The Crash Of The Vintage Saxophone Market

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.
Martin Committee III bari, bari sax bell, gold wash bell, bell engraving vintage baritone sax, The Martin baritone sax, vintage saxophone market

One of personal horns. The Martin Baritone #204XXX

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.  :mrgreen:

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.

Steve Goodson, vintage saxophone market, sax gourmet, Nation of Music

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.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. My wife is British and university trained, a concert musician. I am not, I learned and played in a drum corps in the 70’s and ’80’s touring thru the US and Canada and love live music with heart and soul. As we do not have kids we have the ability to purchase instruments we want as well as those with aesthetic appeal.

    We collect but we also enjoy the playing of them. A few years back I asked her if she had ever heard a metal clarinet, she said no and asked the conductor of a band she was a member of if he had heard of them.. his response “the are only good when used as anchors” … well, I had purchased for her a Silver King clarinet,1938 vintage, design with the reinforced bell, Nickel plated and made US Navy. It needed some work, but a professional musician turned repairman close to where we lived in East Vancouver, BC did a bit of cleanup on it and turned it back over to her.

    He played it himself and said he was impressed as he had been told that metal clarinets were garbage. Most likely as a result of the cheap offerings used by high school marching bands in the 50’s thru 70’s Just before we moved from Vancouver she happened to play it at a concert rehearsal and the head of that same conductor who had called it an anchor turned to look so fast you could have sworn it would spin off. He said he had never heard it’s like and was astounded by the amazing sound and wished she wasn’t moving away as he wanted that instrument in his group.

    My wife has a collection of vintage woodwind instruments that she invariably will pull from when going to practice sessions. All of them are vintage (1860 thru 1940 with few exceptions) and all were considered “Top of the Line” when made. Almost all of the metal instruments are silver or silver and gold plated.

    What she takes with her is sure to raise some eyebrows, be it an Orsi or a Buesher tenor sax, a King, Conn or Buesher bari sax or a Buffet or Buesher soprano (curved or straight) or her King saxello, either of her King metal Clarinets (Silver King or gold plated Cleveland – both circa 1936-39), a Pedler Alto, or a Linton (Orsi) Contrabass Clarinet. Some – line the Orsi’s and the King clarinets & saxello are “Pristine”, others are black with tarnish, others are just aged and in decent nick, repaired and serviced.

    ALL are played, all are enjoyed.

    Some are played simply to bring out a vibrant sound from the past that is unmatched by modern instruments – yes we have Yani and Yamaha’s… but they just do not resonate as well.

    The dog enjoys and sings along with some – like the Orsi tenor, she runs in terror of others – the gold plated King “Cleveland” clarinet.

    We have tried the best of the Selmer vintages, and also the new “New” Selmer offerings. The old play better than the new – which tend to need tuning/adjustment but the new offerings are made for 6’4″ tall hulks with paws and neither my wife or I have large hands so we find the older instruments a better fit.

    Going from a Yamaha to a good Conn or Buesher shows differences in key size as well as placement, and we find them a better fit – for us anyway. After playing the Yamaha picking up the Orsi was like going from a Ford to a Ferrari, fast, sleek and oh so responsive.

    Personally we do not care about increasing or decreasing value – although we have noted from a friend whose Selmer Mk VI tenor was stolen during a gig that the replacement cost of finding an identical instrument can be outrageously high and so we have ours listed with our insurance company for “same condition replacement” value.

    We collect so that we – and those who come to hear the band – can enjoy the beauty of the instruments and the sounds that they continue to make so long after their makers have left the world.

    • Hello Steve. Great to hear from you.

      I’m sorry to read that you and your wife are no longer living in Vancouver. I would have loved to get together to with you and your wife. It sounds like we have a lot in common.

      You raise so many interesting and salient points in your comment that I hardly know where to begin. Let me start with the metal clarinet…

      For a few years now I have been tempted to get one. Yes, the King metal clarinets are reputed to be among the best. My tech has a non-King metal clarinet in his shop right now, but it is missing some keys. (It is a French brand IIRC.) If it were intact, I suspect it would already be living at my house. These instruments fascinate me to no end. There is just something about them that I find curious, and wondrous at the same time. Yes, they can sound good. If they don’t, it often stems from the player, not the horn.

      Your collection of instruments sounds lovely. I really wish we would have had a chance to connect while you were living on the West Coast.

