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Somebody Famous was Here

I once had a white '65 ES-355 with BB Kings autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I once had a white ’65 ES-355 with BB King’s autograph on it. It probably would have sold for more without it but the buyer was a BB King fan, so I left it.

I get a lot of emails from folks buying and selling ES models and one of the most frequently encountered subjects is guitars that have been autographed. While this is not my market, I feel it’s worth writing a post about. The assumption by most sellers is that an autographed guitar is worth more than one that isn’t. I don’t entirely agree.

Well, let me clarify. Right now there are no less than four Gibson “Lucille” models for sale of Reverb.com. One is $60,000, another is $15K, one $14K and one at $8000. The guitars, without the autographs, are nice guitars but they aren’t particularly old nor are they particularly collectible. I can pick up a 90’s or 2000’s Lucille for $2500 or so. So, do the sellers believe that the autograph is worth $5500 to over $50K?  OK, the really expensive one comes with some tour swag but $60K seems like a really big number. So do all the rest of them. Let me tell you a fairly short story. A few years ago, I was contacted by the widow of the owner of a pretty nice 1958 ES-335. I flew to Nashville to meet with her and discuss the value of her late husband’s guitar. We hadn’t finalized a price but we had established a range pending my inspection of the guitar. I ended up offering around $25000 for it and her reaction was “…but it’s autographed by BB King.” My clever rejoinder? “OK, $24000.”  I explained to her that the first thing I would do when I got back home was to remove the autograph.

My point is that a collectible guitar is not made more collectible just because its autographed by someone famous. In addition to the great BB King, I have removed Eric Clapton’s autograph, Les Paul’s, various members of Kiss and quite a few others. If you must get your vintage guitar autographed, have them sign the pick guard-preferably on the back. Or bring along a new (cheap) guitar and have them autograph that. A lot of these guys sign thousands of guitars and the value of the autograph is very small. If you’ve got a Beatle or Elvis, then leave it alone. A Rolling Stone? I’d probably remove it from a vintage Gibson unless it was a Firebird VII autographed by Brian Jones. That would be worth something.

OK, well how about if the guitar was owned by somebody famous? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame if you’ve got good documentation. And he (or she) can’t just have played it once. It has to have really good provenance. An album cover photo is good provenance. A signed letter by the artist with a photo will probably do. A letter from a friend of the friend who got it from the famous player’s ex-wife’s cousin isn’t good enough. A photo of the famous player holding the guitar isn’t good enough either. I’ve had plenty of famous players in my shop and if a photo of them with one of my guitars was worth something, I’d be snapping photos all day.  Be careful though. Provenance is pretty easy to fake. That’s why the album cover photo is great provenance. And make sure the guitar that’s in the provenance is the same guitar as you’re considering buying. Wood grain is pretty much like a fingerprint. If the grain doesn’t match, walk, no, run in the opposite direction. We all know what the Clapton guitars have sold for and the Dylan Strat and the Lennon J160. It’s some serious dough which is why I generally stay away from that market. The price of admission is high and the rate of fraud is up there as well.

EC's autograph on an '84. I think I left this one on too. It didn't affect the value at all.

EC’s autograph on an ’84. I think I left this one on too. It didn’t affect the value at all.

6 Responses to “Somebody Famous was Here”

  1. RAB says:

    Agreed. Personally I don’t like the idea of autographing vintage instruments. Bring a new Gibson or Epi thinline for your hero to sign instead!

  2. Rod says:

    To me it is exactly the same as when someone advertises a guitar for sale with ‘£x (or $x) worth of upgrades’ and expects to get a higher price for it than an unmodified example would fetch. As far as I am concerned, ANY modification, even a signature, represents a reduction in value, not increase.

  3. Steve McCarthy says:

    You are the voice of reason and sanity.As far as signing vintage instruments, it’s blaphamy.

  4. RAB says:

    +1,000,000 as they’d say on the LPF!

  5. James says:

    How about a picture of the famous person? I would love to have a big picture of Jimmy Page with his autograph on it. It makes sense and it can be framed and displayed. I guess it would also be difficult to authenticate a signature on a guitar unless there is a picture of them signing it.

  6. cgelber says:

    A signature can be authenticated a lot easier than a guitar. If Jimmy Page plays a guitar, it doesn’t leave a distinctive mark unless he sweated heavily and you can DNA test it. Signatures are authenticated by experts all the time. And photos can be doctored, so even a photo of JP signing the photo isn’t as good as a handwriting experts opinion.

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