John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson J160E jumbo acoustic-electric flattop is now the most valuable artist-owned guitar ever sold at auction.
The guitar sold for $2.4 million to an anonymous bidder this weekend at Julien’s Icons and Idols: Rock n’ Rollauction.
Expectations for the sale were high, given that it represents a rare and significant instrument in both Lennon’s and the Beatles’ history. Many thought the sale would exceed the $965,000 paid for Bob Dylan’s 1964 “Newport Folk” Stratocaster at a 2013 auction. Dylan’s guitar was notable as the instrument he played when he “went electric” in his infamous 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Like Lennon’s Gibson, Dylan’s Stratocaster went missing for years before it was discovered.
Still, the $2.4 million bid for Lennon’s guitar exceeded all expectations. The guitar is now the most valuable artist-owned guitar ever sold at auction and the second most valuable guitar sold at auction, exceeded only by the “Reach Out to Asia” Fender Stratocaster that went for $2.7 million in 2005. That instrument’s value was due to its being signed by numerous musical artists—including Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Brian May, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck and Pete Townsend—and, undoubtedly, the cause for which it was auctioned, to benefit victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Lennon was the original owner of the Gibson J-160E. Both he and fellow Beatle George Harrison were on the cusp of fame when they ordered their J-160E acoustic-electrics from Rushworth’s Music House in Liverpool. They received them on September 10, 1962, and the next day the Beatles returned to London to record the songs for their debut single, “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.” It’s presumed that Lennon and Harrison used their J-160Es on these recordings. Lennon undoubtedly used the guitar on other Beatles recordings through 1963, including “This Boy” and select tracks on their first two albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles, both recorded in 1963.
Lennon was fond of the J-160E and often used it when songwriting. He reportedly took it in hand it to write numerous early Beatles hits, including “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy.” Lennon and Harrison also used their J-160Es to mime their performances in the videos for “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy” (shown below), recorded on November 22, 1963.
The guitar disappeared in late 1963 after it was accidentally left behind at a gig by Beatles roadie Mal Evans. It somehow ended up at the Blue Guitar shop, in San Diego, where in 1969 it was sold to John McCaw for $175. Neither the shop nor McCaw had any idea the guitar had once belonged to Lennon. It wasn’t until McCaw saw a photo of George Harrison’s matching J-160E in the Spring 2012 issue of Guitar Player’s sister publication Guitar Aficionado that he began to wonder if he might have Lennon’s missing jumbo. He contacted Beatles gear expert Andy Babiuk, who was able to authenticate the guitar by matching its serial number to sales records and comparing its woodgrain to vintage photos of Lennon’s guitar.
McCaw will split the auction proceeds with Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow. Ono will donate the entirety of her proceeds—approximately 50 percent of the auction price—to her charity group Spirit Foundation, whose funds come entirely through Ono.