      Gotta run. More a little later…. helen

  2. I’m of a group Steve didn’t count on, but he probably fell into at one time himself (maybe he still does). I liked buying cheap but serviceable horns like Bundy or Buescher Aristocrat (same horn), or a Yamaha 21, or a Vito that was a Yamaha in disguise. Then I’d make it less crappy by knocking out major dents, soldering broken joints, replacing pads that need it, and making sure everything seals up and key timing is correct, and I’d play it for a while before deciding it didn’t do anything my existing horns couldn’t, and move it on for about the same cost I got it for in the first place. If I was lucky, I got my parts cost back too.

    I got to sample a fair number of horns this way, and one I sent to a friend rather than sell it on — a Bundy alto where the keys were clearly set up for small hands and rather than modify it, I just gave it to someone with small hands. I neither made money, nor particularly tried to make money, by flipping horns. But I did send them back to the world in better shape than when they reached me, and didn’t really lose money.

    It wasn’t always vintage, I did the same with an Orpheo alto. It cost me (and later sold for) as much as the Vito but was a significantly inferior horn. I took it to one gig, and it was an outdoor gig where I had carried the horn to the gig “naked” on the subway. I couldn’t carry the case, it was a “marching” gig. (Really, just walking and playing at the same time.) Nobody else seemed to care but I hated that day because that horn just closed up when driven hard, especially at the high end. The rest of the time, it sounded and felt almost exactly like the Jupiter 767 I still have. (I finally stopped the “backup horn roulette” by buying another Jupiter 767.)

    I think my favorite save was a Buescher Aristocrat tenor. It arrived with the bottom bow quite smashed and nothing below low Eb even close to seating. I got the bottom sorted out well enough to get the low C hole flat again, and for everything to seat, only to find that it sounded almost identical to my Yamaha 21 which is much easier to play. Also, the Buescher did not take kindly to really aggressive mouthpieces the Yamaha was perfectly happy to accept, and was only marginally darker when using something designed to be dark and full. So I sold that on too, and the buyer was local and picked it up. He got weepy-sentimental because it was JUST LIKE the tenor he’d played in school and then given up. When I heard that, I was happy to have invested maybe ten hours into its restoration.

    Good horns should get played. Bad horns should donate parts or become lamps. I’m happy to do my part to make this vision a reality. :)

    • Good horns should get played. Bad horns should donate parts or become lamps.

      Yup… Couldn’t agree more. I have a Bundy II alto in the front hallway closet that’s waiting for its turn to be converted into a lamp. ;)

  3. The world changes and vintage saxophone prices
    drop faster than other types of vintage musical instruments.
    I guess that for most people the higher maintenance costs of saxophones makes it uneconomical to maintain there playing condition.

    • Frankly, been playing on vintage American (mostly Conn and a marvelous King) for ages and found them incredibly reliable on the long term, with almost nothing to do on them once they’ve been correctly fine tuned (except routine maintenance you must in any case perform). Certainly not the case with some modern pieces (except perhaps Yams and Yans)

      • The Conn saxophones have a very reliable design. In a King there are always a few quirky design details, while the tone holes and body construction are ok for saxophones.
        My remark on high maintenance costs of saxophones is when you compare it to other instruments (with less volatile prices).
        Here in the Netherlands the maintenance costs of saxophones are around 6 times higher than brass and 10 times higher than string instruments.

      • I agree with you Jacques. These lovely vintage horns do require very little once they’ve been properly set up. The maintenance costs on them is indeed minimal. (As long as the player maintains them with annual oiling.) I have played my 1950 Zephyr as my primary tenor for years, and it has needed nothing than minor tweaking since its restoration by World Wide Sax (where I bought it from Sarge).

        And for as much complaining as people do about Martin toneholes, I have a Martin Handcraft tenor that my tech in Halifax restored for me in 2000. After being my primary tenor for years, and a X-country move in a moving van, and more playing here as my primary horn, I finally had to take it to my tech last week because it wouldn’t play anymore. I was worried one of my toneholes had gone on it (besides regular leaking that one would expect). Nope. The only thing wrong with it was some leaking that my tech fixed in less than 30 minutes. Go figure!

        I could go on and on with examples, but you get the idea. These horns were built like tanks, and built to play and be exposed to sometimes adverse conditions.

