A quick perusal of the list of most expensive guitars ever sold at auction will confirm that the worth of a guitar is directly related to the place that guitar has played in musical history. Hence when John Lennon's Gibson J-160E guitar went to auction on November 7, 2015, it claimed its place among the most valuable guitars in the world.
This is THE guitar John Lennon used in his initial songwriting collaborations with Paul McCartney, the pair both going on individually and together to become the most successful songwriters of all time. On it the duo wrote such classic songs as She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Please, Please, Me, All My Loving" and From Me to You, and those songs and many more of The Beatles' early hits were recorded with it too.
Estimated to sell for between US$600,000 and $800,000, such a price would have made it one of the 10 most valuable guitars ever and given its status in modern musical history, and there was every reason to expect it to fetch more. It did, becoming the second-most expensive guitar ever sold at auction.
Both John's guitar and Ringo's drums set records for their respective categories for recording and stage-played musical instruments and it seems like order has been restored somewhat in the musical memorabilia space with the world's all-time most-sales band, The Beatles, now holding pride of place.
Beatlemania encompassed the world in the mid-sixties. It represented a marked shift in global behaviors. The permissiveness of the sixties is oft talked about in terms of sexual permissiveness, but The Beatles and the Rolling Stones gave the people the understanding that it was okay to be (at least a little bit) different. The Peace-love movement followed, but in many ways The Beatles set the wheels of change in motion..
The pics above of George Harrison and Lennon receiving their guitars and below of the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones still in charge before the rise of Mick Jagger.
They might look like a bunch of clean-cut young lads now, but they didn't back than, and the musical revolution of the sixties helped change the core values of what would become the richest generation in history. The baby boomers who got born into a world where everything suddenly became possible have subsequently accumulated untold wealth.
It's hard to get across to the world of 2015 just how omni-present The Beatles were for a few heady years as Beatlemania captivated the known world in the mid-sixties. When The Beatles appeared on the national Ed Sullivan Show, ratings went off the dial. Audience numbers of 73 million people for the 9 February, 1964 Ed Sullivan Show may not seem much today, but that was almost half the population (190 million at the time).
The innovative music of the Beatles kept coming throughout the sixties and it kept selling at record levels. Between theI Want to Hold Your Hand single and the Let It Be LP (six years), The Beatles had the Number One single record for one of every six weeks, and the top-selling album one of every three weeks. Pop idols had been greeted with groups of screaming fans before, but nothing on a scale of Beatlemania magnitude.
Beatlemania happened while every one of those people who now control the wealth of the world were growing up, no doubt providing many fond memories and snapshots in time – when a particular single was released, which radio station first played it, who your friends were, where your fledgling life stood.
Those people who are now making decisions on how to invest their wealth are increasingly choosing investments of passion, a loose term which covers everything from art, stamps, coins, militaria, watches, cars, motorcycles, violins, planes, boats and a wide range of memorabilia from sport, movies, television is now providing returns which would make a Wall Street banker blush.
The markets for these new industries are maturing fast and they're only just getting started - hundreds of musicians alone have guitar collections of hundreds of guitars which they will never part with. When the availability of significant guitars from the sixties passes beyond the current league of collectors, this marketplace can be expected to be much bigger.
Like cars and motorcycles, collecting guitars runs well beyond a set of numbers on a spreadsheet. If you're a proficient musician, you can actually play the guitar which Slowhand, Jimi or Keef played every day if you wish. Being able to sample the delights of your V12 Ferrari (more than half of the most valuable cars in the world wear a Prancing Stallion) or hear the burble of a Vincent, Brough Superior, Harley-Davidson, indian or Crocker is one of the key advantages of investing in passion. There are more frictional losses and overheads with "investments of passion" than traditional stocks and bonds, and insurance and safe-storage is an overhead that should not be overlooked, but it's noteworthy that when an investment fund was established for guitars a few years ago, part of the deal for investors was that they were allowed to play with the guitars. Investments of passion are a more connected and tangible form of investment than traditional asset classes.
Just the same, entertainment memorabilia is fetching substantial prices such as US$5.52 million for Marilyn Monroe’s Dress from The Seven Year Itch, $4.4 million for Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot dress from My Fair Lady and $4.0 million for The Maltese Falcon from the The Maltese Falcon.
The Lion costume from The Wizard Of Oz sold for $826,000. Steve McQueen's racing suit from Le Mans went for $984,000 and Audrey Hepburn's Hubert de Givenchy "little black dress" from Breakfast at Tiffany’s went for $923,187.
Whereas once such items of cultural significance might make an occasional splash in the media at a Bonhams, Christies or Sotheby's auction, nowadays there are specialist auction houses such as Profiles in History, Juliens, Skinner Inc., The Fame Bureau, and Guernseys which make almost weekly news with major new consignments and what has become a steady flow of significant cultural memorabilia. And all the major houses now have entertainment memorabilia auctions regularly, too.
The records set
As the most expensive performance-played guitar, Lennon's Gibson displaces the Fender Stratocaster with which Bob Dylan delivered his famous "electric" performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival which Christies sold for $965,000.
