An Ounce of Gold for a Fine Suit of Clothes...

One day in the early 1960s, Arnold Gingrich, Esquire magazine's founder and editor-in-chief, phoned his stockbroker with an unusual request: Gingrich needed a cashier's check for $12,000 right away. Would the broker please sell some of Gingrich's stocks?

The stockbroker complied. But when it came time to hand over the check, the broker said to Gingrich, only half-jokingly, "I hope you haven't gotten some girl in trouble." Gingrich assured his broker that that was not the case, but declined to reveal why he needed such an amount—$84,953.73 in 2008 dollars.

Months later, Gingrich encountered his broker at a social function. The broker volunteered: "I have no idea what you did with that money, but I want you to know that every stock I sold for you has since only gone down in value." Gingrich replied with some social pleasantry. What Gingrich didn't want people to know was that while he hadn't gotten a girl in trouble, he had fallen in love—with a Stradivari violin.

An amateur violinist, Gingrich had impulsively seized the opportunity to buy an authenticated but slightly small, early Strad for $12,000, at a time when many fine Italian violins could be had for $3000 or less. (At the time, a new Ferrari 250 GTE 2+2 cost $11,000.) Gingrich left the violin to Marlboro College (as in Music from Marlboro), but my surmise is that Marlboro later quailed at the ongoing insurance premiums; they reportedly sold the violin at auction in 1988.

I hear you: "Wait a minute! You can't buy a Stradivari violin for $84,953.73 in today's dollars." Well, that's a large part of my point. A no-stories, ironclad-provenance Strad, even a smallish early one more suited for amateur string-quartet playing than for orchestral or solo work, is today worth three-quarters of a million dollars, all day long. A no-stories, ironclad-provenance Strad that is suitable for a soloist costs at least $1.5 million. The record public sale price for a Strad was set in 2006 at $3.5 million, but many significant sales are not public record—the best of the best violins often change hands privately.

What does this little history lecture teach us? One important lesson is that, when it comes to objets d'art—four-stringed, four-wheeled, or other—inflation calculators and cost-of-living indices are out to lunch. Another lesson is that perhaps it is not so much a case of violins having become that much more expensive as of dollars having become much less valuable. Yes, old Cremonese violins can become only more rare. But hand in hand with that scarcity-driven market appreciation is the undeniable fact that when a government—be it Zimbabwe's or our own—tries to get out of an overspending bind by printing money, the markets catch on and adjust accordingly. Were the dollar in better shape, a top Strad might be had today for less than $1 million.

Back when Arnold Gingrich was sneaking around buying old violins and showing up at the office hours early so that he could practice without disturbing his wife or his employees (as amusingly recounted in his charming musical autobiography, A Thousand Mornings of Music), the top mail-order seller of electronic gear in the US was Allied Radio. I have a copy of Allied's 1966 catalog, and it makes for fascinating reading. The first thing you notice is that a lot of what Allied sold was, to put it charitably, not worth buying even 40 years ago. We all remember the AR turntables and Fisher electronics, but for every bit of nostalgia-worthy gear, there were 20 models of cost-compromised near-junk.

Nonetheless, it is instructive to go back and see what the stuff that has passed the test of time went for in the mid-'60s. Here's a dream system chosen from the pages of that 1966 Allied catalog: Thorens TD-124 turntable with elliptical-stylus cartridge and walnut base, $202.50; Marantz 7 preamplifier, $285 (wooden case, $24); Marantz 8B tube stereo power amplifier, $285 (tube cage, $10.50); the now-legendary Marantz 10B tuner with tuning oscilloscope, $600 (wooden case, $36); and AR3 acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, $450/pair.

Total cost of my 1966 Allied Radio dream system: $1893—at the time, more than the price of a new Volkswagen Beetle. (The base price of today's VW New Beetle is $17,630.) A top-shelf system back then wasn't cheap—and including an open-reel tape deck, as was then the audiophile custom, would have increased the system price by hundreds more 1966 dollars.

Years ago, on Boston's commercial classical FM station WCRB, a men's clothing store ran an ad that memorably claimed that, ever since the late Middle Ages, a man could always be properly dressed for the value of one ounce of gold. At the time, during the Carter administration, gold hit unprecedented highs—over $600 an ounce. (The current administration's achievement: over $900 an ounce.) This clothing store wanted us to know that it could provide a suit, shirt, and tie for under $600.

Disregarding the objet-d'art effect, I applied an online inflation calculator to the total $1893 cost of my 1966 wish-list system. The result: $12,320.64. That is near to, but lower than, what Stereophile's research indicates is the average that the magazine's readers have spent on their two-channel systems.

What does this prove? Not much. But it does at least suggest that, in the same way that the price of a fine suit of clothes has, over the very long haul, remained something of an economic constant, spending $12,500 to $17,500 of today's dollars on a two-channel audio system falls within a long-term economic "sweet spot." And, of course, carefully shopping for used equipment "once the new has worn off" remains a valid, and at times brilliant, strategy.—John Marks