Shop Spotlight: Quinn The Eskimo Vintage Horns

If Walter and Christie Carter, George Gruhn, and Norman Harris represent the vanguard of vintage guitar expertise, Matthew Stoecker just might be their analog in the vintage horn world.

The parallels between the two worlds go deeper than you might expect. All–original specimens command the highest prices and the most attention. Models used by iconic players get fetishized by musicians looking to cop their sound. And there is lore.

In the same way people talk about pre–CBS Fender or pre–war Martin guitars, Stoecker can talk all day about Elkhart–era Conn instruments, detailing what was going on at the factory and how the build quality differed through the years. Sound familiar, guitar nerds?

Over the past 17 years, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music grad has turned a hobby into one of the largest online stores for vintage horns in the world. Just last year, Quinn The Eskimo Vintage Horns brought its inventory to Reverb, with over 1,400 brass and woodwind listings ranging from player–grade horns fit for the student to the most ornate, collectable pieces imaginable.

We recently caught up over the phone to talk about the shop’s beginnings, tips for buying used horns and what his “holy grail” horn is.

I’m sure a lot of people wonder as soon as they hear it. Where did the shop name come from?

I wish there was a better story. I just happened to be really into that song [written by Bob Dylan] when I signed up with eBay. I got onto eBay quite early, and it hadn’t been taken yet, so I chose “Quinn the Eskimo.” It was kind of fortunate that I did because [that name is] easy to remember, it’s recognizable, and it sticks in your head.

When did you start selling vintage horns?

I signed up for eBay in 1998. I originally started to in order purchase things locally. I didn’t sell my first item until 2000. It was just kind of a hobby for seven years or so. I didn’t quit my job and do this full–time until 2007. It was a business before then, but it wasn’t my full–time gig.

Do you also run a brick–and–mortar operation?

No. I am 100% on the Internet.

How did you get into collecting and selling vintage horns?

I got a degree in trombone performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. One day after spring break, one of my studiomates came back with a trombone he had bought in a pawn shop down in Florida. It was an Elkhart Conn 88H, a model of trombone from the famed Elkhart factory that closed in 1969.

Those hadn’t been made in over 30 years at that point. But when I played it, I thought it was the most extraordinary trombone I’d ever played. Just amazing — great response, great tone quality, super easy to play. I decided I wanted one for myself. Because they hadn’t been made in so long, I couldn’t just go out and buy one.

So I went around to the pawn shops looking for one. I ended up finding a lot of other trombones that weren’t really instruments that I wanted to keep for myself, but I thought that maybe I could resell them and make a little money.

At the time, I had just graduated from college and was pursuing a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Washington. I was living on a graduate assistantship, which was all of $12,000 a year. If I could make $100 on a trombone, that was real money to me.

I started going out almost every weekend to pawn shops to find new things to buy and then resell. It just snowballed from there.

What were the types of things you were looking for back then?

Brad Wherry

Initially, it was trombones, because that’s what I knew. I didn’t really know much about other instruments. I met a fellow who’s now one of my partners, Brad Wherry, who ran a small shop in Seattle. Initially, I sold a lot of my stuff to him. He would start telling me about saxophones he wanted me to be on the lookout for, for instance. Or flutes. Or clarinets. I gradually picked up that level of knowledge.

Now Brad is the head of my repair department. He’s a fantastic repairman. We’ve joined forces to make this whole thing work.

Were there specific brands or characteristics you were looking for, knowing they had potential?

What I really looked for in general were pro models that weren’t priced as such. Back then, before eBay came along and became a handy reference guide for every pawn shop owner out there, it was easier to find those than it is now.

Pawn shop owners tended to be generalists. They weren’t music instrument specialists. They’d get a trombone in and have no idea what the difference between a Conn 18H Director Student model and a Conn 6H Professional small–bore instrument. They looked very similar, and you have to know what you’re looking for to tell the difference.

That was what I was on the lookout for: instruments that were mispriced for what they were. Also, having an idea of what it takes to repair damage that has occurred gives you what they call asymmetrical information. If you know more than the person you’re buying from, you have an advantage.

