Here’s a tickle of good auction news: The very busy eagle-eyed appraisers of Julien’s Auctions have pulled off yet another rock-and-roll coup. Kurt Cobain’s custom-electrified Martin D18E, used during the iconic November 1993 MTV Unplugged session and in later concerts until shortly before the frontman’s death, has just pulled in a $6 million hammer price in Beverly Hills. It was a hearty demonstration that, pandemic be damned, very desirable collectibles can still bring healthy prices.
The auction of the guitar brings yet another solid dollop of good news: It was bought by the very enterprising founder of Rode Microphones, Peter Freedman, whose family business began in the Sixties in Sydney, Australia, with a small instrument shop. He plans to put the guitar on a global tour to benefit the performing arts. There were not a lot of D18Es built — 302 to be exact. Cobain’s, built in 1959, was the seventh of those. He had it kitted out with a Bartolini pickup.
Freedman explained his largess to the press in this charmingly unvarnished way: “It’s a big deal. I didn’t even buy it for me. I paid for it but I’m going to use it to highlight the plight of artists worldwide by touring it around and then I’m going to sell it and use the dough for that as well, later.”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the recording of the MTV Unplugged gig in New York in 1993. It codified what the country at large already knew of Nirvana and particularly of Cobain — that in these musicians lay the most ferocious, unbending sort of talent, good loud, good soft, good any way they chose to appear. Cobain, himself, is of course only more marketable as the years since his untimely, disastrous death roll on, but to have that Martin D18, used at that gig, come under the hammer is as if some lyre handed down from Orpheus suddenly somehow found its way to California.
The axe carries every bit of that thunderous import, and for his $6 million, Freedman got the case, a number of picks, a package of Cobain’s strings for the thing, and, in a Greek-style rock-and-roll prefiguring of Cobain’s death, what’s being described as a stash bag.
Freedman told an agency reporter that he was: “…scared s*****ss and shaking” when the hammer came down of some of the other serious money in the room getting the prize.
“The musicians and artists have supported my family since the 60s,” Freedman said of his idea to take it on a global tour of art spaces. “We’ve been in that game forever so I’ve been very lucky with Rode and I’ve been able to give away lots of money, quite a few mill.”
In the meantime, kudos to the generous, imaginative Mr. Freedman. Many a wealthy collector would have just trophy-bagged the thing, and hustled it busily offstage not to be shared with the public.