I have written a few articles over the years about the crash of the vintage saxophone market. Time-wise, it is correlated to the crash in the economy in 2008/09.
I don’t believe any of us have any definitive answers as to why the market on non-Selmers crashed, but we can postulate with pretty good certainty that it has to do with some/all of the following:
- Money is tighter than it was pre-08, and as the cost of everything goes up, and as our personal wealth goes down, the money we have is spent on essentials.
- Saxophones are luxury items, and generally players don’t need more than one.
- Speculators have, for the most part, been driven out of the marketplace.
The other day I happened across a really good article about the crash of the vintage saxophone market. The article was written by Steve Goodson, AKA, The Sax Gourmet. Before marketing his own brand of saxophones, Steve was known as one of North America’s première vintage saxophone dealers.
When I bought my Buescher bass, I got to spend the day in Steve’s shop. I had the opportunity to play not only some of his inventory, but also some of his personal vintage horns: including his beloved purple Martin bari.
In the following article that appeared on Steve’s Facebook wall, he discusses his thoughts on why the vintage saxophone market crashed—including why new horns have had such a big influence on the marketplace.
I must admit this article changed the way I view my relationship with my vintage horns. Although my collection is not nearly the size of Steve’s, at some point over the past few years I have to admit I crossed the line from player to collector. Gulp… There went the last vestiges of denial I might have had.
My approx. 30 vintage saxophones are for the most part in minty, or in beautiful restored condition. I don’t buy junk, and hardly ever buy online unless it’s from a dealer I trust. I usually buy unrestored horns that have lots of potential, and I see past their blackened silver plate, and years of attic abandonment.
Once I get my new baby back home, my trusted repair tech, David Gsponer, gets the job of restoring the vintage beauty back to its original glory. David knows what I like so he keeps his eye out for me, and I’ve bought some of my lovely vintage horns through him as well.
When I buy a vintage sax, I buy and have it restored for myself. Since I don’t flip horns, I don’t worry about losing money when I sell them. I figure that will be my estate’s problem. Sorry about that Executor.
However, as you will find out reading Steve’s excellent article, I am not the norm. As a matter of fact, I had no idea that I was such an anomaly.
The Decline and Fall of the Vintage Saxophone Market
I had an interesting conversation and interaction with a customer last week which caused me to give some thought to what is going on in the marketplace for vintage horns. I spoke with a few vintage dealers, did a little research, and reached a few conclusions. You may or may not agree, but after considerable thought, this is most definitely the way the market looks from where I sit.
The customer who precipitated all of this mental anguish was shopping for an alto. He’s a weekend warrior who works four to six gigs a month, so he maintains his day job. He had narrowed his choices down to a Selmer Balanced Action or one of my Voodoo Rex altos. As a matter of full disclosure, I am no longer in the vintage horn business, and only sell new instruments.
I realized pretty early in the conversation that the guy would certainly drink the Kool Aid when told to do so. He discussed in eloquent detail the alleged playing characteristics of various Conns, Selmers, Kings, and Martins, but when I questioned him about some of his opinions, he admitted that he had not actually played an example of most of these instruments himself, and that his information came from various discussion groups on the internet. When I asked him why he had such great interest in a Balanced Action, he told me it was because his hero, Phil Woods, played one. When I pointed out that Phil had switched to a modern instrument some years ago, he said that he sounded better on the Balanced and that he only changed horns because he was paid to do so. He seemed to have no facts to back this up, just his strongly held opinion.
I pointed out, as always, that saxophone technology has advanced significantly over the years and that modern horns play much more in tune and are much more responsive than horns of the past. I gave my well worn automobile analogy: a 1935 Ford might be cool, but if you want something that is easy to drive and gets you there in comfort, get a Lexus. He retorted that all the great masters of the past sounded wonderful on the older horns, to which I responded that that’s all they had available, and if they were alive today, they would most likely be playing the most in tune, easiest to play horns they could find to make a living.
After he left (with a Voodoo Rex, I might add!), I gave some thought to who is buying vintage horns, why they are buying them, and what is really going on in this market and why prices have taken such a dramatic decline recently.
The economic factors aside (I’ll address that later), there are really three different customer groups for vintage horns: Players/students, Collectors, and Speculators. They all have different needs and expectations, and they all influence the market in different ways.
