When the 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar that Kurt Cobain played at Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged performance went up for auction this week, Martin J. Nolan, the executive director/chief financial officer of Julien’s Auctions, predicted it would fetch a massive sum and perhaps even set a new Julien’s record. But the auction surpassed expectations Saturday, when the final bid was more than $6 million — officially making it most expensive guitar ever sold. The previous record was $3.975 million, for a Black Stratocaster owned by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.
Cobain purchased the Martin D-18E, the seventh of only 302 ever manufactured, in the early ‘90s at Voltage Guitars in Los Angeles, and he had it modified for his left-handed playing style, which made it even more of a rarity. It was the only guitar that Cobain, who died on April 5, 1994, played for all 14 songs of Nirvana’s Unplugged show taped at Sony Music Studios in New York City on Nov. 18, 1993. The auction also came with the guitar’s original hard-shell case decorated with an Alaska Airlines sticker and a duct-taped flier for one of Cobain’s favorite punk bands, Poison Idea; a half-used pack of Martin & Co. guitar strings; three Dunlop guitar picks; and, most interestingly, a suede “stash bag” with miniature knife, fork, and spoon.
Seven potential buyers bid on the guitar, with the bids starting at $250,000 but already reaching $1 million before the auction even officially opened on Friday; the winning bidder ultimately paid $6,010,000. Julien’s did not disclose who had purchased (or attempted to purchase) the guitar, nor how the auction house had received it. The guitar was previously owned by the Nirvana frontman’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who reportedly gave it up during an acrimonious divorce from her ex-husband, Isaiah Silva. Last week, Nolan stated that he was “not privy to that [situation] at all,” but said there was nothing to prevent either Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, or Cobain’s daughter from bidding on the “family heirloom.”
Nolan added, “I will tell you that the current owner of the guitar consigned it to us, and we are selling the guitar with title free and clear. So the winning bidder on June 19, when they gavel goes down and they take home this amazing piece of pop-culture history, they're owning this without any lien or any complications or any problems at all.”
Other Nirvana items that were up for auction this weekend, as part of Julien’s Auctions’ “Music Icons” event, included Cobain’s setlist (winning bid: $10,240), guitar pedal ($8,960), and lyric sheet ($5,760) from the Unplugged concert; the silver lamé shirt Cobain wore in Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” video ($25,000); a Nevermind poster signed by all three band members ($56,250); and even Cobain’s prescription Prilosec bottle from 1992 ($3,840).
In October 2019, when the khaki cardigan that Cobain wore for his Unplugged performance sold at Julien’s, it became the most expensive sweater ever purchased at auction. “You think about grunge and what it represents,” said Nolan. “The cardigan we sold last year — that green grungy cardigan, cigarette burns included — for $334,000. [Cobain] probably bought it in a thrift store for a few dollars, which is what he would represent. … I just think that this guitar potentially could set a world record as well. And I think Nirvana goes on to create worldwide records. We're still talking about it today.”
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