Les Paul died about three years ago. He was 94 and still gigging every Monday night in Manhattan. If you don't know much about him other than the guitars that bear his name, know that he was “without exaggeration the single most important figure in the history of modern music technology,” as Weekly writer John Payne wrote about him after an interview with the guitarist and inventor in the mid-aughts.
This past Friday and Saturday, at Julien's Auction house in Beverly Hills, Paul's estate auctioned off over 700 lots of his belongings, including hundreds of guitars, effect machines, trophies and street signs. Pretty much everything except the light bulbs in his house was up for grabs.
I was joined Saturday morning by local jazz guitarist Bruce Forman, who played with Paul at his famous New York residency some years ago. His most recent release, Formanism, is a more straight-ahead affair of original compositions with former students Gabe Noel on bass and Jake Reed holding down the drums. He is a nimble guitarist unafraid to entertain his listeners.
After signing his life away on a credit check and receiving his paddle, we were just in time for the 10 a.m. start. Ten minutes and five lots later the auction had already netted over $20,000. “I think I might be out of my league,” said Forman.
Drew Berlin, one of the famed guitar pros behind the Burst Brothers, was a consultant for the auction. “We were hoping to take in a million, million and a half,” he said, clearly satisfied with the proceedings. “Yesterday alone we took in 1.7 million.”
It is an understatement to say that the estimated prices in the catalog were a little low. Guitar schematics from the late 1960s valued between $600 and $800 sold for $17,000. A wristwatch given to Paul by Frank Sinatra was listed to sell between $400 and $600. It sold for $20,000 in less than a minute. A harmonica rack expected to go for upwards of $1,500 sold for $47,500.
Buried deep in the lush, 400-page catalog, Forman and guitar collector Andy Pascoe set their sights on a 1937 D'Angelico acoustic archtop. It sold at the comparatively low price of $12,000. Neither Forman nor Pascoe came away with the guitar, but then again neither had to come up with an excuse for his wife either.
Auctioneer Leila Dunbar played fast and loose, keeping the crowd entertained through what could have been a very tedious process while also recognizing some of the more, shall we say, subtle thousand dollar nods. A barrage of numbers flowed from her podium as the table full of phone bidder representatives yelped their increasingly reckless bids.
On particularly lucrative battles, the crowd would applaud. I'm not sure if they were applauding the thrill of the hunt or just the grandiose display of financial priorities. Either way, all of the proceeds were going to the Les Paul Foundation, which spreads their money around music education and medical research. With Berlin estimating sales totaling $4 million, it will go quite a ways to celebrate what would have been Paul's 97th birthday.
Personal Bias: I don't like buying things on eBay if they cost more than $20. The likelihood of me winning even Paul's health insurance cards was slim.
The Crowd: Middle-aged men with money to burn, including Vincent Gallo.
Random Notebook Dump: A lot of the people in the room were representing larger establishments like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Hard Rock Café enterprise.
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