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"Skystang I" was Kurt Cobain's workhorse, a fitting description for a Fender Mustang.
The sky blue guitar was the Nirvana front-man's weapon of choice during the In Utero tour, used during 53 of 63 performances. Importantly, that included both his last performance in the US and his last public performance anywhere, in Munich. With that kind of pedigree, it's no surprise that the guitar sold for $1,587,500 this month at Julien's, settling between a $1,000,000 to $2,000,000 estimate.
Or maybe that is a surprise if you don't follow music memorabilia.
If that's the case and you weren't particularly attuned to the grunge era, then you may actually be shocked to learn that Kurt Cobain's guitars are among the most sought-after in existence. After the Skystang sale, Cobain guitars now account for three of the top ten most expensive guitars ever sold. And if that surprises you, you may want to physically support your jaw for this tidbit: the two most expensive guitars ever sold were played by Kurt Cobain.
In 2020, Cobain's Martin D-18E sold for $6,100,000 at Julien's. He used the guitar in Nirvana's iconic MTV Unplugged show. The word "iconic" is thrown around loosely, but here it fits as perfectly as your favorite pair of jeans. Speaking of jeans, we don't know if they were Cobain's favorites, but a pair of stage and video-worn Levi's also sold for $412,750 at the November Julien's auction. Yup, that's within touching distance of the NFL game-worn record prior to this year, underscoring Cobain's cultural relevance. Digression on jeans aside, the Unplugged guitar cleared the guitar record at the time - David Gilmour's Black Fender Stratocaster - by more than $2 million.
For a moment, it may have seemed like a COVID-era outlier. But a confirmation sale soon arrived. Last year, the Fender Mustang played in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video sold for $4,550,000. The winning bidder? Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. Say what you will about him or his football team, but the man has a keen eye for significant pieces of American culture. That's precisely what that guitar is. It epitomizes a cultural moment in the United States in the early 1990s.
In most of the last four years, you could find one or multiple Cobain guitars towards the top of the most expensive sold. It's not just those remarkable seven-figure pieces. Smashed guitars from stage performances have sold for more than $450,000 in each of the last two years, including the recent $476,250 sale of a Nirvana-signed Fender Strat smashed on stage in Buenos Aires in 1992. Perhaps the value wasn't all Cobain there - the guitar features a lovely handwritten poem from Dave Grohl: “Hello. My name is Dave. I like Rave. It’ll drive me to my grave. But I’m not dumb. I play drums with two green thumbs and a sour plumb that makes the roof of my mouth numb - David.”
So beautiful. Is it dusty in here?
The Skystang sale even stole shine from the very bright "Fool" Gibson SG used heavily by Eric Clapton during his Cream days. That guitar, on which Clapton realized the "woman tone," sold for $1,270,000 at Julien's. While it was outdone by Cobain's workhorse, that result still makes it the tenth most expensive guitar ever sold. The sale rounds out a lucrative year for high-end guitar memorabilia: three of the top ten all-time sales took place, led by Eddie Van Halen's $3.9 million "Hot for Teacher" guitar and followed up by the Skystang and the Fool.
It takes both special pieces and willing appetite to rewrite the record books in any memorabilia category. In music, as demonstrated by these guitar sales and the Mercury sale at Sotheby's, the appetite is solidly intact. But underbidders on these highest-importance Cobain pieces will lament a missed opportunity that may not soon come again.
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