So I am writing this tonight fresh from the final day of the auction of the estate of the late (and VERY great) Les Paul at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, CA. Am I rich and someone that collects valuable things? Well, I’m certainly not rich, but I DO collect things that have value to me, anyways, and when I heard about this happening I knew I had to at least TRY to get some little piece of the Les Paul legacy into my house. Since I’m sure that few of you even knew that this had happened much less had the opportunity to attend, I decided it might be interesting to you to hear about my impressions from it.
I first heard about the Les Paul estate auction a couple of weeks ago from a fellow Musician’s Institute alumni on FaceBook, and I immediately went to the website and paged through the online catalog in amazement: there had to be at least 50 Les Paul model Gibsons dating back to 1952, plus LOTS of other guitars he owned that I’ll get into later, recording gear spanning decades and lots of awards and other memorabilia; all beautifully and professionally photographed. I went out the week before the auction to view it and not only did they let me take any photographs and videos that I wanted (and of course I did a “tour” video), they gave anyone who wanted one a gorgeous full color catalog that would cost you at least $20-30 in a museum gift shop – as in FOR FREE. In walking around I started talking to a guy that was clearly a pro musician named Mike who had just gotten the gig playing bass for the Beach Boys, and both of us were whispering to each other about how low the estimated worth of each thing seemed….and these people must know what they are doing if they can afford the rent on a place on Wilshire Blvd directly across from Sacks Fifth Avenue.
So the next week there was a cocktail reception viewing on Wednesday night before the two day auction started on Friday morning, and all you had to do was RSVP to get in – so WHY NOT, right? I got me and a guitarist/composer friend who has one of the best home studios I know of to meet me out there, and we couldn’t believe that we were actually there amongst all of Les’ stuff under one roof for what would be the last time before it went all over the world piece by piece. (All proceeds went to the Les Paul Foundation for the advancement of music education, by the way, so don’t think that this is a bad thing in anyway.) I saw Stewart Copeland of “Police” fame and met Les’ son Rusty, and talked guitars with Norm of the famous vintage guitar shop to the world “Norm’s Rare Guitars”.
Some of the stand-outs included a speaker cabinet he obviously made by hand in a barn or something in the late 40s / early 50s, an absolutely gorgeously painted gold Les Paul that had a timeline of his life events encircling the sides and his face on the front, the ‘30s Gibson L-4 archtop that had been owned by Eddie Lang, a really bizarre “no name” Jazzmaster style guitar with a whole bunch of weird push button switches on it and a lapel mic on a long metal tube coming out of the top horn above the fingerboard (Les did that to lots of his guitars with XLR jacks by the strap buttons and I saw pictures of both he and Mary Ford on stage in the 50s singing through them), lots of amazing awards (I wanted one from the Django Reinhardt Society to him since my dog is named Django as well), huge recoding consoles and racks of effects from the 50s up to digital stuff from now, and a silver wrist watch inscribed “To Les Paul From Frank Sinatra” – and lots of “Frankenstein-ed” vintage guitars that he took a saw to and put other pick ups, switches etc. inside of – inventor types don’t think a lot about keeping things true to the past to preserve value, they just want to build for the future now.
So after meeting a lot of really interesting and great people I put in the ”lot numbers” that I wanted to do a phone bid on for the Friday auction, and left with the intention of coming to Saturday’s auction “live”. When I arrived on Saturday morning there were already lots of people milling about eating the complimentary bagels and orange juice and it was really starting to sink into me how some much free stuff has to be paid for by somebody. I found out when things got started where that was coming from – the 25% premium that was tacked onto any auction that goes to the auction house. Suffice it to say that I figured that the paltry $600 I had limited myself to was not going to go very far after that was tacked onto the price.
The ’51 Fender “No-caster” that was an obvious star of the show that had been very little played and kept in a case had an internet bid of $100,000 before the auction ever started. I had to leave before they got to that but people were guessing it went for between 200-300K.
A set of his schematics went for $17,000
A red sunburst ’78 Les Paul Recording model guitar that he had been pictured with a lot playing went for $20,000. Å 6 foot high rack of recording electronics for the 70s went for $37.500.
A local film/TV composer sitting next to me told me that he had gotten Les’ Hammond B-3 for $3000 on Friday – that’s way less than what you’d pay for a used B-3 that was owned by a nobody, so this was a steal – probably none of the bidders wanted to pay to have it moved.
The Gibson L-5 Les used in his boyhood “Rhubarb Red” radio show went for $25,000 (which seemed low), but the probably homemade harmonica rack and harmonica he used then went for $47,500 – wow!
There were number of vanished wooden acoustic baffles that Les made himself by hand that were sort of like a bunch of low rolling waves of water side by side, they stood about 6 feet high and were about 30 inches wide. One of these that I saw went for $8,000.
A Musicman “Wolfgang” model guitar that Eddie Van Halen had made with the name “Les Paul” inlaid in the neck and signed by Eddie took in $27,500.
So, that’s an interesting list to let you know what kind of value the world has attached to the life of the father of modern recording – which to me is a good thing to ponder on in a time where the value of recorded music has been so beaten up. What we do must have a real lasting value to people for so many to pay so much to try to hold on to a piece of it. Remember that the next time your amazing solo seems to get little reaction on your gig 😉
Doug Perkins, 6-9-12