(A version of the following article appears in the March/April 2016 issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
On the surface – and on paper – the matchup looked better than an Ultimate Fighting Championship cage match inside one of the UFC’s trademark “Octagons.” On one side stood champion John Lennon’s long-lost 1962 Gibson J-160E, fresh off its record-shattering performance this past November in Julien’s Auctions sale in Beverly Hills, California, where it sold for a whopping $2.41 million. On the other side was a formidable challenger, Elvis Presley’s black 1969 Gibson Dove, a guitar many considered almost as iconic – and valuable – as Lennon’s.
It was billed as a fight for the ages. And on January 7, 2016, the stage was set at Graceland Auctions in Memphis, Tennessee, to see if Elvis’ black Gibson Dove could best Lennon’s long-lost J-160E price tag. The lights dimmed, and the “fight” began. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close, as Lennon’s J-160E delivered a first-round knockout: Elvis’ guitar failed to meet even the minimum reserve price of $300,000. The guitar went back to its owner, Mike Harris, who is said to be working out the details with another auction house for another attempted sale later this year.
Looking back, one would have thought Elvis’ black Gibson Dove – locked away for nearly 40 years in a bank vault by its owner after Presley personally handed it to him in his front row seat during a concert on July 24, 1975, in Asheville, North Carolina – would have put up a much better fight. After all, Graceland’s pre-auction estimate was $300,000-$500,000, and the description in their auction catalog did its best to hype the sale:
“Rarely is such a prodigious asset of rock ‘n’ roll grandeur made available at public auction. Most instruments of this caliber remain in artists’ estates or move directly into the hallowed halls of various museums and institutions. But on this rare occasion when guitars close to this magnitude are offered for sale, the results are significant.”
Let’s examine this a bit closer: The provenance of both guitars is unquestioned; the importance of each guitar to its respective artist is clearly outlined and defined; Lennon and Presley are two of music’s most iconic and recognizable figures; both died untimely deaths, under contemptuous circumstances; and both continue to inspire and galvanize legions of fans worldwide, and will probably continue to do so for countless generations to come. Most importantly, though, is the fact that their music will certainly – and undeniably – live on forever.
But for some reason, the sale of these two guitars – which on the surface would seem to be somewhat in harmony with each other – did not parallel the significance of their respective owners’ lives at all. Considering all the facts, this might seem somewhat surprising, which then begs the question, “Why?” Why did Elvis’ black Gibson Dove fail to reach the minimum reserve price of just $300,000, while Lennon’s guitar shattered all expectations and records?
“Elvis’ guitar obviously carries a lot of iconic weight behind it,” declared Jeff Marren, Graceland Auctions’ consignment director. “It’s the guitar he played the most on stage, and the guitar he played during the 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concert TV special. Barring a guitar he played during his youth before he became famous, or right after he became famous, I’d have to say this Gibson Dove is the guitar that Elvis was actually seen with the most.”
Marren is probably right. Elvis played several guitars during his life, but it was this black 1969 Gibson Dove and his earlier Gibson J-200 that he is most often associated with. But still the question remains as to why this Gibson Dove didn’t live up to its lofty expectations. After all, the auction catalog distributed by Graceland prior to the auction compared the two guitars incessantly, more than once referencing the Lennon guitar’s record-shattering price tag of $2.41 million. In fact, their exact words were, “…Elvis Presley’s 1969 Gibson Ebony Dove guitar is certainly one of the most culturally significant and celebrated guitars in all of music history … The Ebony Dove was the most photographed and widely seen of any of Elvis’ guitars…”
But while the Marren’s comments may partly be true, according to several noted and long-time Elvis memorabilia dealers and historians, other factors may have played a bigger role in why Elvis’ Gibson Dove didn’t meet the auction’s reserve price.
“I’m sorry, but Graceland is just not an auction house,” said Chris Davidson, long-time collector and expert in Elvis Presley memorabilia. He’s also the former owner of the Elvis-A-Rama Museum in Las Vegas, which was purchased by Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., in 2006. “They own Elvis’ home. They’ve conducted a total of five auctions, I think, and the last two haven’t been very successful because of the quality and questionable authenticity of some of the items for sale.
“That said, the guitar is definitely real. But Graceland is relatively new at this,” Davidson continued. “The other thing is that even though Lennon is in the same league as Elvis, I don’t think there’s any way this Elvis guitar compares to that Lennon guitar.”
And Davidson makes a good point. Another long-time collector of Elvis Presley memorabilia, Stephen Shutts, agreed with Davidson’s assessment.
“I do think it’s a trademark signature piece of Elvis Presley history,” said Shutts, owner of Nashville-based Rockology. “But there are other things I think about first when it comes to Elvis before I think of a guitar. I think of rhinestones, the jumpsuits, the side burns, the pompadour haircut from the ’50s, etc. A guitar to me when it comes to Elvis isn’t very high on the list. Even though he did play guitar, the guitars he did use on stage were more of a prop than anything else. He would come out with them for the first one or two songs and then put them down on a stand and never play them again for the rest of the show. On the contrary, when you think of John Lennon, or Eddie Van Halen, or Eric Clapton, their guitars are like a part of their body. You don’t think about those guys without a guitar. You just don’t ever see them without a guitar.”
The other factor was the marketing efforts behind both guitars. Julien’s Auctions released the first press release about the Lennon guitar going up for sale on June 6, 2015, which was a full five months before the actual auction on Nov. 7, 2015. On the other hand, Graceland Auctions announced the sale of Elvis’ black Gibson Dove on Dec. 15, 2015, just 23 days before the auction’s actual sale date of Jan. 7, 2016.
“We normally do press for our auctions about four to six weeks out from the actual date of the auction,” said Graceland’s Marren, when asked about the apparent short notice. “In this case we did press for it a little less than one month out from the auction date. But as to why it didn’t sell? Sometimes items don’t meet the reserve price and that’s that.”
The experts, however, didn’t necessarily agree.
“I honestly don’t think they gave it enough time for it to season itself in the public’s eye,” Shutts said. “In order for a guitar like this to sell for a high price, potential buyers need to see what it’s all about. They need to digest the authenticity of where it came from, who it belonged to, and the provenance behind it. I think they should have given it a solid three or four months so that people could really understand what it was and where it came from.”
Apparently, the owner plans on taking another stab at a huge payday later this year. According to Davidson, he believes the guitar will be auctioned off again later this year, and this time by a more credible auction house well-known for selling these types of rock and roll memorabilia.
“No one in the world gets more money for rock and roll items than Julien’s Auctions,” Davidson said, stopping short of saying that’s where Elvis’ black Gibson Dove will end up later this year. “It takes a lot of years to build up that type of reputation and report with collectors from the rock and roll world, and Graceland just doesn’t have that. They may be familiar with items that belong to Elvis, but Julien’s is a true auction house. The owner will have better luck with Julien’s … hands down.”
We’ll keep you posted.
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 has 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.