Newsletter #9, August 13, 2003
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Vintage guitars, banjos, and mandolins have proved to be a great investment over the years. Unfortunately as the value of these instruments has escalated so has the incentive to make more and more convincing forgeries. When I first started out collecting in the mid-1960s, it was virtually unheard of to see copies of Martin guitars, Gibson mandolins or Fender and Gibson electric guitars because the originals were readily available and relatively cheap. The first evidence I encountered of copies was of renecked Gibson Mastertone banjos. Original five-string Mastertones from the 1920s and 1930s are incredibly rare. Prior to World War II tenor and plectrum banjos were popular while the five-string banjo was considered strictly a hillbilly instrument. Since Mastertones were quite expensive when new, the five-string players of the day simply could not afford one. As a result there are more than one hundred times as many pre World War II tenor Mastertones as five-strings. After World War II five-strings became popular due to bluegrass while the Dixieland music which utilized tenor and plectrum banjos went into eclipse. As early as the late 1950s there were a few people making replica five-string necks to convert tenor and plectrum Mastertone Gibson banjos to five-string. By the time I started out in the mid-1960s, it was quite common to see renecked old Mastertone banjos, but original five-string banjos of the 1930s have always been rare. It was only a short step further to convert raised-head tone ring Mastertone banjos to flat-heads and from there go onward to making complete replicas of these instruments with handmade resonators and other components. There were not nearly so many sources during the 1960s for replica banjo parts as there are today, but it was not uncommon by the late 1960s to see supposed pre-World War II five string Gibson Mastertones which in fact had no genuine prewar component parts at all. Fortunately for me it was not difficult at that time to determine altered or fake instruments from original since no one yet was doing workmanship which to a critical eye would truly pass for original, but some of the better craftsmen of the mid to late 1960s were doing remarkably good inlay and carving.
By the mid to late 1960s there were also a few people altering Martin dreadnought guitars, particularly style D-28s, to resemble higher grade models such as the pre-World War II D-45. Mike Longworth in Chattanooga did many D-28 to D-45 conversions as well as a fair number in which he would inlay only the neck or the neck and top. His work was not a deliberate attempt at forgery since he put his own paper label inside the instrument as well as inlaying a small letter "L" in the fingerboard. Mike did not alter the serial number or model stamp on the neck block of the guitar such that it was still clearly identifiable as what it really was. In 1968 Mike went to work for Martin and continued to work there for many years thereafter. Mike was not alone in inlaying and altering D-28s. Unfortunately some other craftsman doing this work went as far as to alter the model number and serial number stamps on the neck block of the guitar, occasionally even copying serial numbers of known genuine D-45 guitars. Since these instruments were genuine Martin guitars which had been altered, the workmanship of the instrument could look very real, but the ornamental work to an experienced eye still differed from the pre-World War II genuine D-45 and the overall dimensions and specifications of a 1950s or 1960s D-28 altered to have ornamental specifications of a prewar D-45 still would not conform to the genuine 1930s original in exterior or interior specifications of dimensions and craftsmanship.
By the late 1960s Gibson pre-World War II F-5 mandolins, particularly those signed by Lloyd Loar, were going up in value enough to attract the attention of forgers. In some cases they would build instruments entirely from scratch. The workmanship varied depending on who made them, but some were quite good. In other cases lesser instruments were being altered to more closely resemble the pre World War II original. Gibson F-12 mandolins were converted at such a rate that today it is relatively rare to see an unaltered 1950s or 1960s F-12. Many post-World War II F-5s were also converted by reshaping the peghead and adding a new fingerboard and peghead veneer done to the pre-World War II dimensions and ornamental specifications. Tops and backs were regraduated in an attempt to give a sound more equivalent to those of the 1920s. Depending upon the craftsman involved, the workmanship could vary greatly in quality but some were quite good and would require a discerning eye to identify them.
In the early 1970s it was still very rare to encounter forgeries of Fender guitars, but during that period I did start to encounter both forgeries of Gibson sunburst Les Pauls and 1950's Gold top Les Pauls which had been altered by the addition of humbucking pickups and refinished sunburst tops as well as 1970s Les Pauls which had been modified with the installation of curly maple tops and cherry sunburst finish to more closely resemble the highly desirable late-1950s model. By the mid-1970s, as the price of 1958 and 1959 Flying V's and Explorers was rapidly escalating, there was enough incentive to make copies of these instruments, and they started to show up with some regularity.
During the 1970s although the number of copies and altered instruments was rapidly escalating, I never felt that it was especially difficult to tell the fake or altered instruments from the originals. I knew most of the people who were doing this work. While a few of them were quite skilled, their workmanship clearly differed enough from the originals that I had no difficulty in distinguishing them. The majority of the copies and altered instruments were done by people who simply did not have enough skill to fool anyone with a discerning eye. During this same time period I also seldom felt that it was difficult to determine an original finish from a factory original one. Typically if it looked slick and professional it was original, whereas refinished instruments usually looked like they were painted in bar top varnish applied with a broom. There was virtually no one doing a refinish job that would fool an experienced collector or dealer.
The scene today is very different than it was during the 1970s. Currently Gibson flat head Mastertones, Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolins, pre-World War II D-45s, original sunburst Les Pauls, Explorers and Flying V's can all push prices in excess of $100,000 for fine original examples. Early Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, especially those finished in factory original custom colors, are bringing prices sometimes in excess of $25,000. When instruments hit this price bracket there is a great incentive to make copies or alter instruments to more closely resemble more desirable and expensive models. In the case of Fender guitars such an alteration may amount to nothing more than finding an old instrument with a very rough finish or one which has been previously refinished and doing a very professional refinish job to resemble an original with a desirable custom color. The best of today's refinishers do work which can be fully equivalent in quality to anything done by the Fender factory. Determining originality is more and more challenging as every day goes by. When original Flying V's, Explorers and sunburst Les Pauls were available for $1,500, the incentive to make meticulous copies was not nearly as great as it is given the reality of today's market. In the 1970's when a performer appeared on stage with what looked like a Gibson Flying V, Explorer, sunburst Les Paul or black-pickguard Telecaster, it probably was a real one, whereas today it could be a new relic model or vintage reissue, a modified instrument or a total forgery. The fact is that most of the vintage appearing instruments we see on stage today are not genuine original vintage pieces.
Needless to say if one is not an expert it is virtually impossible in today's market to be certain what one is looking at. It takes years of experience and a keen eye to ferret out the originals from the forgeries and altered instruments being offered today. It is virtually impossible for even a very skilled hand builder to truly duplicate all of the distinctive workmanship of a factory made instrument such as a Martin, Gibson or Fender, but as prices of genuine vintage instruments escalate, the incentive to make better and better copies increases in direct proportion. If you are not an expert, I urge you not to spend huge amounts of money without having instruments properly appraised and certified by a reputable expert. While the proliferation of forgeries and altered instruments may seem frightening, the situation is not very much different from the art or antiquities collectible scene which has had to deal with a similar problem for hundreds of years. The fact that forgeries of fine art and musical instruments outnumber the originals does not in any way reduce the value of the genuine article. If anything it makes the originals worth all the more. It is, however, absolutely critical for a collector to be keenly aware of this situation and to act with sufficient proper caution. Just as a collector would not buy a Van Gough painting without a receipt and certificate of authenticity, one should not buy a vintage guitar, banjo, or mandolin at a high price without proper documentation and certification from the seller.