Finding and Purchasing Vintage Banjos and Other Stringed Instruments
Since I put up this web site in September 2002, a number of people have asked me how to find and purchase good vintage banjos and other vintage stringed instruments. In the course of some 30 years of collecting, I have purchased instruments from many sources including vintage instrument dealers, pawn shops, antique shops, flea markets, auctions, and, of course, Ebay and other on-line auction sites. In this section, I will offer a few comments on how much to pay and a few notes on each of these potential sources:
What Should You Buy? - George Gruhn said it best, I think. If it was a desirable instrument when it was new it is probably of interest to players and collectors today. The most highly sought-after vintage instruments in today's market were the instruments most coveted when they were first brought to the market, with few exceptions. One interesting group of exceptions are pre-war Gibson banjos, which were fine instruments at the time they were first offered but no more coveted than Paramount or Bacon & Day banjos. Earl Scruggs changed all that by introducing bluegrass banjo to the masses while playing an old Gibson. Today, pre-war Gibson tenor banjos (usually with more recent 5-string necks) bring much higher prices than do banjos of comparable quality from other makers. It is interesting to wonder about how values might have been changed if Scruggs had played a Paramount.
How Much Should You Pay? - Since vintage instruments increase in value the longer you own them, the initial price is actually not as important as you think in most cases. I bought a Martin D-28 in 1967 for $250 and it is now worth more than $3000. Looking back, I think you can see that it really doesn’t matter very much whether I paid $250 or $350 for the guitar initially (although I must admit that I didn’t have $350 in 1967). Nevertheless, you don’t want to pay an unnecessarily high price, so you will need to find out the typical market value of any instrument you are thinking of buying. You can best do this by finding various on-line vintage instrument retailers and perusing their listings. Try the dealers I list below as a starting point, and with a good search engine you can find many more. Ebay can also be a source of valuations, but be careful to note the condition of the instrument offered for sale (more on this below) and review the final closing prices of many similar instruments before your draw any firm conclusions. If the instrument you are interested in is unmarked (no identifiable manufacturer), you should be careful not to spend too much before you gain an appreciation for the overall marketplace. After a while, you begin to classify unmarked instruments into certain groups by age and quality and you can value them accordingly. My rule of thumb when purchasing any instrument, once I have decided that I would like to acquire it, is to ask myself whether I think I could turn around and sell the instrument myself within 2-3 years for the same price. If so, I go ahead and buy it.
Vintage Instrument Dealers – This is by far the safest avenue by which to acquire a fine vintage instrument. I have purchased instruments from many reputable dealers and I have always valued their knowledge, their accurate descriptions of instruments, and the fact that they will nearly always let you return an instrument that is not what you expected it to be. They also usually know what instruments are worth and charge accordingly, so that while you may not get an unbelievable bargain via this route, you won’t be cheated either, because they live off their reputation for honest transactions. The following dealers have my complete confidence:
Bernunzio Vintage Instruments (Rochester, NY) – www.bernunzio.com
Vintage Instruments (Philadelphia, PA) – www.vintage-instruments.com
The Music Emporium (Lexington, MA) - www.themusicemporium.com
Gruhn Guitars (Nashville, KY) – www.gruhn.com
Elderly Instruments (Lansing, MI) – www.elderly.com
There are many other reputable dealers to choose from as well.
Pawn Shops – These stores, especially when located in large cities, can be a source of a variety of vintage musical instruments, but you had better know what you are buying because the pawn shop owners are usually not very well informed. Prices can be all over the map, and more likely on the high side than on the low.
Antique Shops – I love going to antique malls and the little antique shops that dot the countryside, but I must confess that I have only bought one banjo that remains in my collection at one. The remarks above for Pawn Shops apply here as well.
Flea Markets – A lot of fun, but not a very fruitful source of vintage instruments.
Auctions – There are some auction houses that regularly schedule auctions of vintage instruments, but you will find more violins than guitars and banjos. Nevertheless, they can be worthwhile if you can get a catalog of the auction in advance to determine if you want to bid either on site or in abstentia.
Ebay – Ebay has changed everything for collectors, because it has provided a reasonable way for collectors to sell as well as to buy. I have bought and sold many instruments on Ebay and have had only a couple of bad experiences. For the most part, the people I have dealt with have been friendly and fair, and most have promptly answered questions when I submitted them by email prior to the end of the auction. One of the biggest problems with Ebay is that the general public has no idea what “excellent” or “fair” condition is supposed to mean as applied to vintage instruments. Among vintage instrument dealers, these terms are pretty uniformly applied, but not on Ebay, so look at the photos carefully and ask specific questions of the seller before you bid. Also, the terms “excellent condition” and “playable” are not necessarily synonymous on Ebay. Make sure to ask whether all the parts on the instrument are original and whether there are any cracks or obvious repairs, and take the cost of any replacement parts or needed repairs into account when bidding. Oh, and check the seller’s feedback. That’s your protection, since Ebay won’t do much for you if you are treated unfairly.
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