Kurt Cobain’s “MTV Unplugged" Martin guitar sells for record $6 million
Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E guitar, famously played in Nirvana’s historic 1993 “MTV Unplugged" performance, has smashed the world record price for a guitar at auction, selling for US$6,000,010 at a Julien’s auction in Hollywood today.
The guitar obliterates the previous world record of $3.975 million set by Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour’s “Black Strat” just 12 months ago, and continues a remarkable trend of ever-increasing prices at auction for guitars played by the guitar gods that have provided the soundtrack to our lives.
In becoming the World's Most Expensive Guitar, Cobain's $6,010,000 million Martin also smashed the record for the World's Most Expensive Acoustic Guitar (previously $2.41 million for John Lennon's Gibson J-160E), the World's Most Expensive Martin Guitar (previously $1,095,000 for Dave Gilmour's 1969 C.F. Martin D-35) and came within a whisker of becoming the World's Most Expensive Piece of Entertainment Memorabilia.
This last accolade is an astonishing feat, as the acoustic guitar is now in second place on our top 10 entertainment memorabilia list, having surpassed the $5.52 million paid for Marilyn Monroe's "subway dress" from the 1955 feature film The Seven Year Itch, the $5.375 million paid for Robby the Robot from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, and the $4.62 million paid for the Batmobile from Batman (1966).
The only piece of unconquered entertainment memorabilia is James Bond's gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5, which sold for $6.385 million at Monterey Car Week last year, and that's worth a couple of million without the movie provenance, whereas the guitar, exquisite as it may be, would sell for less than $10,000 without provenance.
The buyer was Australian entrepreneur Peter Freedman, the founder of RØDE Microphones, who attended the live auction in Beverly Hills, prevailing in a bidding war against internet and telephone bidders from across the world. Freedman plans to display the guitar in a worldwide tour of exhibitions to be held in distinguished galleries and art spaces, with all proceeds (including the guitar) going to the performing arts. "When I heard that this iconic guitar was up for auction," says Mr. Freedman, "I immediately knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure it and use it as a vehicle to spotlight the struggles that those in the performing arts are facing and have always faced."
David Gilmour auctioned his entire 125-guitar collection last year, donating the money towards fighting global warming. In doing so, he sold three guitars in one day that each topped the million dollar mark, which was quite some feat as only four had ever sold for more than $1 million previously at auction.
Today’s record is yet another indication that media prominence of any object greatly increases its value. Most of the top 100 most valuable guitars are associated with having played the original version of the most prominent artists’ most famous recordings or stage performances. It seems that the standing of the guitar god that played the guitar and the prominence of its most famous performance are the key variables in determining the price at the elite end of the collectible guitar market.
The "Black Strat" was Gilmour's primary performance and recording guitar on every Pink Floyd album from 1970 to 1983 plus all four of his solo albums. It was the primary guitar used on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979) and was the guitar used in Gilmour’s immortal guitar solos in Shine on You Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb.
The "Black Strat" was made up of two guitars, being a 1969 Fender Stratocaster and a 1983 Fender Stratocaster. Two of the albums on which it featured are also prominent in the record books – The Dark Side of the Moon is the third highest-selling album of all-time and The Wall is the second highest-selling double album in history.
The "Black Strat" has been heard by billions of people for half a century and that’s why it claimed the world record.
Similarly, previous guitar price record holders have enjoyed the sort of blanket media exposure that will only be tolerated of music.
Hence it was logical that when John Lennon's Gibson J-160E guitar went to auction on November 7, 2015, it claimed its place among the most valuable guitars in the world by selling for $2.41 million.
The Gibson was used by John Lennon in his early songwriting collaborations with Paul McCartney, the pair both going on individually and together to become the most successful songwriters of all time. On the J-160E, the duo wrote such classic songs as She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, All My Loving, From Me to You, and Please, Please, Me. Those songs and many more of The Beatles' early hits were also recorded with the guitar.
Only three other guitars are ever believed to have been sold for more than $2 million, with two of the three being whispered rumors about private sales.
The one that can be verified was sold at the “Reach Out to Asia" charity auction organized by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams in 2005. The white Fender Stratocaster was signed by almost all of the living guitar greats at the time, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Brian May, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend, Mark Knopfler, Ray Davies, Liam Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Tony Iommi, Angus & Malcolm Young, Paul McCartney, Sting, Ritchie Blackmore and Bryan Adams. This guitar was the first to sell for seven figures and dethroned Eric Clapton's "Blackie" Fender Stratocaster Hybrid sold for $959,500 by Christie’s in 2004.
The “Reach Out to Asia" Fender Stratocaster held the world record price for a full decade from 2005-2015 before the recent spate of extreme sales.
The two guitars sold privately for more than two million are a 1968 White Fender Stratocaster used by Jimi Hendrix to play The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, and the 1959 Les Paul Standard that has spent its whole life in the hands of musical geniuses: first Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy, and it is still with Kirk Hammett of Metallica.
Grateful Dead frontman Gerry Garcia has held the world record price and as his guitars sell again at auction, they invariably sell into the top tier, with his intricate Doug Irwin custom guitars most famously having sold for $1.9 million (his famous “Wolf” in May, 2017), $957,500 (a 1979 Doug Irwin "Tiger" Custom that held the world record in 2002) and $524,075 (a 1955 Fender Stratocaster Garcia named "Alligator”).
Cobain’s new world record is appropriate in many ways. Most significantly, as captured in the Julien’s auction catalogue, because "not since John Lennon and The Beatles had a songwriter and his band so completely personified the musical and cultural zeitgeist of an era."
At the same auction as Cobain’s record-breaking guitar, Prince’s long-lost primary performance Cloud Guitar sold for $563,500.
The guitar was consigned to auction prior to CT scans and investigative work proving that it was his most famous guitar, just repainted numerous times. Fans of Prince may well have seen this guitar in one of its many colors, as it was the guitar he played on his “Purple Rain” (1984-1985), “The Parade Tour” (1986), “Sign o’ the Times,” (1987), “Lovesexy,” (1988-1989) and “Diamonds and Pearls” (1992) tours.
It was also used on Saturday Night Live’s “15th Anniversary Special,” (September 24, 1989), the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, his legendary 1991 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, music videos for “Get Off” and “Cream,” as well as photo appearances on the covers of Spin magazine (September 1991) and the film poster for the 1987 music documentary Sign o’ The Times.