Willie Goes to the Clapton Auction!
The day I got my catalog from Christie’s I knew I wanted to go. Eric Clapton-my boyhood hero- I wanted a piece of the action. Besides I needed an excuse to go see Tommy our old friend and employee (by the way he’s doing great, married a wonderful girl and works for Jon Landau’s office who manages Springsteen and Shania Twain).
We arrived Wednesday at the viewing room in Christie’s. Lots of other dealers were there, all of us appraising the guitars like we would on any given day-this one’s missing knobs, that one has a crack, and who cares about the newer Fender Clapton Strats…retail fodder for a Vintage Guitar Dealer. Dave Rodgers (from Dave’s Guitars always a nice guy) and I talked at length as to where this auction will go. With all the hype in the last week we knew prices were probably going to get crazy (little did we know). Christie’s had guestimated what the guitars may go for based on past auctions. All the dealers I talked to felt that some things were guessed too low (like “Brownie” Eric’s ’56 Stratocaster was sure to go for more than the $80K to $100K estimate, he had owned it for about 30 years and he recorded “Layla” with it. It was the most historically significant guitar we’ve ever seen for sale.) Some things were guessed too high. Come on… would anyone pay six to eight thousand for a Japanese made 12 string strat…now really! Everywhere at the previewing were note takers, prospective buyers busily taking notes on the guitars they would bid on. “Do you really think it will go for that much?” asked one. “No way” said his friend “I bet it goes for half that.” (little did they know.) Christie’s catalogs with yellow post it notes jutting from the pages were everywhere. After the viewing I went back to the hotel rethinking my absolute highest price I’ll go on the items that I wanted. Before going to bed I saw VH1 plugging the Clapton Auction in a big way. This was going to get interesting.
Auction day! Arriving 90 minutes early I stand in a line that goes out to the sidewalk. Lots of Bigshots in suits saying: “but I bought a paddle (Christie’s charges $300 to get a bidding number on a paddle, the only sure way to get in). A buzz is in the air. Seemingly every News Agency in the world is in attendance. It was exciting. Then it starts amid clicking shutters and murmurs. Lot #1 goes up…a ’94 Martin J-12-40 ($1400 used value Christie’s was guessing $4-$6k cause it’s Eric’s) 45 seconds later it sold for $26,000 plus a 15% premium to Christie’s. A sign of things to come. Item #3 was a J-185 from ’51 (first year of issue). I had my paddle in the air at $7,000 then 9k then $11,000 at 14k I thought I’d wait for something else, so it sells at $14K. It proved to be the third cheapest thing sold that day. Oh well, I already have a J-185. And they really are one of the world’s best acoustics. But things were starting to heat up.
I was sitting next to Rudy from Rudy’s Music in New York (Pensa Surh guitars) he was almost falling down laughing as lot #5 started going through the roof. A 90’s Gibson ES-335 dot neck, Natural flametop sold for $38,000 add Christies 15% and that’s $43,700 for a guitar that Willie’s just sold for $1800! That’s 24 times normal used retail.
Yet somehow that seems sane compared to lot #8. A 60’s Harmony made Silvertone “Stella” flat top, $95 on a good day in the retail world…O.K. it’s signed by Les Paul who plays every Monday night at Fat Tuesdays in New York. But is it worth almost $28,000???…Hmmm..Must be!
Buckle up kids it’s lot #13 a ’94 Fender Clapton model Strat, White with Maple board. Eric used this on stage as one of his backups and for recording the film score to”The Van”. Kinda cool…let’s see $795 retail, Christies’s thinks Eric’s mojo should bump it to the $8k zone. I’m guessing like $28-$34k in this room. In 15 seconds it’s past 40 and sells for $50,000 (add 15% to that). everybody looks around in disbelief. “Was that a lot for that guitar?” a reporter asks me…”ahh yeah…kinda”.
A clean ’62 SG Les Paul Standard sells to a friend of ours from back home (let’s call him “Joe” for now) for $30K. He digs SG’s it’s Clapton’s, good straight vintage piece, seems like a good deal.
Lot #58 is Eric’s ’91 Clapton Strat with a custom cigarette holder headstock…$66,700 after auction fees…mercy.
Lot #62 was a favorite of Eric’s used a lot on stage and video. Christie’s guess is fifteen grand but you need $109,250 to take it home that day. But think fast the sale of that guitar lasted under two minutes.
