June 27, 2004
2004 Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Auction: the Auction, the Burst Brothers, and Lee Dickson
Text and images by HUGH OCHOA
June 24, 2004. The television news crews parked outside of Christie's 49th Street Manhattan location are the first hint that a special event is about to take place. Understatement. What unfolds is the most significant auction of acoustic and electric guitars in history - the 2004 Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Auction.
It's an important day for guitar collectors and enthusiasts around the world and Christie's staff treats it as a white-gloved affair from beginning to end.
Upon entering the auction room, bidders couldn't help but notice the array of acoustic guitars displayed on the left side of the stage, including a very impressive collection of Martins with their lot number affixed to the neck.
Above the displayed guitars is a large TV screen presenting a video clip of background information about the Crossroads Foundation - what it does and Eric Clapton's involvement with it. Lovely scenes of tropical Antigua, with its beaches, ocean, and palm trees, make for a relaxing interlude before the auction. Shortly after 6 pm, a representative from the Crossroads Centre gives a short speech and then hands the podium over to the evening's host and auctioneer, Hugh Edmeades, an English gentleman from Christie's London office. Edmeades has a very likeable, dry sense of humor.
The auction podium:
In many respects, the auction seems like any other. Uninformed spectators might think the bidding is for a famous painting or antique china, except for the large screen that displays an image of the current lot for sale and the occasional white-gloved handler who walks out from behind the curtain with a guitar and patiently holds it high through the bidding, waving it back and forth until the bidding is over. The guitars that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars must get heavy.
Bidders wait for the auction to begin:
During the auction of Lot #16, a 1966 C.F. Marting Style 000-28-45 Conversion acoustic guitar, the bidding becomes very heated and it comes down to a handful of bidders as it reaches the $100,000 mark. Nicknamed the "Longworth Guitar", and used by Andy Fairweather Low in the MTV Unplugged session, the guitar is highly sought after. The crowd lets out a roar of laughter as the auctioneer eggs one bidder on by saying "You know you're going to get a great cheer and applause if you bid $100,000, sir." The somewhat reluctant bidder recieves his promised cheer when he offers $100,000. The bidding closes at $160,000 to another big round of applause.
An even louder roar of applause is heard when Lot #19, a 1939 Style 000-42 Martin acoustic that was the main guitar Eric Clapton used for the MTV Unplugged sessions in the Bray Studios, yields a lofty $500,000.
As Lot #47, a 2000 Gibson SG Pete Townshend Signature Model Prototype signed by Pete Townshend, is presented, a loud "Yeah!" is heard from a female in the audience. "I see we have a Who fan here tonight," the auctioneer says. "Well, it's probably a rag guitar if it survived a Who concert," he adds.
The bidding opens at $10,000 and goes up fast. As it reaches the high 20s, the female bidder ceases to raise her bidding paddle and the auctioneer gently teases her by saying: "Not that big of a Who fan are you, madam?" to laughter from the rest of the house. More applause follows when the auction ends at $32,000.
Similar praise is recieved for Lots #65 and #66, two Gianni Versace stage suits that bring $24,000 and $16,000 respectively.
Auction Lot #69, a 1996 Fender Stratocaster Master Built Sample, and Lot #86, a 1988 Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster Eric Clapton Signature Model, both recieve "Oohs" and "Ahs" when the bidding opens at $40,000 and $20,000 respectively.
Lot 79, the 1996 Fender Custom Shop 50th Anniversary "Goldleaf" Stratocaster made for Eric Clapton sells for $455,500:
The auctioneer concedes to bids on some auctions that vary from the normal bidding increment guidelines, saying: "I'll take that bid for Crossroads", while other times he declines bidding variations humorously stating that: "Some of us have to be home on Sunday, madam." One bidder suprises the house by jumping from a low figure early in the bidding to $50,000. "He wants to get home early," the auctioneer jests.
