“I already own the Holy Grail,” says Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen.
“Deceiving,” he called. “It’s just wrong.”
Blues guitar star Joe Bonamassa has been getting pelted with e-mailed articles about the auction by friends.
“That black Les Paul has the best publicist in all of entertainment,” he laughs. “That’s all people are talking about.”
To play a little catch up: Les Paul, the late guitar and recording pioneer who also happened to be extremely frugal, gave the 1954 Les Paul Custom to his assistant, Tom Doyle, in 1976. At the time, it was not playable. Doyle fixed it up, partnered with guitar dealer Max Stavron and now is auctioning off this “Black Beauty.” The sales pitch from Doyle, Stavron, and Guernsey’s boss Arlan Ettinger – that it is one of the most important in the history of the instrument – has upset a lot of folks.
The statements have also made this version of “Black Beauty” the six-string everybody is talking about.
Last month, Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson saw a black Les Paul Custom at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Los Angeles. He quickly called Nielsen, knowing his bandmate has about 100 Les Pauls, including the 1955 “goldtop” he bought in 1965 for $55 from the A Book Store in Rockford, Ill..
They snickered at the hype. The overwhelming consensus is that the goldtop guitar – not the Custom – is the model that grew into the famous sunburst Standard adopted by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. The Custom, known as “Black Beauty,” is not. What’s more, the goldtop came out in 1952, two years before the Custom.
Nielsen, seen below playing with Les Paul in 2007, calls the guitar being auctioned a “Frankenstein.”
“It was pieced together from this, that and the other,” says Nielsen.
As for Bonamassa, he says he wouldn’t pay $10,000 for it. That’s after paying $410,000 for one of his Les Paul guitars. Those are all Standard sunbursts from 1958 to 1960.
“What it is is a carved up old Les Paul Custom that Les modified and gave to Tom,” says Bonamassa. “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.”
So how much will “Black Beauty” go for?
In a New York Times article, Guernsey’s Ettinger said he hoped for $2 million. Asked about that, Ettinger now says he was misquoted and declined to provide a figure. (Times reporter James Barron said this week he stands by his reporting of the $2 million figure.)
If somebody throws down $2 million, that would be more than twice what Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid for the guitar Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger.”
Ettinger and Doyle have not backed down from their characterization of this guitar as the “prototype” for all that came later, despite the evidence to the contrary. In fact, in this filmed interview, Ettinger even expanded from that.
“It was the first Les Paul guitar made by Mr. Paul, Les Paul, that gave birth to the thousands and thousands of instruments that bare that name and that resemble this instrument,” he said.
Fact-check: Gibson began selling the Les Paul Model electric guitar to the public in 1952. The Les Paul Custom was built in late 1953 and given to Les Paul in 1954, according to Doyle.
In an interview, Ettinger was defiant. He defended Doyle and said that he believes the criticism is coming from “angry people” who have “clearly disregarded the lifelong efforts of a man devoted to Les Paul.”
Some of those “angry people” say they wrestled with going public out of deference to Doyle, appreciating that he was poorly compensated by Paul over the years. Former Guitar Player editor Tom Wheeler held out because he was uncomfortable attacking the magazine he loved so much publicly. In the end, they felt they had to say something, if only to correct what they felt was the rewriting of guitar history.
“I’m not disclaiming the guitar’s importance,” says Vic DaPra, the Pennsylvania collector, dealer and author of “Burst Believers.” “Les probably played it on his show but the guitar’s been bastardized so much over the years. It is definitely not the Holy Grail and it is definitely not the guitar all other Les Pauls are based on.”
Do the claims rise to the level of misrepresentation? Julie Menin, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, which is charged with overseeing the auction market, declined to comment on this specific auction. But she said it is rare for her office to investigate auctions. In two years, the department has received only 12 complaints. That led to five inspections, none of which led to litigation.
“This is always a very complicated legal question,” she said. “Basically, that goes to the heart of the issue of whether something is puffery, which is not actionable, or whether something is considered false advertising, which is actionable.”
Former New York State assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who worked for years to create tougher auction regulations, invoked the phrase “caveat emptor” – “let the buyers beware” in Latin.
“I think anybody who goes in there with anything other than eyes wide open is making a mistake,” he said.