big bucks because it’s a “19xx YYY” not because it’s somehow intrinsically better than a 2008 equivalent (or at best marginally better). All these kids that took 3 guitar lessons in the 60’s and grew up to be high-power executives with too much disposable income drive up the prices on vintage pieces.

Aside from the antique angle, there are plenty of dilettantes who are able to spend way more on a guitar than would be justified by their skill.

Just the financial ability to live out a fantasy.

Yeah, there’s what it’s worth as an instrument - the craftsmanship and the quality control were at their peak for that period. Then you add on what it’s worth to the person who’s got the money, plus the history of the instrument. Earlier thread speculating on the value at auction of various guitars based on their ownership.

One holy grail guitar like this is a Hofner bass given by Paul McCartney to Mal Evans, the Beatles road manager. I read about this in the Wall Street Journal years ago, so no cite. Paul autographed the bass and gave it to Mal, who stashed it. After Mal’s death, his wife got it out of the case in the presence of an auctioneer. Taped to the back was the set list, dated, from the Beatles’ last concert at Candlestick park, in Paul’s hand-writing.:eek: I don’t recall what that sold for at auction.

The fact that they were played by famous musicians aside, what would the instruments The Who smashed on stage when they were young be worth today?

I don’t have my price guide with me here at work, so I can’t be precise. Pete mainly played Gibson SGs and Rickenbackers back then, neither of which are in the stratosphere like Les Pauls and 50s Fenders. I think 60s SGs in great shape sell for under $5,000.

There is a guy on eBay notorious for trying to sell pieces of SG that he claims were Pete’s for outrageous prices. Um, can you dust the splinters for Pete’s fingerprints or something? Show me a photo where he’s smashing a guitar with the exact same fracture lines? :rolleyes:

The other folks who have posted have hit many of the high points - these guitars were produced in limited quantities, defined the sound that many folks love and now have money to buy. There were about 1,500 Les Paul Sunbursts build between '58 and '60 and countless folks who worship Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield and all the other folks who made that guitar the legend that it is. Add to that the fact that the parts used back then can be hard to replicate, etc… and the whole value starts to skyrocket…

I can’t geek out now on forgeries and replicas, but there is a thriving market. You have to understand - the market for little plastic pickup rings (the cream plastic surround that the pickup mounts into the body with) from vintage guitars now sell for upwards of $10,000!!! When a British guy figured out how to replicate and age Gibson’s old plastic formula and was selling pretty convincing replicas, the high rollers at The Les Paul Forum sent out a red flag and started comparing notes about what to look for - injection molding marks, patters of plastic distortion from the finishing process, what have you - in order to verify this stuff. Just insane.

There is a guy there - super knowledgeable and really funny - who makes a living authenticating vintage Les Pauls and brokering them between high end buyers and sellers. The level of details about the minutiae of each part is just amazing to behold from a geek-out standpoint…

Also, please note that handmade replicas are a big deal. Slash did NOT use a Les Paul to record Appetite for Destruction - he used a replica made by Chris Derrig, who has since passed a way. Derrigs and other LP copies by a guy who goes by MAX have been known to sell for $20,000!!

Finally, the LP’s made prior to '58 were Goldtops, but if you take the paint off, in some cases, the center seam of the wood is in the middle where it would be for a 'burst. So lots of folks are making “conversions” - taking Goldtops and converting them to look like 'bursts. This is almost always done in an overt way - they don’t try make them super exact, but instead to have something that plays like a 'burst but costs a fraction of real one (Goldtops, especially damaged ones worth hacking up like this - are a fraction of the cost of a 'burst…)