Bidding for Lot #83 opens at an expected high amount ($40,000), and some aggressive bidding ensues. A "Circa 1965 and later Composite Stratocaster" as described in the auction catalog, affectionately nicknamed "Lenny" by Stevie Ray Vaughn after his first wife, was expected to bring in a large price - and it does. Bidding for Lenny ends at $550,000.
After Lot #87, a 2004 Master Built Stratocaster Concept Model painted by artist "CRASH", a guitar "played by Eric Clapton as recently as last night" according to the auctioneer, finishes at $280,000, a stir of anticipation and edge-of-your-seat uneasiness sets in. #88, the final lot, is next. Blackie.
As the star of the show, a composite Fender Stratocaster nicknamed "Blackie" is carried onto the stage, all eyes turn toward the VIP booths on the second floor overlooking the room and see Eric Clapton stand and walk to the glass for a better view of the preceedings. Clapton looks down at Blackie like someone staring out of an airport window watching a life-long friend board a plane, thinking this may be the last glimpse.
Bidding for Blackie starts at an impressive $100,000, and a heated bidding war follows. The auctioneer struggles to take in all of the action - the bidders' hands raised in the house, a flurry of telephone bids, and the pre-auction bids from absentee bidders. The number of raised hands eventually dwindles as the high bids reach the $600,000-$700,000 range. The final winning bid comes in at a whopping $850,000 ($959,500 after auction house fees) and receives a standing ovation from the entire house that lasted several minutes. The sale price of Blackie has set a world auction record for an electric guitar.
Two other guitars also set world records. Lot #41, a 1964 Gibson ES-335 TDC, fetches $750,000, ($847,500 after auction house premiums), setting a world record auction price for a Gibson guitar and earning it the third highest rank for a guitar bought at auction.
Lot #19, the 1939 Martin Style 000-42 used by Clapton on the MTV Unplugged session, sells for $700.000 ($791,500 after auction house premiums), a world record auction price for a Martin guitar.
After the auction, the winners of several of the big ticket guitars and Lee Dickson answer questions from the press.
Guitar Center's Burst Brothers
Guitar Center, Inc., was the buyer of four major lots. Bidding on behalf of Guitar Center were David (Dave) Belzer and Andrew (Drew) Berlin.
Drew Berlin (left) and Dave Belzer (right) of Guitar Center. Drew holds Blackie and Dave holds Clapton's CREAM-era Gibson ES-335.
Belzer and Berlin, who refered to themselves as, "the vintage guitar buyers for the Guitar Center chain," had this to say when asked about their winning bids: "Well it's a little hard to put into words right now. We got the guitars we came to get and we're very happy to get them." Having purchased Blackie, Lenny, the CREAM-period Gibson ES-335, and the George Harrison guitar that Harrison gave to Clapton as a gift - Belzer, Berlin and Guitar Center, Inc. have good reason to be happy.
To the guitar collecting world, David Belzer and Andrew Berlin are known simply as "The Burst Brothers". They bring years of experience to the table, not just in buying and selling but in playing as well. Dave has a degree in Music Performance, has owned his own music store in New York, and has played with bands from coast to coast. Drew was the guitarist for Little Richard for a number of years, has numerous credits as a player and songwriter with many bands, and has spent a good deal of time on the road. Over the years, they have traveled the country, bought and sold thousands of guitars, and have become two well-known names in the vintage industry.
Dave and Drew met at a guitar show in Santa Monica, California, in 1995. Drew was there as a private dealer, and Dave was there buying for Guitar Center. The Hollywood Vintage Room had just been built, and Drew had been selling to them. Eventually, Guitar Center offered Drew a job in the vintage department, realizing that his experience and contacts would be an asset to the growing vintage business. The first week Drew was working there, Dave and Drew did a deal for a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard and realized that they shared the same love for “Bursts”. They teamed up from then on, and within a year had become known as “The Burst Brothers”. They also discovered they had musical tastes in common and starting performing together in a small club in Beverly Hills as the house band.