Right. Do you feel that sites like Reverb have reduced that advantage for buyers?

It’s definitely created fluidity in the marketplace. When I first started, eBay was not really a great place to sell things. There wasn’t a critical mass of people looking to buy [vintage horns]. It was hard to get a good price for something that you’d sell there.

In the beginning, I was mostly selling locally. I would sell things through a trombone email list. You don’t see those anymore, but it was just a list of subscribers who were interested in trombones.

Conn 6M Professional Alto Saxophone

Reverb has provided a market that’s easy to access for everybody, both buyers and sellers. That creates a more efficient market, where your pricing will approach more of an economic ideal in terms of what something is worth. There aren’t any more artificial shortages because of perceived scarcity.

A great example of this is the Conn 6M alto sax. This is a great saxophone played by Charlie Parker on some of his most influential recordings. It has a really terrific sound. And there are more of them out there than used to be perceived.

When I first started, they were selling for $2,500 all day long. Now I’m lucky if I can get $1,200 for a good–playing one of the right vintage. The prices have come down considerably because, as it turns out, the demand is much smaller than the supply.

But that’s part of what an efficient marketplace does. It gets rid of these false scarcities and levels the playing field for everyone.

When it comes to vintage guitars, there is a sort of recognized elite group of cognoscenti that collectors and players look to for historical knowledge and appraisals. Are there clear leaders when it comes to vintage horn knowledge and tastemaking?

Yes and no. Definitely not to the same extent. Part of the reason is that horns are so diverse and varied. If you have someone who’s on that level for vintage saxophones, they may know saxophones really well — a few people come to mind, like Mark Overton over at Saxquest — but they tend to be saxophone specialists.

There are people who are interested in the history of certain brass instruments. Sometimes there are people who are more interested in the history of makers than the the history of a particular type of instrument.

There’s been sort of an organic growth of that knowledge with the advent of the worldwide web. It’s almost been a crowd–sourced thing. A lot of sites have popped up that are terrific resources. For instance, if you want to learn about vintage Conn brass instruments, there’s a site called The Conn Loyalist with a wealth of information. There’s a site called Sax Pics which is photos of all sorts of vintage saxophones you can use as a visual reference.

To research these things, you really have to piece them together. There’s not really a one–and–done resource out there for vintage horns. But the knowledge is out there, if you take the time to look and find it.

What should people look for when buying a used horn?

Assuming that you’re looking for one to play and not for investment purposes — that gets into a whole other ballgame — you really want to have a concept first of what kind of sound you’re trying to emulate. One of the great things about these vintage horns is that they have sounds all their own that modern instruments don’t replicate.

Selmer Mark VI Alto Saxophone

If you want to try and replicate the Sonny Rollins sound, you want to get a Mark VI. If you want to emulate Charlie Parker, first you have to figure out what horn Charlie was playing on the recording you’re listening to, because he played just about anything he could get his hands on. You’re probably thinking of a [Conn] 6M.

Or maybe you’re thinking of a Grafton plastic, a very rare sax that was completely out of acrylic. The reason they’re so rare is that they’re very fragile. All it took was slight mishandling and they’d break into a million pieces.

Once you figure out what type of horn you’re after, then you’re looking at condition and playability. You want to make sure you’re purchasing from a reputable shop that has a good repair department that has either gone over the instrument or at least made sure it’s in good playing condition. One that is willing to start behind their work and sales.

We have an unconditional guarantee on everything we sell. If you don’t like the way it plays, you send it back for a refund. That’s extremely important when you’re purchasing a vintage instrument because they’ve usually been re–padded a few times during their lives and could’ve had other work done. You want to be sure that you’re going to have an instrument that will be playable for several years until it needs servicing again.

Then there are considerations around price. If you’re just looking for an instrument that you want to play in order to have a specific sound — and price is a major factor — you might look for an instrument that doesn’t have some of the collectable aspects.

For instance, the originality of lacquer is a very important consideration in terms of the value of a vintage instrument but not necessarily in the way it sounds.

