Fred Oster is a man of an earlier time. As proprietor of Vintage Instruments — sellers of high-end classical string instruments as well as vintage and new guitars, banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles — Oster has always taken a traditional approach.
"He's very old-school," said George Gruhn, owner of the legendary Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, which has sold guitars to such notable musicians as Eric Clapton, Lyle Lovett, and Vince Gill. "He has a big, old, fancy house that's converted to a shop, and he's using the old-style violin shop business model for dealing guitars."
That "fancy house" is a renovated Victorian at Pine and Broad Streets. From the vibrant stained glass ceiling to its lush interior woodwork, Oster has created a space that is both grand and intimate.
He'll open that space to curious guitar aficionados when he hosts a rare public exhibition of 35 early Martin guitars on Friday and Saturday. This collection represents the largest group of pre-1867 guitars outside the Martin Guitars Museum.
"I think his place is a national treasure. It's a museum of guitars you can actually play. I don't think there's anything like it in the United States," said Dick Boak, director of museum, archives and special projects at Martin Guitars, the Nazareth, Pa., company that's been family owned since 1833. "The combination of an incredible piece of Philadelphia architecture mixed with the violins, cellos, guitars, mandolins, and banjos … I think that any lover of music would have a field day walking through those doors."
An interest that started with a small collection of Philadelphia-made S.S. Stewart banjos blossomed into a career as Oster finished his bachelor's degree in history at Fairleigh Dickinson University in North Jersey and pondered his next step.
"I played guitar. I liked instruments and was looking for something to do in the interim between college and grad school, and it just stuck," said Oster. "I had some Martin guitars, and they were plentiful and inexpensive at the time, but I could see them moving up in value with the folk boom in full force."
In the late 1960s, you could still acquire a 1930s Martin dreadnought guitar for about the same price as a new guitar. Current values, however, frequently surpass $100,000.
Oster opened his first shop in Chestnut Hill in 1974 and by 1978, he was able to move into a bigger space on Walnut Street in Center City. Behind this ambition for growth was a man driven by the devil in the details.
"As people in my business know, we're constantly involved in deciphering," he said of studying the fine details of an instrument to divine its history. "It's easy to decipher a Martin guitar, but to demystify a violin that was made 300 years ago takes a lot more effort and is a lot more fun."
In 1981, this passion to decode historical instruments led Oster to Christie's Auction House, where he ran the musical instruments department. As his own business grew, Oster moved his shop again, in 1983, to an antebellum brownstone in the Pine Street Antiques Row district. Thirteen years later, Vintage Instruments expanded to a second building a block away.
It was at that time that Oster came to the attention of Martin's Boak.
"I met him 20 years ago, when he had one building for violins and another building for guitars. It was amazing. I would go down to see what was going on because everybody was always talking about him," said Boak. "He's the closest thing to a quintessential musicologist that you could ever find."
Boak touches on what is so unique about Oster. A folkie at heart, he is equally devoted to the vastly different world of classical music. But how does a guitar aficionado transition to the more exclusive sphere of art music?
"He has a good eye for detail and he was in the right place at the right time to learn," said Gruhn. "Philadelphia has an active symphony and classical music scene and he had an advantage in having exposure to the right ones … from genuine Stradivari and Guarneri violins on down to guitars."
And with Martin Guitars nearby in Nazareth, Oster has access to more old Martins than most dealers would see. "Plus the fact is that Philadelphia was an area of considerable wealth, which means that some better instruments were sold in that area rather than south of the Mason-Dixon Line," Gruhn said.
That immersion has led Oster to host this public exhibition, composed of approximately 35 guitars. A number were featured in an exhibit of early American guitars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, and one is on the cover of the book Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries.
"Some of them have extensive provenance," said Oster. "One was owned by Col. John Wilkins, the Union officer who took it with him on his campaigns during the Civil War."
"Our intention is to show how interesting and historically important these early American guitars are," said Oster. "This will be a very intimate exhibition. While we won't be inviting people to handle the guitars, visitors will be able to see them in a close-up and personal way. Once we're done, we will put about a dozen of them on our website for sale."
With a cozy leather sofa and old Oriental rugs in the guitar room, Oster offers the perfect spot to try out a host of powerful instruments. And players may even spot a famous musician like Gillian Welsh or Nils Lofgren of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band in their midst. But Oster would never tell.
"You won't come in and find a million signed photographs from all these different clients. I think that part of what we're about is providing a safe atmosphere for well-known people to come and enjoy the instruments without fear that there are going to be people hanging all over them trying to get an autograph," said Oster.
Beyond this exhibit, Oster travels extensively as a professional appraiser, whether it's for the last 20 seasons of Antiques Roadshow or to violin shows in Paris. What keeps him excited about working in Philadelphia?
"I would say the large influx of young people. I look out on the street and I find there's a lot more vitality," said Oster. "It's a food town, it's a culture town, it's a museum town, it's a music town."