        I sometimes wonder if some of the problems we experience with modern pro horns needing more shop time—and yes, I am including my beloved Mark VIs into this category as well—is that they have more of the fancy features that make them more playable. Those features are perhaps also more likely to be adversely affected by bumps, jarring, and the likes.

        And don’t get me started on cheap Asian junk… I figure those were built for our disposable world… Toss them out and buy new when they go out of alignment or leak too bad. Why? Because a repair costs more than what you paid for the horn to begin with, and most likely worth more than the horn will ever be worth.

  4. A mediocre player at best, I have played some fab vintage and new instruments. I ended up with a stable of modern axes because, as Steve noted, the correct intonation was so much easier to find on them. I ended up with expensive saxes and clarinets because they were also beautiful, unique, and as in the case of my Eppelsheim bass sax keyed to low A, rare. When I sell an instrument, it is usually to a friend. To date, no one that I’ve sold one of my babies to has resold them. They are players. When it comes time for me to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, my kids will most likely call my friend Quinn the Eskimo to pick up all my instruments for resale. Some people have cabins in the woods or fancy boats; I have my saxes, clarinets, and pianos.

  5. ” I suspect that there are few more collectors out there than Steve figures”, yes, perhaps, but I also suspect their number is dwindling. On this side of the pond (Switzerland, but France looks alike), most of current, including young, players, aim at owning a Selmer and, once they made it, keep to it for ages. A few real collectors keep buying but, according to one of the best vintage-oriented technicians over here, the market is flat-to-declining.
    In any case, Steve’s analysis is sound and well formulated. His economics are OK and it’s difficult to grasp why he’s been bashed for years on SOTW.
    Thanks for reprinting his article.
    Keep swinging

    • Hello Jacques! How lovely to hear from you again. I was wondering how you were doing. It’s been a while.

      After I wrote that: “I suspect that there are a few more collectors out there than Steve figures” line, I sat there and began to come up with the names of men and women I correspond with who I know do collect vintage horns (and actually know what they are doing) and quite frankly, the number was around 10. Now having said that, I haven’t gone through my emails and refreshed my memory, because I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

      However, of the young (in their 20s) players I know—not that I know a great many—I can say I only know of 1 who at this point in their life plays vintage horns out of choice. He fronts his own Dixieland group, and is a music major in university. He’s a very fine young player, and is currently looking for curved, vintage soprano to go along with with Aristocrat tenor and New Wonder alto. That said, his main instrument for university is a new, Selmer clarinet. ;) That keeps his professors happy.

      My sincere hope is that as these young folks mature, and grow out of the “shiny and new” is better phase of their lives, that they will develop an appreciation for the vintage horns of yesteryear. If they don’t, I fear many of our lovely vintage saxes are destined for a future life as lamps, or will end up in the scrap metal heap. Now there’s a thought that is depressing as hell… :cry:

  6. I bought a bal. action Selmer Mark VI alto from a grandpa who played it in the Notre Dame Marching band. He played it only a few times a year for his grandkids.
    I own a Mark VI alto and bought his to sell. I warned him that I could re-sell his alto for much more but he wasn’t bothered or concerned. $700 later I sold it on Ebay for $4500. That was one year ago.

    • Hi Bob. Welcome to my site.

      It’s funny, some people prefer the BA over the Mark VI. I’m not up on the alto vs. tenor stuff, but in general, the BA tends to sell for higher amounts sometimes—depending on condition of course—than a Mark VI. However, I’m not sure if that trend holds in the alto as well.

      I have for years just shaken my head over the economics of vintage Selmers. The way I see it, I do love my Mark VIs. However, if I was just starting out now, I can’t imagine having to fork out the kind of money it would take to buy a soprano, alto, tenor, and bari. Yes, they are amazing horns, there is no doubt about it, but if I wanted them today, I’m not sure I’d be willing to hand over the amount of cash necessary to buy them.



    • Hi John. Welcome to my site.

      Of course I read your comment. I read all my comments. I also read all my emails. I am just sometimes really slow in replying. That said, I did look for your email this morning because it didn’t sound familiar. It must have gotten lost in cyberspace. Please write to me again at:

      I agree with you. A tenor saxophone is aesthetically, one of the most beautiful of musical instruments. That’s why I have decorated the foyer of my house with a pair of mirror image, vintage Italian-made tenors.

      tenor saxes on wall

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