The players and students want a quality instrument to help them achieve their goals. Their financial resources are generally somewhat limited, so when the bidding starts, they are the first to fold. They are the most susceptible to the myths and legends which abound on the internet, and will almost always drink the Kool Aid when told to do so. They are seeking the magic bullet which will make playing easy and practice free. They are generally not a significant factor when it comes to establishing prices. They tend to believe that every three times relacquered Mk VI with worn down pearls is worth at least $10,000 and that Buescher True Tones and Conn New Wonders are increasing in value.
The true collectors are an entirely different breed, and unfortunately there are in reality very, very few of them. They are knowledgeable, obsessive, and careful. They watch the market and know what they are buying. I can count the ones I know on one hand. They will generally not over pay for a horn, and really don’t have that much sway in the market. They don’t mind paying top dollar for pristine examples, but understand the definition of the words “pristine” and “original”.
Speculators are the ones who have brought about some of the stratospheric selling prices of the recent past and the ridiculous ASKING (not selling) prices of the current market. These same people probably bought California tract house and South Florida condominiums. They believed that prices would only go up, and that every old horn was valuable. These buyers are now seriously “under water” on quite a few of their purchases.
Now that we have defined and categorized the buyers, lets take a look at the basic economics. Like every economic situation, it generally gets down to supply and demand. Even though they are not making any more vintage horns, they are coming out from under beds and out of closets and attics in droves. The largest single driving force has been, of course, eBay. Suddenly, anyone with the desire and a couple of old horns can become a vintage saxophone dealer. In the past, sales of vintage horns were pretty much in the hands of a few specialists, but now, every small town repairman and pawn shop owner is an expert. This situation has gotten even worse since they began selling computers at WalMart. One of the factors, and not an insignificant one, is that there are now a lot more vintage horns on the market, and the general interest in the market is up because there is a lot more activity.
More than anything else, prices were driven up by the globalization of the saxophone market. The internet made it possible for a buyer in Singapore to connect with a seller in the USA. Not only did this increase the number of potential buyers, but most importantly, it gave the buyers the opportunity to take advantage of currency fluctuations. During the early years of this decade, the price of horns from the USA (where most of the horns were) to buyers in Europe and Asia was a relative bargain when expressed in the buyer’s local currency. As a result, a great many horns left the USA for overseas destinations, and most of those horns are still there because the currency pendulum has not swung into a position favorable to USA buyers. International buyers bid the prices up, and a veritable feeding frenzy developed, particularly among Japanese buyers. This upward movement in prices brought in the speculators, who saw no end in sight. Prices for many horns, particularly vintage Selmers, doubled, and the buzz on the internet among the experts (who are generally down in their parent’s basement typing away about horns they have never seen or played) was that you should buy now before prices went any higher.
At this point in our proceedings, it’s probably a good idea to review a couple of key concepts: (1) collectors will pay more than musicians, and speculators will pay more than collectors. (2) saxophones are for the most part a luxury good, as only a very small portion of the buying public is dependent on them for a livelihood. (3) it’s a world market, and the costs to the purchaser must always be viewed in the local currency, not the currency of the seller. When the currency advantage goes away, the demand from that group of buyers diminishes significantly.
Today, the bubble has burst. Although high asking prices are still to be found, the actual selling prices have retreated to a level more closely related to sanity. The saxophone market is miniscule compared to some of the other musical instrument markets, and the price declines have been quicker. Customers have more and much better choices when it comes to new horns. Prices for top line new instruments are actually lower (when adjusted for inflation) than at any time in history, and frankly, they play better.
Will vintage horn prices return to the previous levels? Probably, but not any time soon. Horns have a nasty habit of outliving their owners, and going back onto the market. The rules of the game are different now, and this makes vintage saxophones a lousy financial investment. Speaking as someone who owns a lot of vintage horns, I suggest you love them and play them for what they are, and put your money elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s just the people who read my site and correspond with me, but I suspect that there are few more collectors out there than Steve figures. We know our stuff. It takes us no time at all to figure out if a horn is junk; has loose key work; needs a full overhaul or just repadding; and is worth the money the owner is asking.
This gives me hope, because as Steve says, horns do have a nasty habit of outliving their owners. So just as I now own many horns whose original owners have passed away—which is how I got them to begin with—one day I too will no longer walk the earth. My hope is that my babies will find homes where they are treated as gently and kindly, and with as much care and attention as they are with me.
I want to thank Steve Goodson for allowing me to reprint this article in its entirety.
© 2017, Helen. All rights reserved.