Lennon’s J-160E vs Presley’s Black Gibson Dove: The Ultimate in Guitar Showdowns!

(A version of the following article appears in the March/April 2016 issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)

By Gabriel J. Hernandez

Elvis with Gibson Dove from Aloha from Hawaii

Elvis and his 1969 black Gibson Dove during the iconic 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” television event

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:

1969 Custom Gibson Ebony Dove Guitar 2

Elvis’ 1969 black Gibson Dove is set to auctioned again May 21, 2016, in NYC … this time at Julien’s

“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.”


John Lennon’s long-lost 1962 Gibson J-160E sold at Julien’s last year for $2.41 million!

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.

About Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc.

Gabriel Hernandez is the owner and president of Nashville’s Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. He was born in New York City but moved to West Palm Beach, Florida at the age of six – the same time his grandmother gave him his very first guitar. He's been obsessed with the instrument ever since, though he realized early on he wasn't going to be a rock star. That, however, never stopped him from playing music simply for the love of it, and forming what eventually became one of south Florida's most successful cover bands. Along the way he managed to earn a B.S. degree in Journalism from the University of Florida (1988), and forged an impressive and successful career as first a journalist and then marketing and advertising executive for several Florida companies. He eventually moved his family to middle Tennessee in 2006 after accepting a job as the web editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s world headquarters near downtown Nashville. His time at Gibson, however, was cut short when the country’s struggling economy forced the company to lay off 200-plus employees in December 2009. Not able to find a full-time job and needing to make ends meet – but fortunate enough to know a thing or two about marketing, business and A LOT about guitars – Hernandez began buying and selling guitars and other musical instruments via the Internet. Within a few short months, and with a few lucky breaks and a lot of hard work, Hernandez successfully turned his “part-time” endeavor – and passion – into a full-blown business, now known as Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., and located in the burgeoning Nashville suburb of Donelson – just 10 short minutes from downtown Nashville. At first, Hernandez jumped right into the retail arena with a small shop near Nashville’s famed Music Row. But realizing that the bulk of his early business was generated thru online sales, Hernandez decided after one year to move into a more “office”-oriented environment closer to his Donelson home. It was a more intimate space where he concentrated on online sales while continuing to build both his global and loyal local following. Armed with just a small showroom and one employee, Hernandez welcomed his local clientele as well as customers from around the world, and over the next three years Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. continued to grow … seemingly parallel with Nashville’s own growth and emergence as one of the country’s best places for new businesses and careers. In early 2016, Hernandez finally decided to reenter Nashville’s renowned vintage guitar market with a beautiful stand-alone retail hub located at 212-A McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN 37214, which is situated just a few minutes from Nashville’s International Airport and less than two miles from Nashville’s famed Grand Ole Opry, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, and the Opry Mills Mall. The results have been nothing short of magnificent. Today, in a city known for its historic musical heritage and internationally acclaimed musical instrument dealers, Hernandez and Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. have quickly become one of Nashville’s – and the world’s – premier destinations for the buying, selling and consignment of vintage guitars and newer, high-quality used musical instruments and equipment. In fact, American Songwriter magazine recently named Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. as “…one of the top three destinations in Nashville for vintage guitars…” in its July/August 2014 “Nashville Music Special” issue. Hernandez has also had the pleasure of buying and selling instruments to and from some of music's biggest names, including The Who's Pete Townshend, Vince Gill, Kacey Musgraves, David Haywood of Lady Antebellum, Chris Young, Sam Palladio of ABC's Nashville show, Mike Wolfe of American Pickers, Jimmy Nalls of Sea Level, Brad Smith of Blind Melon, John Prine, among many, many others. Hernandez also found and purchased an old Martin Sigma acoustic guitar once owned by the legendary Keith Whitley – a guitar he eventually sold to Chris Young, who used it for the first time to sing Whitley's classic No.1 hit "Don't Close Your Eyes" at the Grand Ole Opry on Oct. 26, 2011. You can watch a video of his performance at this link - https://youtu.be/H_qN1-Unnk0 - (copy and paste into a new browser). So whether you’re shopping for guitars online or simply visiting Music City U.S.A. to enjoy its rich music heritage and many diverse musical attractions, please make it a point to put Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. on your itinerary and radar. We’ve got one of the country’s largest selections of vintage guitars and newer, high-quality used musical instruments, and our inventory changes daily. And – of course – if you’re selling your guitar or some other musical instrument, please take advantage of our willingness to pay more than anyone else in Nashville, or in the United States of America. Bottom line is you're selling yourself short if you don't call us BEFORE your sell your guitars or other musical instruments! You won’t be disappointed. We promise! And – as always – please remember: “Life is too short to play a lousy guitar!
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4 Responses to Lennon’s J-160E vs Presley’s Black Gibson Dove: The Ultimate in Guitar Showdowns!

  1. Sharon Edwards says:

    WOW!!!! DEFINITELY one to OWN!!!! Would be a Great “Sidekick”,, for My Collection!!!

  2. Jim Yates says:

    If you disregard the provenance of the guitars and just look at them as “musicians’ tools”, Elvis’s Dove is by far the better guitar.
    The J-160e is a plywood, ladder braced guitar with a magnetic pickup installed in the fingerboard position.
    The Dove is a solid wood, spruce top, flame maple back and sides with X bracing.

    • Point taken about the guitars as just guitars, and/or “musicians’ tools.” I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that the Gibson Dove was built with better tonewoods than the J-160E. However, I’ve played several examples of both and can honestly say that some J-160Es (including the Lennon guitar) would outplay ANY Gibson Dove! Some of the J-160Es I’ve had in stock over the years have sounded like deadwood, but I’ve also had a few Gibson Doves that have sounded the same, or worse. So I guess my point is that every guitar is different, and some sound much better than others.
      That said, the whole premise here is which guitar is more valuable based on its historical value and/or significance. And on that aspect alone, it is my humble opinion that the Lennon J-160E would win hands down … though I’d LOVE to add the Elvis Dove to my own collection!!! 😉
      Thanks for your comment …
      Best – BVG

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