With 600 guitars and 400 amps in all, the property from the late Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker‘s estate over the weekend comprised the largest assortment of guitars and amps ever sold by Julien’s Auctions in its 17-year history. Becker, who died of esophageal cancer at age 67 in 2017, was acclaimed as a guitarist, songwriter and producer, renowned for his quiet perfectionism in the studio with longtime musical partner Donald Fagen.
The auction, which took place at Julien’s Auctions’ Beverly Hills location on Friday and Saturday, fetched $3.3 million, overall, surpassing initial estimates of $1-$2 million on opening day.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Darren Julien, owner of Julien’s Auctions. “Who else had this many guitars and this many amps? Who else had a collection like this? It’s unbelievable. And he didn’t just buy them because they looked great. He literally played all of them and that’s what made this collection unique.”
Becker’s widow, Delia Becker, wearing a black T-shirt designed with the cover art for Becker’s second and final solo record, Circus Money, said her husband was “obsessed with sound” and guitars were stored “everywhere.” In addition to storage spaces in New York and Hawaii, their New York apartment was filled with guitars and she said “amps were lined up at the foot of the bed, under every table, the dining room table was all amps and then all the floor space.”
In what sounds like it was a daunting task, Julien’s property manager, Jason Watkins, began receiving shipments of pedals, recording gear and other items from Becker’s estate in late spring. Once the extensive collection was unpacked, physically laid out and organized, Watkins had to determine each item’s price. Since Becker had never sold any of his collection while he was alive, this auction marked the beginning of a market for this memorabilia with no pre-existing guides for pricing. Watkins researched each guitar and amp’s market value based on key features including year, make and model. When a base market price was established, he decreased the amount to make it more appropriate for auction before adding a certain percentage based on emotional value.
“A few guitars that he played a lot or guitars that were one-off custom made were bumped up. And we tried to price guitars he played onstage a bit higher,” said Watkins. “But auction value, technically, is lower than resale value because you’re operating on your time frame and not the buyer’s time, so the value should be less,” said Watkins. “You don’t do yourself a lot of favors by trying to set the prices high. You scare bidders away.”
Once a catalogue was published online in September, every item attracted an opening bid — a good sign going into the auction, said Watkins. By opening day, the sale already had over 1,000 registered buyers. While roughly 25 buyers sat in Julien’s gallery on Friday afternoon, the bulk of the buyers — including several famous rock stars — bid online and via telephone repped by Julien’s employees. Two auctioneers, Daniel Kruse and Zack Krone, took shifts leading the auction standing at a podium, announcing opening bids, closely scanning the room while simultaneously watching bids online on an iPad and guiding prices upward.
When bidding maxed out and slowed to a halt, buyers were given a “fair warning” or “gavel’s in the air” announcement — the auction world’s equivalent of “last call” at a bar — to solicit last-minute bids before declaring a sale to be final. While Kruse’s style was more wry and understated, Krone proved to be a live wire auctioneer. Dressed in a royal blue suit, he engaged the crowd with his fast-talking style and quick wit, joking with the buyers that that the price of a guitar was the equivalent of two Whole Foods items and that the auction would include a free guitar giveaway.
“I have to do what I can to keep their attention,” said Krone, a former stand-up comedian who’s worked as an auctioneer for 10 years, over the phone after the auction. “I use everything I have in my bag of tricks to create an atmosphere that has humor, comfort and trust. And I try to give buyers encouragement because most buyers think of what they have to lose, so I remind them what they have to gain.”
Krone pointed out that auction sales are unique because of the “reverse method of thinking” whereby “the buyer sets the price and determines an item’s value. There’s a joke in auction work that we like to say: ‘The more you pay, the more it’s worth.'”
Significant items and sales at the auction included a signature 1959 Gretsch Tennessean hollow body electric guitar signed in white marker by country music legend Chet Atkins sold for $12,800 (valued at $2,000-$3,000); a 1957 Fender Duo-Sonic electric guitar seen in the liner notes of Steely Dan’s 1977 hit record Aja sold for $57,600 (valued at $4,000- $6,000); a pedal board set up that had been used at Becker’s apartment sold for $32,000 (valued at $800-$1,200); and a red Sadowsky Telecaster-style solid body electric guitar nicknamed “Josie” played by Becker in 1995 on The Late Show with David Letterman and, nightly, on his 1996 Art Crimes tour sold for $25,600 (valued at $3,000-$4,000).
At one point, excitement crackled in the air as bids continued rising, seemingly exponentially, for a 1930s Bruno acoustic guitar, decorated with a Hawaiian theme on a blue background, which was purchased for a surprising $28,125 after having been valued at $200-$400. A Los Angeles businessman seated in the gallery bought the guitar for his wife who wanted it for their beachfront house in Hawaii, outbidding a musician who was bidding anonymously by phone.
Ironically, the most money spent for an item was the purchase of a guitar that almost wasn’t included in the auction. One of Becker’s favorite guitars to play at concerts, a green sparkly Strat-style guitar purchased from New York based guitar maker Chihoe Hahn in 2011, sold for a whopping $68,750 to a buyer bidding over the phone. “Delia had said, ‘You can have any guitar you want,'” said Hahn over the phone from New York. I initially said that I’d like the green Strat, but then I changed my mind and said said, ‘You know what? Put it in the auction. I think it will do really well.'” As to the especially high price paid for the guitar for which Becker, himself, had paid $3,400, Hahn said, “I’m in shock. I’m just in shock.”
At a private VIP reception held a couple of days before the auction, guests included Becker’s daughter, Sayan Becker (who playfully referred to her dad’s collection as “an addiction”), Men at Work frontman Colin Hay and Jeff Greenberg who owns Village Studios (formerly Village Recorder) where some of Steely Dan’s best known hits “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen” were recorded. “I’d rather have Walter here and not see all this stuff for sale,” said Greenberg. “But it’s pretty trippy, right? These are spectacular guitars. He was magical. Their records are still magical. It’s some of the greatest music ever made.”