What you see: A 1962 Gibson acoustic guitar, owned and used by John Lennon. Julien’s Auctions sold it in November 2015 for $2.4 million–a record for any guitar at auction.
How rare are John Lennon-owned and -played guitars? “They’re very rare, and it’s especially rare for them to come to market. Yoko would have most of them, and he gave very few away,” says Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, who notes that the house has handled four Lennon guitars in the last 15 years. “This particular guitar was a lost guitar. There was intrigue about it. He and George Harrison bought two together in 1961. It cost $165 for each, and it took Lennon a whole year to pay his off.”
Your colleague, Darren Julien, describes this as a “Holy Grail Beatles instrument.” What makes it a Holy Grail Beatles instrument? “Because it came to John at a very important time, at an early stage of the Beatles,” Nolan says. “Paul and John were going to each others’ homes to write songs. Such important songs were written on it. Then it disappeared at a show and no one knew where it ended up. Lennon never saw it again.”
How did Lennon’s guitar go missing? “What probably happened was–this was during some Christmas concerts in 1963 in the U.K. The Beatles were one of the acts performing. It was Christmas, and there was alcohol and other drugs involved. It could have been a completely innocent mistake, picked up by another band,” he says, adding that Lennon filed a police report when he realized his guitar was gone.
How do we know that Lennon used this instrument to write All My Loving, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Please, Please Me, and other Beatles hits? “We know when those songs were written, and we know John had this particular guitar,” he says. “He was a young guy. He didn’t have a massive amount of guitars [then]. He didn’t have endorsements from Fender and Gibson. And we have [period] photos from the living room of Paul.”
How did the consignor, John McCaw, end up with the guitar? Somehow it found its way to San Diego, where McCaw bought it in 1967 for $220. “He got 47 years of absolute enjoyment from it,” Nolan says. “He taught his kids to play guitar on it. He had no idea what it was. To see him standing in that massively crowded auction room, and to see the guitar go higher and higher–it was a life-changing event for him. He retired soon after, and he’s enjoying life.”
What was it like to be in that sale room when the Lennon guitar reached the block? “We hoped it would be the guitar to break one million. That was our goal. When it broke two million, we were on the floor,” he says. “There was a frenzy of bidding. It was a moving moment, emotional for us and for John McCaw, to set the world record. I wish we could have those every day.”
How long do you think the record is going to stand? “I think it’s going to be a long time. It’s hard to think of a guitar that could smash that record,” he says. “The Bob Dylan guitar was a very historically important guitar, and it sold for $965,000. The John Lennon guitar sold for $2.4 million. It’ll be a long time before the record breaks.”
How does the guitar play? “It plays really well,” he says. “John McCaw himself played it at the exhibition [before the sale]. It’s a really nice guitar, in excellent condition.”
Julien’s Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram. You can also watch the YouTube video recap of the December 2015 Julien’s auction. The segment on the Lennon guitar begins around 2:50 and ends around 5:12.