The Burst Brothers now enter the guitar collecting history books as the bidders for the most expensive electirc guitar ever purchased at an auction. They stand before a room full of journalists.
Hugh Ochoa: Which guitars did you purchase?
Belzer: We purchased the Blackie Eric Clapton [Lot #88], we purchased the 335 CREAM guitar [Lot #41], the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar [Lot #83 "Lenny"] and the George Harrison guitar that he gave to Eric as a gift [Lot #7].
Ochoa: There was some pretty agressive bidding going on, did you intend to walk out with Blackie regardless?
Belzer: To a point. [Laughs]
Ochoa: What are your plans for the guitars?
Belzer: Well, it's not up to us, it's up to our company, but I think there will be some type of tour, that the public will be able to see. We have 130 stores so I think it will be going around to the different stores.
Ochoa: This was a benefit for the Crossroads Centre. Do you think you would have bid as high if it wasn't?
Berlin: Sure. We co-sponsored the Crossroads event with Clapton a few weeks ago in Dallas and so we're deeply involved in the event and the auction.
Ochoa: Do you have any business connection with Eric Clapton or Lee Dickson [Eric Clapton's guitar technician for over 20 years]?
Belzer: No, but we do know him [Dickson].
The Burst Brothers go on to field a number of questions from a variety of journalists.
Asked if what they have done has sunk in yet, both reply, "No."
A journalist asks: "What made you so determined to get these guitars, particularly these two [referring to Blackie and the 1964 Gibson ES-335]?" Belzer replies: They are very important historically in rock'n' roll. The red 335 is considered to have been the instrument that one of the best and greatest solos in Rock and Roll, "Crossroads", was done on and it was Eric's guitar for 30 years. And Blackie, I think, represents that generation from the mid 70s on so the two guitars really cover a good part of history.
When asked again how high they were willing to go to get these guitars, Belzer answers: "Well, you know, to a point. We did have a limit and actually we squeeked in under it."
Regarding the George Harrison guitar, Belzer comments: "We got the George Harrison guitar that was given to Eric as a gift, which I think is one of the coolest instruments in there, you know, being a Beatle guitar and Eric Clapton's. I thought it was pretty important."
With respect to plans for the instruments, Berlin states: "The company's, Guitar Center's, CEO is a guitar player. Most of the people that work at Guitar Center are guitar players and they have a great appreciation for guitars, especially these, so I'm sure the guitars will be appreciated by everybody. It's hard to say right now, but we'll try to share these treasures with the public as best we can."
To which Belzer adds: "They should be available for people to view and experience, I mean for me, being at the Crossroads Festival standing by and listening to people coming up and looking at those guitars, you know, being so close to them and seeing their reaction to these instruments inspired us. People are so excited to be around these guitars and we hope to pass that on."
And when asked, "What if Eric wants to come over to visit Blackie?", Belzer has one last comment: "He can come over anyday, I'll take him to dinner." [Laughs]
When someone in the crowd of journalists asks Dickson if the 1964 red Gibson ES-335 was the guitar Clapton used on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", he responds: "No, I think he played, the story goes, he played a Les Paul on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and I beleive it was George's. It was s cherry red Les Paul."
Lee Dickson (center) with Dave Belzer (left) and Drew Berlin (right):
Dickson is asked if he was sitting with Eric Clapton during the auction.
"Yeah there was a few of us in the room upstairs, a couple of people that were involved in Crossroads on the management front and myself and a few of the touring guys. Eric's reaction was 'overwhelmed' as he was in the last auction. The last auction we were in Los Angeles and we had to watch it on a small screen TV via the Internet so it didn't have the same electric vibe, although it was quite scary. Today, actually being present, it was absolutely amazing. And he's so knocked out. I mean we were kind of shocked and stunned ourselves by some of the prices realized by some of the instruments..
