Music auction hits a bum note

THE Companion is an enthusiastic if somewhat unskilled guitarist. He’s noodled around on various instruments for decades, never really progressing past a reasonable level of competence as a rhythm guitarist. But in the same way that my driving is probably pretty average and yet I idolise certain professional racing drivers, so does The Companion, as a pretty average guitarist, idolise some of the best players in the world.

Top of the list are Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, David Gilmour, John Mayer (somewhat unfathomably), and a guy called Steve Rothery who’s in a band called Marillion, of whom no-one I know other than The Companion has ever heard.

(Somewhat tragically, several years ago, a call went out to Marillion fans in Sydney to gather at the Opera House to record a message to send to the band to convince them to tour Australia. As many as two dozen people turned up.)

Imagine The Companion’s anticipation, then, when Gilmour – of Pink Floyd fame – announced he was planning to sell 120-odd of his guitars. He could scarcely contain himself. Before we’d had a chance to even discuss it, The Companion had set up an account with the auction house, Christie’s, and was moving money between bank accounts to get enough in one place so he could have a tilt.

‘It’s another world out there, when an individual can pay more for a guitar than the vast majority of the planet’s population will pay for a house.’

I know how he felt. Many’s the time I’ve seen an auction of classic cars advertised and experienced that momentary flutter in my stomach when I imagine how I might feel behind the wheel of a classic de Tomaso or Bertone or Aston Martin or Bentley. And who was I to tell him it was a waste of money to buy a guitar he’d only be able to play to a rudimentary level when, over the years, I’ve almost literally lost count of how much I’ve spent buying and selling cars. He’s no David Gilmour but I’m hardly Susie Wolff.

So the auction kicked off at 1am Sydney time – an hour later than advertised – and the first instrument under the hammer was a 1966 Fender Stratocaster with an estimated price of $US10,000 to $US15,000 ($14,400 to $21,600). Within seconds the bidding had rocketed past the estimate and continued on a trajectory like the rev counter on an F12tdf, until it topped out at $US423,000. That’s $610,000 in our money.

It’s an aberration, The Companion averred. First item up – there’s some muscle-flexing going on in the auction room. Things will settle down. The second instrument was a 1969 Martin D-35 acoustic guitar. Price estimate: $US10,000 to $20,000. Eventual sale price: $US1.095 million ($1.58 million).

I was watching from across the room and the look on The Companion’s face as these instruments sprinted out of his price range was like the look on a child’s face when someone pops their party balloon: shock, anger, grief and then, finally, resignation.

Time and time again the same routine occurred: a frisson on anticipation, brutally and rapidly crushed. The Companion retired to bed, defeated and disillusioned. At the end of the day – it was almost, literally a day, because it was still going when we woke the next morning – the auction had raised $US21.5 million ($31 million).

Gilmour’s famous Black Stratocaster, which he apparently played on Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, Wish You Were Here and The Wall – including “the world’s best guitar solo, on Comfortably Numb”, the Companion assured me – as well as at the most recent reunion of the Classic Pink Floyd line-up in 2005, sold for $US3.975 million ($5.7 million).

It’s another world out there, when an individual can pay more for a guitar than the vast majority of the planet’s population will pay for a house.

The buyer was some US sports-franchise owner, which The Companion tells me means he has more money than sense, no interest in the instruments as objets d’art, no concern for the history and stories of the instruments or the music they made, is undoubtedly tone-deaf and probably can’t play more than Smoke on the Water. Apparently this is one of the worst insults you can hurl at a guitar player.

As I write, the Companion is upstairs with his guitar plugged in and turned up loud, trying to find his way through the chord progression of some extraordinary prog-rock anthem, probably Marillion. So I’m going out for a drive. And just like The Companion is up there imagining what it’s like to be on stage as Steve Rothery or David Gilmour, I’ll be out there imagining what it’s like to be behind the wheel as Michele Mouton or Susie Wolff.

Each to his – and her – own.