For Jim Irsay, the owner and CEO of the Indianapolis Colts and an avid collector of the world's most sought-after guitars, it was a steal at $275,000.
At Arader Galleries, a New York City gallery and auction house more accustomed to selling antique maps and rare books, two rare guitars encased in glass were the centerpieces of a controversial and historical auction featuring the items of guitar pioneer, producer and songwriter Les Paul. On the left: a 1956 Gretsch Chet Atkins rare prototype. On the right: a 1954 black Custom guitar, dubbed Black Beauty, that became the prototype for guitars used by Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, among many others.
Chris McKinney, a product trainer for Gibson Guitars and Irsay's longtime curator, was one of 25 people in the room Thursday night. He arrived that morning from Indianapolis on a mission from Irsay: Buy Black Beauty.
After five minutes of bidding, McKinney bested an anonymous phone bidder, paying $275,000 ($335,000 including buyer's premium) on behalf of Irsay to add the instrument to the sports owner's collection of 175 guitars. It was far from the most Irsay has paid for a guitar. In 2002, Irsay bought Jerry Garcia's Tiger, the Grateful Dead member's main guitar from 1979 to 1989, for $850,000. A decade later, in 2013, Irsay would add Bob Dylan's Sunburst Fender Stratocaster (in)famously used at Newport Folk Festival — the famed "Dylan goes electric" guitar — for $965,000.
"I wasn't going to go north of $1 million, but I think we got it for a great price. I think it could've gone for a lot more."
The auction was not without its controversy. After Guitar Player magazine featured the instrument on its cover with the eye-catching cover line "The Grail! The genesis of all Les Paul guitars to come!," many guitar experts and aficionados, including Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen and blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa, said the pedigree of the instrument, while important, was overhyped. Critics noted that the first Les Pauls were released in 1952, two years before Black Beauty. "Deceiving," Nielsen told the Washington Post of the "holy grail" claim. "It’s just wrong."
Irsay was unconcerned. "It's an important guitar," he tells Rolling Stone after the auction. "I don't feel it's the Holy Grail — that's a mythical term — but it has huge significance in that it was Paul's personal guitar and it was a huge influence in terms of producing electric guitars. I wasn't going to go north of $1 million, but I think we got it for a great price. I think it could've gone for a lot more. This is a guitar builder's guitar."
Perhaps due to the criticism, Guernsey's, the auction house that organized the sale, fell short of President Arlan Ettinger's initial $2 million sales estimate for the instrument. "People are going to try to hype things up," Irsay says. "I've seen it all the time at auctions. I think the bidding was diminished because there was some of that negative talk from some very serious people that are respected. But I'm really happy we got it."
Irsay says that while the guitar will initially reside in his private collection, he will eventually make it available to the public and allow "musicians who don't have the funds" to play and practice on some of the guitars in his collection (though it's doubtful Black Beauty will be one of them).
As Thomas Doyle, Black Beauty's owner and the luthier who worked with Paul for more than 30 years, told the New York Times earlier this month, the guitar was Paul's second prototype after Paul deemed his first unacceptable. After experimenting for years on different designs and amplifications, Paul settled on a guitar by the early 1950s, with Gibson mass producing Black Beauty to Paul's specifications. "Without this very guitar," musician and Paul's godson Steve Miller wrote in the auction catalog, "no other Les Paul guitars could exist in the form that we have come to know and love for all these decades."
For Irsay, the purchase was as much about giving props as owning a piece of musical history. "Doyle doesn't get enough credit for the real work he's done in helping advance the electric guitar through the years," Irsay says. "A lot of times, some guys who are behind the scenes don't get as much notoriety as the guys out in front. It's like in football where offensive linemen grind away while Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning get the credit."
"Les did a lot of tinkering and innovations on this. A lot of the things that became guitar standards were done on this guitar."
McKinney, who met Irsay while working at a guitar store 18 years ago ("We're both wannabe beatnik hippies that happened to be born in the wrong era") says that the guitar's then-innovative features, including P-90 pickups and a tune-o-matic bridge, helped create what remain industry standards. "Les did a lot of tinkering and innovations on this. Its importance is that a lot of the things that became guitar standards were done on this guitar," McKinney tells Rolling Stone. "You can't really tie it in to an artist that most people of this generation know, but we're very proud to have it in the collection."
The auction featured several other Paul-related items that attracted varying degrees of interest at Thursday's auction, including Paul's 16-track soundboard, 1950s-era microphones and a stool from the guitarist's residency at defunct New York jazz club Fat Tuesday's.
Irsay says that the purchase speaks to the future as much as its past. "The mid-20th century was a huge era [for guitars] that will be remembered hundreds of years from now," he says. "I really look forward to passing [Black Beauty] on."