Due to the pandemic, it was a smaller than usual group at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, but excitement still crackled through the air as spectators and bidders, held their breath, bit their lips and sat on the edges of their seats as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s famed 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar (and its vintage hardshell case affixed with baggage claim tags and stickers), the featured highlight of the two-day auction and prominently displayed on stage all afternoon, sold for an incredible $6.01 million to Peter Freedman from Rode Microphones who was in attendance. The $6.01 million is a new world record for a guitar at an auction. The previous record-holder was a Stratocaster owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour that fetched $3.95 million.
“My parents were in the music industry, the arts industry before I was born,” Freedman told SPIN after the auction. “Musicians also supported my family for decades. I’m going to use this to tour it around the world to lobby governments to start proper funding for mental health, medical, wages lost, all the stuff that’s gone. This is my life. This is my industry. We’re going to raise awareness and raise money. They’re writing letters. That doesn’t work.”
As the only guitar Cobain played at Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged session and used at a handful of live tour dates including Club Lingerie and the Forum in Los Angeles, it had attracted four $1 million online bids during the week leading up to the auction.
Recorded in New York on Nov. 8, 1993 and aired on Dec. 16, 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged was the first Unplugged to be filmed in one take. Cobain, wearing his famed ratty green cardigan (which Julien’s auctioned for a record-setting $334,000 last October), a long-sleeved button-down shirt over a Frightwig t-shirt, jeans and Converse sneakers, had the set decorated with Stargazer lilies and black candles and sang 14 songs including Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” “About A Girl,” and “Dumb,” a variety of covers including David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” and several Meat Puppets songs including “Lake of Fire.” At the end of the intimate, raw, powerful and haunting set, Cobain returned his guitar to its stand and walked away, leaving the guitar center-stage.
MTV Unplugged Live in New York debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts when it was released seven months after Cobain’s death, and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance. The DVD, which includes the original broadcast, songs taped during the show’s rehearsal and two cuts omitted from the original broadcast, was released in 2007.
At a private preview at Julien’s on Monday afternoon, Voltage Guitar owner Lloyd Chiate, who sold the guitar to Cobain in 1993, stopped by to see the guitar up close and personal before it was sold. Chiate says he picked up the Martin for $3,500 at a pawn shop in the South and sold it to Cobain for $5,000 when Cobain visited Chiate’s guitar shop several days in a row. Cobain added Bartolini 3AV electric pickups to the soundhole and the nut was recut to be played left-handed. Chiate was also present at today’s auction.
Other Nirvana items sold at the auction included a signed Nevermind poster ($56,250, was estimated between $6,000 – $8,000), the camera, original negatives and signed original prints, and the copyright from Nirvana’s 1992 SPIN magazine photoshoot ($35,200, which was estimated between $10,000 – $20,000), and Nirvana all-access passes ($512 each).
“Music Icons,” Julien’s first live and social-distanced in-person auction since last December, sold over 800 music and music-related artifacts including Elvis Presley’s 1977 Lincoln Mark V Coupe (which went for $62,500) Johnny Cash’s Valencia stage played acoustic guitar (signed by all The Highwaymen, Cash’s country music supergroup with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings) ($57,600), Guns N’ Roses’ 1988 MTV VMA Moonman for best heavy metal video for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” ($7,680) and Noel Gallagher’s handwritten lyrics to Oasis‘ entire (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? album ($22,400) and songs “Wonderwall” ($5,000) and “Champagne Supernova” ($6,400).
Notable auction items that sold for significantly higher than their estimated amounts include an iconic photograph of Steely Dan taken by Anton Corbijn and used in 1978 in the Greatest Hits album gatefold (sold for $5,120, with an estimated value between $300-$500), a Western-style black leather belt worn by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zandt (sold for $31,250, with an estimated value between $6,000-$8,000), Madonna’s ivory satin halter gown worn in the “Vogue” music video (sold for $179,200, with an estimated value between $20,000 – $30,000) and Prince’s custom-made purple love symbol ankle boots (sold for $15,623 with an estimated value between $4,000-$6,000).
Prince’s 1984 Cloud 2 “Blue Angel” guitar (with road case and 1991 SPIN magazine with Prince holding the guitar in the cover photo), used on several tours and seen in televised performances and music videos, was Friday’s featured highlight selling for $563,000.