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One guitar, sold at Sotheby's last week, recalls the height of the MTV Era, of '80s hair bands, and of high-energy electric guitar shredding.
Nobody shredded - truly shredded - the guitar like Eddie Van Halen.
It was Van Halen's guitar, used in the iconic music video (remember those?) for Hot for Teacher, that sold for $3,932,000 last Tuesday.
In recent months and years, the collecting world has placed significant focus on pieces of sports memorabilia from key moments. The types of moments that reside vividly in the memories of fans for decades after they transpire. It's the power of those moments, memories, and legends that has driven countless jerseys to seven-figure territory.
Every once in awhile, though, a special piece of music memorabilia comes along that reminds us of music's unique ability to recall the very culture of a moment in time. That unique ability has widespread appeal, and that widespread appeal can mean astounding prices.
$3.9 million is a result astounding and loud enough to blow the speakers out.
Van Halen's ability to play the guitar is widely celebrated, but his innovations with the instrument itself are lesser known. He would experiment, modify, and tinker with guitars constantly, most notably creating what he called the "Frankenstrat" in the 1970s, which combined elements of Fender and Gibson guitars to mitigate the shortcomings from each maker.
Frankenstrats have graced the halls of both the Smithsonian and the Met, and last we checked, that's pretty solid company. The guitars were used to create art, sure, but with Van Halen's signature red, white, and black striped paint job, they effectively became art as well.
Eventually, he earned an endorsement deal with Kramer, which supplied the Hot for Teacher guitar. That guitar was the first to feature a patented (literally) Van Halen invention that supported his unique playing style: a stand attached to the bottom of the guitar which rests against the player's torso so the instrument can be tapped at horizontally.
Even prior to this sale, there was little doubt that Van Halen-played guitars are coveted pieces of music history. A stage-played Kramer sold for $231,200 at Julien's in late 2020. Even relatively common stage-played Charvel's from the 2000s, which sold most typically for around $20,000 in 2019, have become $40-50,000 items. The cultural power of the MTV Era and specifically Hot for Teacher has been on display previously as well. The non-playing guitar used in that video by a child actor playing "Young Eddie" sold for $50,000 in the same late 2020 Julien's auction.
Just as in sports, there's a hierarchy in value. More common items from less iconic eras sell well, but it's the items from iconic moments in an icon's most memorable era that draw the biggest sums.
With the sale, Van Halen takes his place in an impressive pantheon of guitar sales. The result checks in below the $4,550,000 paid for Kurt Cobain's Smells Like Teen Spirit Fender Mustang and the $3,975,000 paid for Doug Gilmour's Black Fender Stratocaster. It also handily outstrips now-dated sales of Clapton's "Blackie" Fender Stratocaster ($959,000, 2004), Dylan's "Newport" Sunburst Fender Stratocaster ($965,000, 2013), and Jimi Hendrix's White Fender Stratocaster ($2,000,000, 1998).
Van Halen's guitar carried an estimate of $2,000,000 - $3,000,000. The result is especially impressive since the next four most expensive lots in the auction went unsold altogether, including a working manuscript of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run.
The teenagers of the 1980s are now in their 50s, and some have clearly reached a stage in life where there's money to burn. While some might characterize that era in music as awesomely bad, it shaped a generation and a cultural moment, and it played its role in shaping rock and roll history as well. So, when an item as special as this one surfaces, there will always be a number of bidders thinking they "might as well jump" into the action.
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