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Silver Strings: Collecting Guitars

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

(continued from page 5)

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.

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