The Japanese made Fender Electric XII (just sold one for $450) went for 42,000 clams.
Then comes lot #92 a rare ’58 Gibson Korina Explorer. The holy grail in the vintage world, only 19 ever made. This puppy is $100k If you could find one for sale.
Christie’s says “estimate open request”. My guess is $250k because Clapton did play this live and on video. O.K. it’s got a head crack that’s been fixed, it’s still Clapton’s. People stand and bow as the Explorer rotates into view. As a vintage freak it’s an exciting guitar. “Shall we start at $500?” the auctioneer jokes. Everyone laughs…this one should go through the roof. The bidding slows at $85k it looks like it might stop there, “Joe” turns to me and says “should I buy this?” I look up and it’s going…going… “yea you should buy this.” Joe figured it would go to $200k and didn’t have his bidding paddle ready, oh shoot where’s my pedal…Final bid at $85k…Joe shoots his hand in the air with the found paddle at $90k. It goes to $110k…he waits and waits…going…going…At $120k Joe’s got it. Applause all around all the dealers turn to Joe with congratulations. It was a solid buy. Remember the Music Man Amp ads with Clapton… holding an Explorer. This was a really really cool buy. It was exciting.
Lot #96 was a ’74 000-28 that had a long history with Clapton it was “very important” to him. I’m sure this was hard to part with. $155k was the final bid and it was an exciting thing to see it inch up $5k-$10k at a time. When it crossed $100,000, the crowd wooed. Sold to someone on the phone. Lot’s of fun to watch.
Lot#100 was a ’30 Gibson L-4 round hole. On the inspection day I noted this guitar was “beat” with many repairs including an added zero fret but Eric used this guitar for at home writing and wanted it back. Estimates said it might get $6k-$8k. Someone told me that Clapton would pay up to 15 grand to have it back home. It went for 50 thousand buckaroos. (add 15%).
Lot#103 a ’54 Strat hardtail, yes Eric played it. yes it looked like a refin(maybe not) Yes Christie’s thought 30 grand should take. But as it sold for $190,00 some thought the buyer mistook it for brownie. One Hundred and Ninety Thousand…those words were repeated over and over in the gallery.
“Brownie” was the last up. The song “Layla” played on the PA. This is what they came for. She was the guitar that recorded some of the most listened to licks in the history of Rock and Roll. The holy grail of solidbody electrics. It would be hard to think of a more important guitar that could even be for sale. The bidding started at $200,000. The Auctioneer asked for $220k and it jumped up to $300k. “Aww…that’s no fun” said the auctioneer. “I asked for 220 and you went to 300…o.k. do I here 325?” A moment of silence passed…$300k took a lot of wind out of people’s sails. “Come on 325?” $400,000 was offered from the phones. The room was electrified, some serious dough here kids. Again we hear “going once to the phone” No one in the gallery has the courage to spend $500k…”going twice to the phones.” “$450,000 !”yells a Christie’s phone operator, the crowd loves it. A little more begging for $500k then rather quickly it’s sold an anonymous caller for $450,000 that’s $497,000 after Christie’s add on. And the whole thing is over. What fun!
My friend “Joe” (who bought the Explorer) was mobbed by the press. He and Gil Southworth (Southworth Guitars) were some of the few big spenders in the gallery. But as CNN tried to interview him a person from Christie’s cut right in front of the camera and said “stop, you’d better think about this, do you really want to lose your anonymity? If you let CNN interview you everyone will know you and your family. The press will not leave alone.” “what if I don’t want to give my name?” said Joe. “It’s the press sir they’ll find you out. We advise that you turn away now. And it you like we’ll arrange a press conference later after you’ve thought a minute.” (very cool of christie’s).
With the camera’s rolling and shudders clicking Joe turned and ran away. Madeline and I ran block behind him as the press knocked over chairs chasing after him. “O.K. O.K., shows over back off…back off!” Christie’s showed him a private exit and the show was…over.
Downstairs someone from VG magazine was standing by Joe. He offered them an interview (after declining CNN Washington, Washington Post, NY Times etc.). They oddly declined. Joe got the only really vintage buy at the show. The only guitar to go for less than the estimate and a ’58 Gibson Explorer (only 19 made) to boot. But naw they didn’t take the story…go figure.
Thanks for reading,