Kurt Cobain's guitar is set to fetch $1m at auction

Dominic Jeffares

19 May 2020

The Martin acoustic guitar being auctioned accompanied Cobain's MTV Unplugged performance in New York City in 1994

The guitar is the headline item at the Music Icons event, hosted by Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills in June, with a starting estimate of $1m

19 May 2020 | Dominic Jeffares

To think the live album MTV Unplugged in New York might never have happened. By late 1994, Nirvana was at its peak, with seismic albums like Nevermind creating a fanatical following. Cobain wanted to call the album Sheep, a joke about the people who would buy it.

Prior to the live album, recorded at Sony Music Studios in New York City in November 1993, the band rehearsed for two days. The mood was tense, as MTV producers wanted to incorporate more hits into the setlist (in a break with MTV Unplugged convention, Nirvana played mainly lesser-known material and covers of songs by the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and Meat Puppets, whose members Cris and Curt Kirkwood joined Nirvana onstage). The day before filming, Cobain refused to play but showed up at the studio the following afternoon. He was suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness at the time; one observer said, "There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him... everyone was more than a little worried about his performance."

MTV Unplugged in New York, 1994

The finished result, however, was as good as it gets: an unforgettable document highlighting the raw talent and troubled genius of Cobain. His final song Where Did You Sleep Last Night, accompanied only by his Martin guitar, captivates as one of the greatest live performances of all time. By the end of the show, the crowd demand an encore but Cobain refuses. Perhaps that was all he had to give – he would commit suicide five months later. 

Cobain’s MTV Unplugged performance remains the definitive self-portrait of a generation’s most transformative artist. His instrument of choice? A 1959 Martin D-18E, which is now up for auction. Cobain bought the guitar and its vintage hard-shell case at Voltage Guitars in Los Angeles. He then customised the guitar and case, prior to his MTV appearance. Subsequently owned by Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain, she reportedly gave it up during an acrimonious divorce from her former husband, musician Isaiah Silva. 

Considering that the baggy, olive-green cardigan Cobain wore during the same MTV performance sold for $334,000 at Julien’s Auctions last October, it would not be a surprise if his guitar fetches far more than $1m (£810,000). For those interested in the auction, come as you are on Friday June 19th

The auction will take place in Beverly Hills and online at Julien's Live on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 June 2020