It wasn't the kind of transportation 11-year-old Elvis Presley had in mind. He wanted a bicycle, but the $12.95 guitar he got put him on the road to virtual immortality. That first guitar, bought at Tupelo Hardware Co. in 1946, is among hundreds of celebrity items being auctioned next month as part of what New York auctioneer Arlan Ettinger calls "the best auction ever held", Guernsey's Rock Greats and Legends of the Big Screen. Three other Elvis guitars also will go on the block Oct. 12-13 through Guernsey's Auction House, where Ettinger, president of the company, predicts Elvis items could be the stars of an all-star show. Also on the block will be items from Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Madonna, Tom Cruise and Greta Garbo, among others. Besides the guitars also a white Elvis Player piano will be auctioned.
Ettinger says the Elvis guitars are among about 50 guitars in the auction, including a 16th Century instrument believed to be the oldest known guitar. "Guitars have become a pretty hot commodity among collectors. Three months ago we held an auction with material from the Grateful Dead with featured items including two Jerry Garcia guitars, which brought close to $1 million apiece. The previous record was about $450,000 for a guitar played by Eric Clapton."
Ettinger, who conducted the 1999 Graceland auction in Las Vegas, said the first Elvis guitar is the only Elvis item with a minimum reserve bid, meaning it can be withdrawn from the auction if it fails to meet the minimum. He declined to reveal that minimum, but said, "One could make an argument that it should be worth more than the two Jerry Garcia guitars that we sold. No one is more important in the scheme of things than Elvis Presley."
Ettinger's version of the first Elvis guitar is different from the official version in Graceland's Presley biography. Ettinger says the young Elvis had wanted a shotgun, but was told it cost too much. Instead, his mother, Gladys Presley, bought the guitar for him for $7.75, says the auctioneer. The Graceland version is that Elvis wanted a bicycle in 1946, but Gladys talked him into a $12.95 guitar until she was able to afford the bicycle for Christmas in 1947.
Graceland spokesman Todd Morgan says he has seen "several versions" of the story about the first Elvis guitar. There has been some speculation among Elvis biographers that the guitar "no longer exists," he says. But Ettinger says the guitar "was passed by Elvis to a close friend." That friend gave the guitar to one of his friends. When he died, it remained in his family until now, says the auctioneer.
The other Elvis guitars come with stories, too. One, which Ettinger describes as a Gibson J200, is "a black-bodied guitar with a karate sticker on it." Ettinger says Elvis was playing the guitar at a 1975 concert in Springfield, Mass., when a string broke. "Elvis turned around, took the guitar and hurled it in the direction of the backstage area." He says a couple sitting in that area shot a photograph just as Elvis tossed the guitar, then dropped the camera just in time to catch the guitar in flight.
In a 1977 concert, one of Elvis's last, he was playing a blond-colored guitar when the strap broke. The guitar fell to the stage. "At which point Elvis yelled out to the audience, 'Which of you people waited the longest to see me here tonight?' " In the end, Elvis handed the guitar to a young woman who had waited all night in a lawn chair to be among the first admitted to the show.
The fourth "Elvis" guitar was actually a metal-bodied guitar owned by Uncle Jim and the Westones, a group that met Elvis early in his career while singing with him at country fairs in the Memphis area. Ettinger says Elvis signed their guitar. "He pressed so hard it looks like an engraving in the neck of the guitar," says Ettinger.
For auction catalogs ($30) or other information, visit the Guerseys website.