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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

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

(continued from page 4)

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."

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