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Peeking inside Elderly Instruments’ vault


From guitars strummed in smoke-filled juke joints of the Mississippi Delta to banjos and mandolins played round campfires three generations ago — most of Elderly Instruments’ rare vault collection prices in the thousands.

However, two items blast higher to six figures: a 1963 Gibson Explorer valued at $218,000 and a 1924 Gibson F5 Lloyd Loar mandolin priced at $120,000.

“Lloyd Loar mandolins have sold upwards of $275,000 and we have one for $120,000. Can you believe the deal? Why don’t you just buy it now?” owner of Elderly Instruments Stan Werbin jokes.

In 2008, the recession tanked the rare instrument market and it never really recovered, Werbin said. “They went down in price for the first time. We’ve been doing this since 1972. It was always a steady up and just about nothing went down.”

Behind the flashy price tags are signature stories of their own.

The Gibson Explorer was a commercial failure in its 1958 debut. It was the age of big orange hollow body guitars thumping out the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and the “z” shaped Explorer with its hockey stick headstock was the odd man out.

“It was the beginning of the space race.

Kennedy announced we would be on the moon in 10 years. It was part of that generation of things,” Werbin said. “Guitar-making piggy backed on this, figuring to have something more modernistic looking.”

However, the more popular guitar players in the late ‘50s and ‘60s passed on the design, Werbin said.

“Someone at Gibson eventually said, ‘Wait a minute. No one is buying these. Let’s just put them on a shelf.’” Following its poor reception, Gibson would only send out specialized orders if requested. Elderly Instruments’ 1963 Explorer was one of these orders assembled from late-‘50s parts, Werbin said. It is one of 38 left in the world.

Forty years prior, the Lloyd Loar mandolin also shared this fate. Gibson, then based in Kalamazoo, hired sound engineer and mandolin player Lloyd Loar to reinvigorate its traditional mandolin model in 1921.

Loar carved the inside of the instrument to match its natural intonation, as Stradivari did with his violins. These were Gibson’s “master model” instruments.

“The last one was made in December 1924 and then Loar got fired,” Werbin said. “In those three years, they made only a couple of hundred of these instruments. That may sound like a lot, but a lot of skilled mandolin makers can only make 10 a year, and Gibson had a whole workforce.”

They also were expensive for the time and only appealed to mandolin maestros; the $200 price tag for the new F5 in 1922 is comparable to $3,000 in 2019 when adjusted for inflation.

Commercial trends also showed mandolins going down in popularity during this time, Werbin added.

“By the time Loar developed the ultimate in mandolins, its popularity was going down. Imagine you designed the greatest electric guitar ever made, but disco is the ‘in thing’ and nobody cared.”

But the mandolin’s commercial failure didn’t sink Loar’s career. He later became an early pioneer of electric instruments with his company Vivi-Tone .

For more information about viewing or purchasing these rare instruments, visit www.elderly.com


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