Brother, Can You Spare a Mil'?

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Guitarist Deke Dickerson takes a field trip to Julien's Les Paul auction

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The guitar world has been aflutter since Julien’s Auctions announced a liquidation of Les Paul’s personal estate, including hundreds of guitars, amplifiers, recording equipment and personal items. In addition to being one of the greatest innovators of the electric guitar and multitrack recording techniques, Paul was also a legendary collector, and the 741 lots that made up the two-day auction were described by many as “the best episode of Hoarders... ever!”

Les loved his junk and it appears he never got rid of anything. From lots of resistors and copper wire all the way to his most famous personal guitars (save for a few of the most important pieces the family is keeping), there were items dating from the beginning of Les’ career until his death. There were items from Les’ 1920s Rhubarb Red-era (his 1927 Gibson L-5 and his harmonica with home-brew harmonica rack) through his hitmaking 1940s and 1950s-era stardom (Epiphone “Clunker” #3; his 1958 flat-top Les Paul Custom), and the 1980s and 1990s comeback-era (Gibson presentation model guitars; his touring amplifier rig; gifts from high-powered, rockstar friends). In addition to the major pieces, there were hundreds and hundreds of items that were part of the flotsam and jetsam of Les’ collection, now given celebrity status due to Les’ ownership of the items.

The low, low “estimated value” affixed to many of the items in the catalog — including guitars mercilessly hacked and modified by Paul — led many to believe that everything besides the Les Paul owned Les Paul guitars would be a steal. From the opening bell, it was clear this was not to be.

This author attended the live auction both days, and it was interesting to see the dynamics in the room. Although there were plenty of phone and proxy internet bids, this auction was in the hands of a few select well-heeled individuals who controlled the dynamic of the event. The top bidder in the room appeared to win nearly every major item in the auction. It quickly became apparent that if you were bidding against this individual, you were going to lose, and as a result, there were some inexplicable results at the end of the auction. Les’ bent-wire harmonica rack sold for $59,000, next to the startlingly low $60,000 sale of the auction’s most hyped guitar, Les’ personal 1958 Les Paul Custom. By the time the 1958 guitar came up for sale at the end of day one, other bidders had just given up.

As an everyman attending this Beverly Hills auction, it was great to see Les’ collection in person. Being a huge Les Paul fan, I recognized most of the items in the auction from photographs. There were a few surprises, such as the collection of 1950s Gretsch hollowbodies hacked up as experimental recording guitars. Did Julius Bellson or Ted McCarty know that Les secretly had Gretsches at home? There was a spectacularly rare Danelectro-made Coral Wasp six-string bass that brought a vision of Les visiting the Danelectro factory in Neptune, New Jersey, not far from his home in Mahwah. The vintage recording equipment was spectacular, and it was interesting to see that Les owned microphones from the highest of the high-end (Neumann, Telefunken, AKG) to lowly common mics you’d see at your local club.

This author had to make do with two sleeper purchases that escaped scrutiny from the Millionaire’s Club: a 1950s tube condenser mic made by William Hartsfield, a legendary industrial designer who worked for JBL (which went surprisingly cheap only because it was mislabeled “miscellaneous lapel mic” in the catalog), and a box containing 20-something direct boxes from Les’ home studio, most of which were labeled with Dyno-Tape ID labels “LES PAUL STUDIO DIRECT BOX.” Even though these were “sleeper” items that attracted few other bids, they still sold for three-to-four times what they would bring on the open market, simply for the Les Paul provenance that everybody wanted a piece of, including me.

In the end, in a most ironic twist of fate, and surely one that Les himself would have laughed about, the highest selling item at the Les Paul Estate Auction was… a Fender. The 1951 Fender Nocaster given to Les as a gift, delivered to Les’ house by Paul Bigsby and signed by Leo on the back, proved irresistible to multiple bidders, topping out at $180,000 (plus buyer’s premium to the house, of course).