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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

Does the Moderne actually exist? Ask five experts, get five opinions.

"Nobody knows if Gibson actually made the prototype," says Larry Acunto. "The patent drawings exist and there's incredible folklore about it, but no one has ever been able to find one. If they built a prototype, then they probably built more than one."

"I don't think anyone really thinks it exists," declares Jay Scott. "The one that surfaced in the '70s might be the real thing, according to a well-known dealer who has since died. But it was judged to be a fake by George Gruhn, who is one of the acknowledged experts."

Gruhn recalls inspecting that guitar. "There doesn't seem to be any real evidence that any original early ones were made," he says. "As for the one that was supposed to be real, an employee of mine bought it. I was excited and went out to his home at night to see it. I got there and he was outside, holding it in his hand, and in the dark I could see it was a fake. We got our money back. It was eventually sold, as an original, to a Japanese collector. It's just a homemade body with a Gibson neck stuck onto it. It's laughable."

Chinery thinks a few Modernes may truly exist. "It may or may not be out there," he says. "According to people who worked for Gibson at the time, somewhere between one and 11 were built. It was dropped by Gibson after a showing at a trade show where people laughed at the way it looked, but some may actually have been shipped to music stores. It's a million dollar guitar, which is pretty good considering that, basically, it's just a slab of wood."

According to company eyewitnesses, a few Modernes were built, although they may have been destroyed at the factory. The ledger books covering that period are missing, so there is no way to know for sure unless a real one pops up somewhere. Walter Carter, Gibson's official historian, says it's possible that none exist.

Yet the company created a reissue of the Moderne in 1983, making it, in Carter's words, "the only reissue of something that may never have been issued in the first place."

While the story of the Moderne remains unfinished, there are two other guitars whose discovery in recent years have been nearly as unexpected: the Gretsch White Penguin and the D'Angelico Teardrop New Yorker.

The White Penguin, like the Moderne, was a promotional showpiece that was never put into production. As many as a dozen may have been built between 1955 and '58, and all eventually disappeared, prompting some to dub it "The Maltese Penguin." When Mandolin Brothers found and sold one for $70,000 in 1992, it set a benchmark in terms of price. "We broke the world's record for the sale of a fretted instrument not previously owned by a deceased superstar," says Mandolin's Stanley Jay. The high price made the search for the remaining examples even more intense.

"I'd just gotten back from Florida," Jay Scott remembers, "and in my mailbox was a letter from a guy in Philly and a photo of a White Penguin. It was beautiful, like a rococo musical instrument with a totem on the headstock. So I called him up. Turns out he's Italian, and I'm Italian, and he's telling me about this guitar that was his father's, and he starts crying when he talks about selling it.

"Then he says he knows that Mandolin Brothers sold one for $70,000 and he says, 'I got to get the big eight-O.' So I called Scott Chinery, who told me to check it out. I did and Scott bought it for $80,000, plus my validation fee."

Chinery continues the story. "I bought a White Penguin, which is the rarest Gretsch guitar--a legendary instrument. It had been sitting under this guy's bed for years. It probably cost about $200 new. Now it's valued at $120,000. At one point we produced a series of posters to publicize the collection, and since I also happen to own a Batmobile, the pairing seemed like a natural."

The most famous "missing" guitar (until 1993 when it was obtained by Mandolin Brothers and sold to Chinery for $150,000) was the D'Angelico Teardrop New Yorker. Larry Wexer recalls the day he first saw it: "The family of the owner, who had died some time before, came in with a plain-looking gig bag for an appraisal. When I opened the bag, I just stood there, amazed. I couldn't believe what I was actually looking at. I mean, nobody I knew had ever seen anything like it."

The Teardrop was custom-made by John D'Angelico for Peter Girardi, a performer who played for diners in Italian restaurants; he wanted something to set him apart from other such troubadours. Nicknamed "The Can Opener" because of its unusual shape, the Teardrop is, according to Chinery, "an anomaly for many reasons. It sounds unlike any other guitar, with immense power in the bass range. It's probably the most famous guitar in the world among collectors and the most valuable, with a current estimated worth of $500,000."

Jimmy D'Aquisto, who worked on the guitar with D'Angelico, called it "the most unique archtop we built at D'Angelico." He also joked that Girardi wanted that shape so that "he could use the tail to clip a customer who didn't tip."

The Teardrop has captured the hearts and minds of those who have seen it. According to Stanley Jay, "It is unlikely that any fretted instrument will come to light in the next 50 years which will equal it in rarity or collectibility." The sentiment is echoed by Larry Acunto. "The Teardrop New Yorker, like Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Falling Water' house, stands alone as the crowning achievement in [D'Angelico's] long and prolific career. It is easily the most [sought-after] guitar in the world."

For those inclined to believe in the Lost Dutchman gold mine and Captain Kidd's buried treasure, there is, according to Acunto, another missing D'Angelico. "D'Angelico built a mandolin sometime during the '40s that looked like a machine gun. The guy he made it for used it in his club act, marching around, doing a World War One routine. At the end he'd pull down the side, exposing the strings, and play the thing. Jimmy D'Aquisto described it to people in detail, so it's probably out there somewhere."

As is the case with anything of value, once the prices get high enough, counterfeits begin to surface with increasing regularity. The fake Moderne aside, most guitars that are copied are not quite so famous. "There are forgers and there are counterfeiters," says Stanley Jay. "Forgers attempt to create a fake Martin or D'Aquisto, while other people simply change the logo on the headstock and in so doing produce a counterfeit that isn't even close. One requires the work of an expert to discern, the other is just an obvious fake. We see a lot of that."

