(The following article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
“Everyone’s knickers are in a twist,” was how one anonymous confidant summed it up.
“It’s all a big fraud,” said another.
“Much ado about nothing!” was still another opinion from an industry insider.
And so went the war of words between dealers, collectors, guitar players, and anyone else remotely interested in a controversial 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom – or “Black Beauty” – once owned by Mr. Les Paul himself. It hit the auction block on Feb. 19, 2015, in an auction held by Guernsey’s titled “The Tom Doyle Collection.” Expectations were undoubtedly high, but the criticism surrounding the guitar was more like lions circling a herd of wildebeests.
Mr. Doyle, of course, was Mr. Paul’s longtime luthier and assistant, and owner of the guitar since 1976, when Mr. Paul gave it to him as a gift. The guitar was widely advertised by Guernsey’s as the instrument Mr. Paul tinkered with the most, specifically billing it as “…the instrument from which Gibson’s enormously popular Les Paul models evolved.” Additionally, the guitar was played by Mr. Paul countless times on The Les Paul & Mary Ford Show during the mid-1950s, as well as on many recordings and stage performances during that same time period. Basically, Mr. Paul used this particular guitar extensively from the time he received it from Gibson in early 1954 until he gifted it to Mr. Doyle in 1976.
The guitar remained in Mr. Doyle’s possession until sometime last year when he decided to part with it. He employed the help of scrappy guitar dealer Max Stavron (which didn’t necessarily help matters), who together with Guernsey’s’ President Arlan Ettinger put together a marketing campaign – or sales pitch, depending on your perspective – that rivaled that of any insurance company or beer manufacturer for a Super Bowl ad. However, the torch that ultimately lit the raging debate was the cover of Guitar Player magazine’s February issue, which crowned the controversial guitar as “The Grail,” and declared it as “The Genesis of All Les Paul Guitars to Come!”
In an interview with the Washington Post, George Gruhn, one of the world’s most respected vintage guitar dealers, addressed the article in Guitar Player magazine by saying, “That article is absolute bull, and the whole thing’s as crooked as can be. It’s an attack on everything I’ve worked on for over the last 50 years.”
In that same Washington Post story, even blues legend Joe Bonamassa offered his opinion by declaring that he “wouldn’t pay $10,000 for it,” which on the surface would seem a bit hypocritical considering he recently spent as much as $410,000 for a single Les Paul Standard guitar from the late 1950s.
“What it is is a carved up old Les Paul Custom that Les modified and gave to Tom,” Bonamassa told the Washington Post. “I think Tom has the best of intentions with the guitar but Tom, because of his closeness to Les, may have an unrealistic value in his mind.”
On the other side of the fence, however, were people like guitarist and classic rocker Steve Miller (Mr. Paul’s godson), who told the Washington Post: “Is Tommy hyping it up a little bit? Hell, yeah! But is this guitar an important guitar? It’s an electric guitar, it’s made by Gibson, and it was Les’s guitar. That’s what makes it a great guitar.”
In the auction catalog, Miller went even further by writing that “without this very guitar, no other Les Paul guitars could exist in the form that we have come to know and love.”
The auction took place at Arader Galleries in New York City and featured several other pieces of Les Paul memorabilia. In the end, despite all the naysayers and pessimists, the winning bid was placed by Mr. Christopher McKinney on behalf of Indianapolis Colts’ owner Jim Irsay. The final sale price was $335,500 ($275,000 plus a $60,500 buyer’s premium). When you consider Ettinger was on record in a New York Times’ article saying he expected the guitar to fetch as much as $2 million, Irsay got it at a bargain basement price. Suffice to say he was happy as a clam about the whole thing.
“I was willing to go a little higher,” Irsay told the Washington Post. “I know there was a lot of negative talk from a few guys who were well respected but look, it’s an important guitar and I’m happy to have it as part of my collection. I don’t believe it’s the “Holy Grail. I don’t think there is a Holy Grail, frankly. But it really enhances my collection significantly. And I’m really happy to have it.”
So now the controversial guitar joins a collection that already includes the Fender Stratocaster played by Bob Dylan at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965, and Jerry Garcia’s Tiger, which he played almost exclusively from 1979 to 1989.
But the questions still linger. Who was right? Is this 1954 Les Paul Custom guitar really worth what Irsay paid for it? And what impact – if any – did its sale have on today’s vintage guitar market? The answers depend on who you ask, and/or who you believe.
“It’s an important guitar,” Irsay told Rolling Stone magazine shortly after the auction. “I don’t feel it’s the Holy Grail — that’s a mythical term — but it has huge significance in that it was Paul’s personal guitar and it was a huge influence in terms of producing electric guitars. I wasn’t going to go north of $1 million, but I think we got it for a great price. I think it could’ve gone for a lot more. This is a guitar builder’s guitar.”
