Les Paul's 1954 Black Beauty Goes for Six Figures at Auction

Les Paul's Black Beauty certainly stirred up the media.
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Les Paul's personal 1954 Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" sold to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay last night for $343,750. According to the New York Times, Irsay's guitar curator, Christopher McKinney, placed the bid at the February 19, 2015 auction held by Guernsey's in New York City.

The owner of Black Beauty was Tom Doyle, Les Paul's long-time guitar tech, friend, and sound man (shown at left with Paul).

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Doyle was also selling other Les Paul memorabilia through the Guernsey's auction, titled The Tom Doyle Collection, including a prototype Gretsch 6120, called Dark Eyes, that belonged to Chet Atkins. Carrying a pre-auction estimate of $50,000 to $1 million, the Gretsch did not reach its reserve price and was not sold.

In the end, all eyes were on the Black Beauty.

"We know the importance of the guitar historically," McKinney told James Barron of the New York Times. “This guitar was used by Les in recordings, in television. It was his main guitar for innovations. It shows his thinking and progress as an inventor. A lot of the things that were done to this guitar went on to become industry standard.”

It was reported that McKinney was ready to bid up to $625,000 for the '54 Custom.

Pre-auction press about Black Beauty was rampant, and some sale estimates for the guitar were in the strata of $1 million or more.

The guitar also stirred up quite a debate in vintage circles, as well as in two critical stories by Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers. Guitar Player was, in fact, called out for calling Black Beauty "The Grail," and for stating the 1954 Custom was the "genesis of all Les Paul guitars to follow." You can read the whole story here.

We stood by calling Black Beauty "The Grail," due to its early and essential importance in Les Paul's experimentation for his ultimate sound, as well as some "corrections" to elements that Les was not happy with on the original 1952 Les Paul goldtop. Les apparently had threatened to take his name off of the guitar, had Gibson's Ted McCarty and others at the Gibson factory not come up with something he wanted to play for the early 1953/1954 Les Paul Custom prototype (which was made "custom" for Les—though some called it a "pre-production" model).

However, we apologized to readers for fumbling the "genesis" issue in the April 2015 issue of GP. While we still feel Tom Doyle had some compelling data here, vintage guitar experts took issue with the specifics, and we have invited the Les Paul Legacy series author, Robb Lawrence, to provide a historical timeline in our April 2015 issue to clarify the Les Paul guitar's production.

It was the auction's promotion and price estimates that appeared to be a not-so-underlying cause of much concern amongst some historians and collectors, and, in that relatively small community, the knives came out. In a sometimes ugly debate, Black Beauty's value, history, and importance to Les Paul were called into question. Obviously, if you dig deep, there were inaccuracies, vague and off-point quotes, and/or comments by people who had not seen Black Beauty in both the critical and the non-critical press.

“I think we can take a lot of little things from this,” said Tom Wittrock, co-owner of the Les Paul Forum, in the post-auction article filed by Edgers for the Washington Post. “One, I don’t think it was worth getting worked up. Two, the method of marketing it, it didn’t help. I don’t know if it hurt, but I don’t think it helped.”

With the auction done, there are a couple of positives to the debacle:

• The genius of Les Paul was all over the popular media for a bit—not just in guitar circles.

• Though some assertions were certainly inaccurate, the public (and even those guitarists not very interested in rare instruments) experienced some insights into the world of vintage guitars.

• To that end, the debate provided an opportunity to better educate GP readers—and other interested guitar zealots—about the history of the Les Paul guitar.

• Tom Doyle—who worked side-by-side with Les Paul for nearly 45 years—received some well-deserved exposure.

Guitar Player's sole intentions for covering Black Beauty were to celebrate the creative and technical mind of Les Paul, share Doyle's stories on working so close to the master on Black Beauty and his other guitars, and shine a light on a guitar that was pivotal to Les' obsessive search for his perfect tone.