A major difficulty, according to Acunto, is that a lot of fakes are now between 20 and 30 years old. "It's hard to tell a 30-year-old from a 50-year-old. Old guitars with a good provenance are rare. Those that have it, that can be traced back to the original owner, they're going to be the ones worth the most."

"Nowadays, I sometimes think that nine out of every 10 cases I open have forged guitars inside," says Jay Scott, a man widely viewed as one of the field's true experts. But even he finds it increasingly hard to make a positive identification. "These guys are so good, they fake age, wear, patina--they even fake smell. Gibson lacquer has a particular smell that you pick up as soon as you open the case, and these guys duplicate it, a sort of faux de Gibson."

As someone who has had to have all the guitars in his vast collection authenticated, Chinery has seen counterfeiting's impact. "In the electric market there has been a lot of counterfeiting, and it really has affected the market for Les Pauls and Korina instruments," he says. "That's why it's so important for new collectors to become educated and to deal only with reputable people. Fortunately, it's very difficult to counterfeit an acoustic instrument."

If you're wondering why an archtop is more difficult to fake, consider the amount of highly skilled, painstaking, hand-carved work that Bob Benedetto and the 21 other luthiers put into each of the Blue Guitars. Benedetto, who has made more than 400 archtops, describes the construction of his Blue Guitar, "La Cremona Azzurra" (The Blue Cremona):

"Routinely, with the exception of the finishing procedure, I can make an archtop inside of two weeks. The Blue Guitar took much longer because I had to think about it a lot. For the top and back plates I used the best European cello wood, the same type of wood that Stradivari and the other old masters used. The neck is two-piece, well-seasoned American maple. The fingerboard, bridge, truss rod cover and finger rest are all sculpted from select solid ebony, and the headstock is veneered with exotic burl. The wood is selected both cosmetically and because of its age. It's very old and fine tone wood. The suppliers that I buy from in Europe are generations-old family businesses. I'm buying from a descendant of someone who might have supplied wood for a Stradivarius.

"The sound holes are unique--not like the traditional f hole or oval hole--it's almost a floral design. Because the openings are unusual and placed in an unusual location, I had to consider that when I was carving and tuning the woods and placing the bracing inside that acts as tone bars, distributing the vibrations from the strings to the top and back, etc. All of this to maximize the end result: the voice of the instrument. It was fun, different, a real challenge, and I was happy to be a part of it."

Repeat Benedetto's story 21 times and you begin to get some idea of the magnitude of The Blue Guitars project. For Chinery, his love of the instrument has meant recognition of the sort he never imagined as a young boy who loved guitars: an honorary doctorate in commercial science from Five Towns College, a music school in Dix Hills, New York, and exhibits featuring his collection in Washington, D.C.

An exhibit of guitars--primarily electric--at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History will run through April. The Chinery exhibit, which runs concurrently, features 36 instruments. Various guitars from the Chinery Collection will be on exhibit through November 1998. In addition, the Blue Guitars are slated to be showcased at the Smithsonian in the spring of 1998.

As Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer says, "The guitar as an instrument deserves special appreciation and attention on a national, if not an international basis, and that's what the Smithsonian can provide. The guitar has existed as a cultural icon for a number of years, in addition to being one of the most versatile of all musical instruments. Very few instruments can cross the boundaries of classical, jazz and rock with the aplomb of the guitar. We felt that it was an appropriate subject to present to the more than 29 million people who visit the Smithsonian each year."

Along with his love of vintage guitars, Chinery has a passion for fine cigars, and at one point collected them. "I did collect pre-Castro Cuban cigars for a while, but I kept smoking them. I didn't want to, you know. I wanted to keep them, but it just didn't work out. Once I got into Cubans, I thought I could never go back to the others. I smoke two double coronas almost every day. But, just recently, I found an American cigar made in Florida called the Santiago Cabana [now known as the Signature Collection by Santiago Cabana] and it's got the Cubans covered."

His guitars are the subject of a recently published book, The Chinery Collection: 150 Years of American Guitars, by Tony Bacon, author of The Ultimate Guitar Book. Chinery also recently compiled a CD of music performed on guitars from the collection. "If someone loves vintage guitars," Chinery says, "what would be the thing they'd most appreciate? The obvious answer would be to hear them. So that's what we've done.

"I called on Steve Howe, who is one of the most innovative guitar players in the world. He brought in a great jazz guitarist, Martin Taylor, and they had the use of the entire collection for the session. There are duets between an original C.F. Martin and an Orville Gibson, the D'Angelico and D'Aquisto Teardrops. And one fantastic side, "Blue Bossa," featuring all the Blue Guitars. Seventeen tracks. It's a mindblower."

"Patrons are hard to come by," says Stan Jay, "and what Scott Chinery has done is most unusual, because he has the financial resources to be a muse to the arts, and for the first time manyof our best luthiers have been able to produce their finest work in comparison with everyone else's. The Blue Guitars project, on top of an already magnificent collection, is a joyous thing for those of us in the community of instrument lovers."

Ken Vose is an East Coast-based novelist, screenwriter and television writer. His book, Blue Guitar, will be published by Chronicle Books in the spring of 1998. Playing Along

If you're interested in learning more about the world of vintage guitars and other fretted instruments, subscribe to 20th Century Guitar and Vintage Guitar. Some great books also are available on the subject, including The Ultimate Guitar Book by Tony Bacon (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 192 pages, $40), American Guitars by Tom Wheeler (Harper Perennial, 1992, 370 pages, $27.50) and Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments by George Gruhn and Walter Carter (GPI Books, 1993, 313 pages, $49.95).

A wide selection of guitars from The Chinery Collection will be on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History through November 1998. Admission is free. For more information, call (202) 357-2700.

For general information regarding The Chinery Collection, call 800-442-1094.


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