Pre-auction pessimists, however, continued their verbal assault on the guitar even after the auction was over. Longtime Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson, who happens to own hundreds – if not thousands – of vintage guitars, told the Washington Post, “That’s way more than it’s worth. But it’s been on the cover of a bunch of stuff and it’s got the provenance of Les Paul having it at one point. I’m so happy it didn’t go for $2.1 million.”
That last statement from Nielson seems a bit troubling, especially coming from a man who owns so many vintage guitars. You’d think that Nielson – as the owner of so many vintage guitars – would want the guitar to sell for as much as possible. Yet he was one of the more vocal opponents of the guitar both prior to the auction, and then again after it. Even Bonamassa’s comment about the guitar not being worth more than “$10,000” would seem to contradict the fact that he’s quietly been amassing a sizeable collection of vintage guitars over the last few years, routinely paying six figures for several late 1950s and early 1960s Gibson guitars. Like Nielson, you’d expect Bonamassa would welcome ANY vintage guitar to sell for as much as possible – if anything to validate and enhance the values of their own collections.
Guernsey’s President Arlan Ettinger, who is no stranger to controversial guitar auctions, was a bit taken aback by the negative comments prior to the auction, but nonetheless did his best to positively promote the auction any way he could.
“Working with Tom Doyle on the sale of this guitar and other pieces was a true and absolute honor,” Ettinger said. “But I did think some of the things said about this guitar, especially what was quoted in the Washington Post stories, was outrageous. There’s no real way to know if the negativity expressed prior to the auction actually impacted the sale, but personally I think it probably did. And it’s a real shame that politics and petty jealousy that some people harbor were the main topic of discussion prior to this sale taking place.”
Ettinger continued, “I saw for myself firsthand the love and respect displayed at the auction preview, as people were reminiscing with Tom and his family about Les; all the different musicians, studio techs, etc., that remembered the relationship that Tom had with Les, and who remembered this particular guitar and spoke in great detail with Tom about the guitar. And then to hear some of the negative comments that were made about it … that was just wrong.”
As someone standing on the sidelines, with absolutely no stake whatsoever in this auction, I offer you the following opinion observation:
I think the so-called industry “experts” missed the boat on this one. Granted, the Les Paul model guitar was introduced as early as 1952. But it’s also quite documented that Mr. Paul himself tinkered endlessly with its initial design and wasn’t truly “happy” with the Les Paul until Gibson introduced the Les Paul Custom (his favorite model) in 1954, which was the product of a collaboration between Mr. Paul and Ted McCarty, Gibson’s former president and chief executive.
I also believe this guitar was without a doubt one of two prototypes given to Mr. Paul by Gibson, and that it was NOT a stretch to surmise that all other Les Paul models that followed the introduction of the Les Paul Custom in 1954 were influenced in some way by this one Les Paul Custom guitar, which Mr. Paul used as the platform for his experimentations, and eventually gave to Doyle.
In hindsight, it was the use of the phrase “Holy Grail” by Guitar Player magazine that got the naysayer’s blood boiling. And this – to me, anyway – was absurd. The situation definitely did not justify the reaction. We’re talking about a guitar, albeit an important guitar, but not some shoddy example of a Les Paul Custom, that Gibson gave to Mr. Paul to experiment and play with. This guitar had clear and well-documented provenance, and consequently significant value.
Bottom line is this: the bidding for this guitar started at $25,000 and within five minutes ended up at $275,000. Mr. Irsay and his representative, Mr. McKinney, were not the only ones bidding on this guitar, which means there were others that thought this guitar had significant value. Plus, Mr. McKinney told The New York Times he was authorized to bid as high as $625,000 for the guitar!
“We know the importance of the guitar historically,” Mr. McKinney told The New York Times. “This guitar was used by Les in recordings, in television. It was his main guitar for innovations. It shows his thinking and progress as an inventor. A lot of the things that were done to this guitar went on to become industry standard.”
Personally, I’m very happy for Mr. Doyle … and even happier about the positive statement it makes for the current state of the vintage guitar market, in general. And had it sold for more (in other words, had the naysayers held their tongues in check) all of us would have benefitted even more from it.
Invoking an old cliché (if I may), you can choose to look at any situation in life as a glass half empty, or a glass half full. In this case, looking at the glass half full would have definitely been better for all us in the vintage guitar market. Why anyone would have wanted to see it otherwise is beyond me.
Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s web site at www.bluesvintageguitars.com.