After studying classical guitar as a child, Jeff Wells went on to become an avid collector of historical guitars in later years. Now the San Anselmo resident owns more than 60 rare and historical guitars from across Europe and the United States in his Austin-Marie Collection, which is showcased on his website, austinmarieguitars.com, and book series. On October 5, the Austin-Marie Collection will be presented at the Marin Art and Garden Center, along with performances by guitarists playing period-appropriate pieces on several instruments in the collection from different eras. Here, Wells shares how he got into collecting, along with some of the most notable guitars in his collection.
Tell me about your collection:
I’m the owner of the Austin-Marie Collection of historical guitars dating from the early 17th century to the end of the 19th century.
How many years have you been collecting?
I’ve been collecting for many years, but as for seriously assembling a “collection” of the leading and most representative makers of their time and region, about 20 years.
Where do you keep them?
Many of the instruments are displayed on my website. They are physically kept in an offsite storage facility in Marin County.
I began studying classical guitar at age 12 and went on to receive my master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I was accepted to the Peabody Institute at John Hopkins University for the PhD program but declined to attend just before the fall semester began.
Through a turn of circumstances, I became involved in finance but kept performing and recording for some years. On a trip to Switzerland in the late 1980s, I purchased my first historic guitar, an 1820 Joseph Rieger from Mittenvald, Germany. I was hooked.
How do you acquire the guitars?
I find them in various locations, primarily in England and Europe. I have a contact at the University of Cambridge, Dr. James Westbrook, who is a leading organologist and knows where many of the treasures are buried!
Sometimes, however, the instruments have been sourced in the unlikeliest of places. For example, Pierre René Lacote was the premier builder of fine guitars in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. The 1834 Lacote in my collection, which was owned by wealthy 19th century musical instrument collector Andrew Fontaine (he owned the Strad violin still known today as Le Fontaine), was sourced in Napa by a woman whose husband had died. How he got it, no one knows. It’s arguably the finest Lacote to survive and has been featured in collection books.
Which is your favorite guitar?
That’s very tough to answer. Likely, it would be my 1834 Lacote, 1812 Furnielas (the only one), or maybe my 1834 C.F. Martin (only 12 have survived from Martin’s first year of making guitars in America).
Which guitar is most valuable?
Likely, it’s the 1652 Alexandre Voboam (only four extant), or maybe the 1785 Giovanni Battista Fabricatore (the earliest extant six single-string guitar in the world), my circa 1625 Matteo Sellas or my 1834 Martin.
Which guitar is most unusual?
Unusual would have to go to either one of my Laprevottes for their oval sound holes, or maybe to the presentation guitar by Aubry-Maire made in Mirecourt, France, for an American buyer.
My circa 1890 Jerome Thibouville-Lamy was used by actor Colin Firth in 2002’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which had an all-star cast that included Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett and Judi Dench. Firth actually damaged the guitar, but thankfully, it wasn’t serious (the subsequent repair shows no trace of the damage). Fortunately, it wasn’t damaged to the extent that Kurt Russell destroyed a priceless Martin in 2015’s The Hateful Eight. The C.F. Martin & Co. Museum stopped loaning out guitars after that incident.
Are you still adding to the collection?
Pieces are being added to the collection regularly and at the moment, there are four guitars in the queue to be posted on the website, including an Italian five single-string transition guitar from 1760 and a guitar owned by one of Napoleon’s generals, Bacheville, who in turn gifted the instrument to Ferdinand Pelzer, the famous nineteenth century teacher and impresario who was the father of the even more famous, Madame Sidney Pratten, who went from child prodigy to becoming the foremost guitar personality in London during the Victorian era.