Selmer Super Balanced Action Tenor Saxophone

Take a Selmer Super-Balanced Action Tenor Saxophone. This is one of the most valuable tenors out there. I sold one in mint condition, original lacquer, original pads — gorgeous horn. I sold it for $20,800 several years ago. These are very rare and sought–after instruments.

If that same exact instrument had been relacquered, in good condition it would only clear $7,000 to $8,000. If it had been an ugly relacquer, you’re probably looking at $5,000 to $6,000.

Either way, it’s going to play great. The question is how collectable of an instrument it is. When you get into some of the other instruments, originality of lacquer doesn’t have quite the same impact on value, but it’s still important.

That’s a personal decision. If you want an instrument that’s as close to original as possible or looks really nice, then you have to expect to pay a little more. But you can get a great–playing vintage horn — that might be ugly — on a bargain budget.

Who is the typical client for buying a vintage horn?

Conn 88H Professional Symphonic Trombone

There are mostly two categories. The first category is 40– or 50–year–old players who have wanted a particular model all their lives and are just now getting around to playing it. They’re not necessarily professional players, but they’re good players who know what they’re doing. “I’ve always wanted a Conn 88H from the Elkhart period” — that sort of person.

The other group is young, really good, developing players. College–age students who are really fine players thinking about a career in music but haven’t quite gotten there yet. They’re looking to explore that vintage sound. They just listened 18 hours of Charlie Parker and decided they have to have that alto sound.

Or maybe it’s a trombonist who’s been listening to Fritz Reiner recordings with the Chicago Symphony and wants to try and emulate that sound.

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever come through your shop?

The rarest thing to come through the shop is actually a piece we still have: it’s a Conn–o–sax. This is an instrument made by the Conn company in 1929. It is, in my opinion, the finest saxophone that Conn ever made. But it was a commercial failure. Estimates nowadays are that 30 to 35 of them still exist.

This instrument is a saxophone in F instead of E–flat, and it is straight instead of curved. It has a bulb at the end like an English horn instead of a bell. It has very advanced keywork, keys up to high G and down to low A. Even today, that’s extremely unusual for a saxophone.

It plays beautifully in tune, with a sweet sound that gets a little nasal in the low register because of the bulb on the end. I believe the idea Conn had was that this would become an orchestral saxophone. The thinking was that the saxophone would become a regular member of the symphonic orchestra. Conn wanted to lead the way with the saxophone that would be played there.

That never happened. Saxophones are used very sparingly in orchestral works, mostly by Russian composers and a couple of French composers, at least that I can think of. The problem with this instrument is that it was introduced in April of 1929, right before the big Wall Street crash that caused the Great Depression.

It was made as a premium instrument, so it was very, very expensive. They had sort of a confluence of events — there was really nowhere to play this instrument and no one had any money to buy them anyway — that made them a commercial failure.

The story that I heard is that the ones that were built but never sold were sent to the Conn instrument repair school, where they would be literally thrown out of the second–story window and then given to a repair student to take the dents out.

I’ve seen three or four Conn–o–saxes that have had heavy, heavy repair work done on them. And it shows. You can see stretches and scars in the metal. They’ve been relacquered. The keys have been replated in some cases. Mine, however, is all–original, in beautiful silver and gold plating. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

We’ve had a lot of crazy things come through the shop. Part of that is by design. We try to get unusual and oddball things whenever possible. I have an unofficial policy of “If I’ve never seen it, buy it,” because it must be rare. I’ve seen a lot of stuff.

What is the “holy grail” horn that you’re still looking for?

I’d like to get an early CG Conn contrabass trombone. But my understanding is that they only made three or four of those, and that they’re all accounted for. There probably isn’t one that’s going to come out of an attic anytime soon. People who do have them are not inclined to sell them.

One did just recently sell. I don’t know the final selling price, but the person was asking over $20,000 for it, which I felt was really, really high for a trombone. But they may well have gotten it. If they did, good for them.

I’d like to see one of those, just for my own personal collection. Most of the great instruments out there I’ve had come through at one time or another. There’s always something to be discovered.

Quinn the Eskimo Vintage Horns Shop Now on Reverb
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