It also exceeded the prices at auction of such famous guitars as Eric Clapton's famous "Blackie" Fender Stratocaster used in recording of Cocaine and I Shot The Sheriff, which fetched $959,500, the 1939 Martin guitar used during his MTV Unplugged performance which sold for $791,500, the 1965 Fender Stratocaster which Jimi Hendrix set on fire at the Finsbury Astoria ($560,000), the white Hendrix "Star Spangled Banner" Strat from Woodstock (sold privately for US$2,000,000, last sold at auction in 1990 when it fetched $325,000 – both were records at the time) and the 1942 Martin D-18 which was used by Elvis Presley in countless films and performances sold for $180,000 in 1995.
Brownie, the Strat which Clapton used in recording Layla sold in 1999 for $497,500, and Rolling Stones' Keith Richards Gibson 1959 Les Paul Standard was rumored to have fetched more than $1,000,000 in a private unconfirmed sale. The guitar was used throughout the Rolling Stones’ 1964 US tour and the Ed Sullivan Show, and was used on hits such as Little Red Rooster, Time is on My Side, The Last Time, Get Off My Cloud, Let’s Spend the Night Together and, when used through a Gibson Maestro pedal, in Satisfaction. This guitar was the one which Gibson's official website refers to as an "era-defining fuzz riff."
Lennon's J-160E Gibson full history
In September of 1962, John Lennon and George Harrison each purchased jumbo J-160E Gibson acoustic guitars from Rushworth's Music House in Liverpool for £161. The guitars were said to have been flown to England by jet from America after being specially ordered. The two guitars were identical apart from the serial numbers.
In December 1963, during The Beatles' Finsbury Park Christmas Show, John's guitar went missing and he later replaced it with a 1964 model. After being lost for over 50 years, the guitar went for auction at Julien's Auctions Icons & Idols Rock n' Roll Auction event on Friday, November 6, 2015 and Saturday, November 7, 2015.
The Beatles traveled from Liverpool to London’s EMI Studios on September 11, 1962, the day after receiving the guitars. The first song recorded that day was P.S. I Love You, followed by Love Me Do. It was Lennon who used this guitar on many of the recordings in 1962 and 1963 that required an acoustic guitar.
Historians and Beatles fans can also find this particular guitar on the UK singles Please Please Me/Ask Me Why and From Me to You/Thank You Girl.
No other guitar ever offered at auction can compare to the history this guitar has with The Beatles' John Lennon. It also appeared on Please Please Me (album UK), Introducing The Beatles (album US VJ), The Early Beatles (album US Capitol), With The Beatles (album UK), Meet The Beatles (album US Capitol), The Beatles One (Album), The Beatles Anthology 1, Live At the BBC (The Beatles Album) and much more. In addition the guitar was used on the UK EPs such as The Beatles (No. 1), The Beatles' Hits, Twist and Shout and more. It can be seen in the November 22, 1963 videos of I Want to Hold Your Hand and This Boy.
Andy Babiuk, author of the book Beatles Gear — All The Fab Four’s Instruments From Stage To Studio, recently discovered the guitar when John McCaw’s close friend and guitar instructor Marc Intravaia contacted Babiuk at his guitar shop, Andy Babiuk’s Fab Gear in Rochester, New York.
The guitar now sits on the front cover of of Babiuk's book, just below Paul McCartney's Hofner violin bass and a set of drums identical to those which fetched $2.1 million. Babiuk's choice of front cover material prior to the auction (the book was published a month before the auction) validates the prices paid at auction.
"I get calls and email all the time with people telling me that they think they have an instrument owned by The Beatles and 99 percent of the time it’s nothing, but there was something about McCaw’s story that was intriguing," said Babiuk, the world authority on equipment used by The Beatles.
"In April 2014 I was leaving my guitar group’s weekly jam and noticed a magazine from May 2012 in the studio’s bookcase which featured a cover story titled the 'George Harrison Collection.' There was a photo and bio of the J-160E which bore many similarities to mine. I saw identical marks in the same location on each guitar. Reading on, the story noted that the two Beatles swapped guitars in 1963 'for reasons unknown.' This is when my heart skipped a beat and the journey began. We searched for the person who could help us confirm the identity of my guitar. This led us straight to Andy Babiuk, the world’s leading expert on all Beatles gear," said John McCaw.
After Babiuk examined the guitar, he was able to match the wood grain in the spruce top to photos of Lennon playing the guitar with The Beatles in the early 60s. "Wood grain is like a fingerprint, no two are the same, and without a doubt it is a match," said Babiuk. Lost for over 50 years, John Lennon’s beloved Gibson J-160E was finally found. "It is one of the most important of all Lennon’s Beatles guitars, as he used this J-160E to write some of The Beatles’ biggest hits, and played the guitar on countless live performances and on many Beatles recordings," said Babiuk. "It is without a doubt one of the most historically important guitars to ever come up for auction."
The guitar has never been modified in any way. It has never been refinished and has had no hardware or electronics changes. In viewing 1963 videos of I Want to Hold Your Hand and This Boy, marks on the guitar further confirm its identity.
The John Lennon Gibson J-160E is also featured on the cover of the new Beatles Gear — The Ultimate Edition book. A percentage of proceeds from the sale of the guitar will go to Spirit Foundations, Inc., a non-profit organization founded by John and Yoko.
John Lennon has been said to be the most iconic Beatle of the group. He was the band's most committed rock & roller, its social conscience and its slyest wit. He wrote or co-wrote many of the classic Beatles songs and performed them with such a distinct voice that he became one of the greatest singers rock n' roll ever produced. He died on December 8, 1980 at the age of 40.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more