"In the lock-up, we've still got a few guitars, I mean he has kept a basic working arsenal of guitars. But in terms of volume, there are a lot of empty shelves in there now. Hopefully, he'll rebuild within the next few years. I don't think he'll buy all that many guitars. There are certain things that I'm sure he'd like to try to replace, although you can never replace something that's been a part of you for so long."
Someone asks if Clapton takes Dickson guitar shopping with him to advise him on instruments.
"Eric doesn't really need much advice, I mean, he's very very knowledgable about all aspects of the guitar and stuff. Sometimes I go along. When we were at the Dallas Guitar Festival, we went shopping at the guitar show that was going on there. Sometimes he'll ask my advice, other times he'll just go into a store and buy them directly. Other times they may be shipped to him and I don't even know about them. Most of the time, I catalog everything that we get, but sometimes I'll find a thing and say, 'I've never seen this before', and it turns out we got it like a year ago or something."
When questioned about a rumor that Dickson came to the viewing and said his last goodbye to the red Gibson ES-335 and if the guitar had any sentimental value to him, he replies: "Yeah, well it does and a lot of it has got to do with the case. It's a great guitar and it has such historical significance in terms of Eric's career, being the electric guitar that he's owned the longest - longer than Blackie and longer than Brownie that went in the last auction. I love that particular model, but the strange thing about that guitar is that lots of times when I pull guitars out people say, 'Can I have a picture of this guitar?', which I obviously have to politely decline, but with this guitar, people always want their picture taken with the case. And that was one of my particular favorites and I have lots of favorites. But like any curator's job or caretaker's job, you're only in charge of them as long as the owner wants to keep them."
Does Dickson know these guitars better than Eric Clapton does?
"Well, with all the greatest respect to my boss, I probably do because when he's finished with them, when we're finished touring, I tend to take them back to the lock-up and wait for further instruction. So yeah, I'm very very close to a lot of these instruments, and although they are Eric's, and I never lose track of that, yes, I am sad to see some of them go. I packed a packet of tissue in my bag tonight in case it was getting too emotional."
Ochoa: Did Eric Play Blackie one more time before letting it go?
Dickson: I don't believe so, I think I played it for a press conference in London and that was it. I think it was a big emotional wrench but I beleive that the last time he actually saw the guitar was in Dallas at the Christie's exibit as part of our Dallas Crossraods Festival which was a forerunner to raise a lot of money again for the Crossroads Centre in Antigua.
When questioned about his role in the recruting of other artists' donations, Dickson repled: "Eric made a list, of guys he wanted to ask to contribute and he wrote them all a personal letter giving them a certain amount of time to reply. And most of the guys came through for us. It was really kind of them to contribute, to put their instruments for such a great cause. I was involved with a couple of the artists, talking to them and things, like Joe Satriani, who is a lovely man, and others. But Eric started the ball rolling by personnally writing to everyone and asking them, to convince them, to come on board. That way it's nice. It's left in the hands of the owner to see if they want to contribute. And to my knowledge, I don't think anyone refused."
Ochoa: Now a guitar that would be considered by most to be a 'Holy Grail', do you believe it's better off in a museum rather than in the hands of a private owner?
Dickson: Well I don't know, I mean, Eric decided, I think, that there were all these great guitars sitting there in a warehouse. Like most guys, you can only play one at a time. And decided that this would be an amazing thing. Initailly, the first auction in 1999, was a great way to raise money and return the guitars to people that wanted to play them. Although having said that, I dare say that a lot of these guitars will become museum pieces purely and simply because of the high dollar value.
A journalist asks if Eric ever goes to see Brownie at the Experience Music Project or if he totally divorces himself from his guitars after he lets them go, Dickson had this to impart: "No, No. It's pointless selling your guitars and then saying to someone, 'Hey, can I come and look at my guitar?' because it's not yours anymore. I think he's very brave like that. You know, we've done the deal, they're gone and he's said his goodbyes like I have. Whoever they're going to now, we wish them every success and I just hope they take as good care of them as I did."
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