Jerry Garcia’s "Alligator" guitar heads for auction
Guitar virtuoso Jerry Garcia looks set to have the final say in a year that has seen massive movement in the collectible guitar marketplace. "Alligator," his guitar of choice from early 1971 until late 1973, will auction at Bonhams in Los Angeles in December, closing a year that has seen four guitars sell for more than a million apiece, and a full 25 percent of the top 100 most expensive guitars sold during the year.
Less than six months ago, Dave Gilmour started the guitar avalanche by selling his "Black Strat" for US$3.975 million, making it the most valuable guitar ever sold. The rest of Gilmour’s collection saw more stellar prices achieved: a 1954 Fender Stratocaster with serial number #0001 ($1,815,000), an acoustic 1969 C.F. Martin D-35 ($1,095,000), a 1984 Fender Stratocaster 57V ($615,000), a 1971 C.F. Martin D12-35 ($531,000), and a 1957 Fender Stratocaster ($495,000) – all guitars with spectacular ownership and usage provenance, with another 15 guitars not mentioned above selling into the top 100 most valuable guitars too.
Since the Gilmour Collection Sale, at four separate auctions, we’ve also seen Duane Allman's 1961/1962 Cherry Gibson SG fetch $591,000, his 1957 Goldtop Gibson Les Paul “Layla” guitar fetch $1.25 million, a B.B. King 'Lucille' sell for $280,000 and Kurt Cobain's Fender Mustang fetch $340,000.
So Alligator’s sale will cap off the hectic crazy year perfectly, coming from one of rock and roll’s finest quality wild men, Jerry Garcia. Garcia was more eccentric than most, and one of his eccentricities was that he named his key guitars. You can find Garcia's full guitar-playing history online, and the appreciation of his guitars on the auction block is becoming very evident.
Jerry Garcia’s custom-made Doug Irwin "Wolf" sold for $789,500 in 2002, at the same auction that another custom-made Doug Irwin "Tiger" fetched $957,500, making them the two of the most valuable guitars ever sold to that time. The previous record price paid for a guitar at auction was Eric Clapton's "Brownie" Fender Stratocaster, which fetched $497,500 at a Christie's auction in June, 1999.
As more guitars have sold for higher prices in the last two decades, both "Wolf" and "Tiger" have been pushed down the list, so that "Tiger" now sits just outside the top 10 (due to its $957,500 price set in 1999) and "Wolf" has since sold again for $1.9 million in 2017, putting it back into the five most valuable guitars of all time.
Garcia also has another three guitars in the top 100 beyond those two guitars: a 1975 Travis Bean Custom ($300,000 in 2007); a Travis Bean TB500 electric guitar ($243,200 in 2013) and a Doug Irwin special named "Eagle" ($186,000 in 2007). “Eagle” was auctioned by Bonhams in 2007, just prior to the resurgence in popular music memorabilia appreciation, and the raft of spectacular prices being fetched by guitars of provenance.
Alligator will head to auction at Bonhams on December 10, estimated to sell for between $250,000 and $400,000, but given Garcia's long list of priors on the auction block, it has a realistic chance of selling above $1.0 million.
Garcia played Alligator in numerous live performances, notably on the Grateful Dead's 1972 European tour. Highlights from that tour were released on the live triple album Europe 72. The Grateful Dead also released some of their finest studio albums during this period, including Working Man's Dead and American Beauty.
Like any guitar in contention for a spot in the top 10 of all-time, the provenance of Alligator is extraordinary, with it being given to Jerry Garcia in 1970 by music legend Graham Nash. Nash headed pioneer British pop group The Hollies from 1962 until 1968 when he moved to America to form the definitive supergroup, Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Nash gave the guitar to Garcia in appreciation of Garcia's guitar work on Nash's solo album Songs For Beginners, where Garcia played pedal steel guitar on "I Used to Be a King" and "Man in the Mirror."