Kurt Cobain's Nirvana MTV Unplugged guitar smashes world record at auction

When David Gilmour's Black Strat sold for $3.8 million last year to become the world's most expensive guitar in history it seemed like the world record for would be safe for along time. But the modified Martin 1959 Martin D-18E acoustic guitar Kurt Cobain used for Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged performance has just eclipsed it at $6 million.

The winning bid of $6,010,000 at the Julien's Auctions Music Icon sale in Beverly Hills yesterday (20 June) came from Australian businessman Peter Freedman, owner of Rode Microphones. The guitar was originally estimated a $1 million.

He was there to bid in person, beating out worldwide interest and admitted to the Press Association new agency that he was "scared shitless and shaking when the auctioneers gavel finally dropped.

(Image credit: Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty)

"I’m going to use it to highlight the plight of artists worldwide"

Peter Freedman

He now has big plans for the guitar – he'll be touring it around galleries and art spaces for people to see. With the proceeds going to help artists. 

He added: “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.”

That will be a positive chapter for a guitar that's been the focus of its fair share of controversy in recent years.

The guitar was centre of the divorce settlement between Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain and her ex-husband Isaiah Silva, with the latter becoming its legal owner before taking it to auction. 

Kurt Cobain used it throughout Nirvana's legendary MTV Unplugged performance in New York on November 18, 1993.

It's a rare guitar even without the Cobain provenance. It's the seventh of only 302 D-18Es built by Martin and as Nirvana tech Earnie Bailey told Total Guitar, it was then heavily modified for Nirvana's 1993 MTV Unplugged performance in New York .

“The D-18E’s spruce top was weighed down by a trio of volume and tone potentiometers, a toggle switch and a Bartolini soundhole pickup mounted between a pair of hefty [stock] 1950s DeArmond Dynasonic pickups [these ended up being bypassed in favour of the retrofit Bartolini]," said Bailey.

The D-18E was sold with its original hardshell case, complete with a half-used pack of Martin guitar strings, three picks and Cobain's suede bag, which is decorated with a miniature silver spoon, fork and knife.

The sale comes a day after Prince's Blue Angel Cloud 2 guitar sold at the same auction event. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.