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Hardly Dire Straits: Christie's Scores Big Results for the Mark Knopfler Collection

Hardly Dire Straits: Christie's Scores Big Results for the Mark Knopfler Collection
February 8, 2024
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Christie's, Graphic: Altan Insights

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With the possible exception of Jim Irsay, nobody has a better guitar collection than a rock star.

Few collections represent the collision of already-valuable items with renowned provenance better than a rock star's guitar collection. As their fame grows, so does their collection, bolstered by some of the most desirable instruments money can buy.

For Mark Knopfler, there was one prize that could serve as a particularly suitable award for his achievements: a 1958 Les Paul Standard. The lead guitarist and vocalist for Dire Straits acquired his grail in 1995, and it quickly became his recording guitar of choice. That meant he would need a back-up, so he purchased a 1959 Les Paul as well. See how quickly these collections can grow?

The '58 was not up for sale at Christie's last week in an auction of Knopfler's collection. It sounds like that guitar was too near and too dear. But the '59 was, and it was the top-billed lot in the sale, boasting an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000. It comfortably hurdled that range, selling for £693,000.

Believe it or not, that was one of the more modest performances versus estimates, which proved quite conservative for the type of single-owner sale that so often moves the needle in music memorabilia markets. The sale amassed £8.8 million across 122 lots. Twenty-three lots recorded six-figure results despite only one lot - the '59 Les Paul - having an estimate in six-figure territory. 25% of hammer proceeds were split between three different charitable organizations.

The nearly £9 million total puts the sale among the highest-grossing single-owner events of the past several years, trailing only the likes of Freddie Mercury and David Gilmour; Gilmour's guitar collection generated $21.5 million in volume at Christie's back in 2019. On its own, the Knopfler sale would be competitive with the music totals of some auction houses for an entire year - an achievement that isn't uncommon given the market's structure.

Perhaps the most striking result was the £592,200 paid for a 1983 Reissue of the '59 Les Paul Standard. That's right: the Reissue sold for nearly as much as the original, despite a much lower estimate of £10,000 - £15,000. Knopfler had long yearned for a Les Paul, and as Dire Straits took off in the early-to-mid 1980s, he felt the older ones were still out of reach, so he settled for the 1983 Reissue. He used the guitar to record two of the band's most famous tracks, "Money for Nothing" and "Brothers in Arms," both from the Brothers in Arms album. That album topped the charts for weeks in the US and the UK, becoming the first to sell over one million copies on CD. The Reissue was the instrument of choice to play those two songs on tour and was famously called upon for Live Aid at Wembley in 1985.

Suddenly, it becomes quite clear why the guitar sold for as much as it did, and it becomes far less clear why the estimate was so low, as if the instrument was any old Reissue and not one used to produce rock and roll history. Frankly, it's bizarre.

The original '59 Les Paul is, on its own, the more coveted guitar, but its use dates to a later part of Knopfler's career after Dire Straits had disbanded. It's not uncommon for those Les Pauls to sell for mid-to-low six-figure sums without rock star provenance, though Knopfler's surely added a premium. But that premium pales in comparison to the value imbued upon the 1983 Reissue from its prolific use. In memorabilia, moments and eras of use matter, and for Knopfler, the tour of duty for the Reissue was of the utmost significance.

Other sale highlights included two heavily used Schecter Telecasters, which sold for £415,800 and £277,200 respectively. Custom guitars built for Knopfler by John Suhr at Rudy Pensa's Rudy's Music store also sold well, with three hitting six-figues, including the £504,000 "MK-1" which blended the shape of a Fender Strat with the maple and mahogany of a Les Paul. Speaking of Fender Strats, all three Mark Knopfler Signature Stratocasters available for bidding sold for more than £100,000. None were estimated to sell for more than £6,000, perhaps informed by Knopfler's insistence they be factory-produced and accessible. But there's nothing accessible about a Mark Knopfler Signature Stratocaster directly from the collection of Mark Knopfler.

Once again, the market demonstrated its significant appetite for music memorabilia offered straight from the source. While auctions of variety among both artists and types of memorabilia hit the block with mixed results depending on credibility, direct provenance continues to rule the present market. Those events generally only happen once in an artist's lifetime though - or after it - with demand built to a crescendo in anticipation of long-sequestered supply. Buyers don't miss the opportunity.

Elton John is up next at Christie's later this month. If the Knopfler sale was any indication, prices for the Rocketman are going to the moon.

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