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May 2014

Fakin’ It: Vintage Counterfeits


Vintage guitars 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 convincing forgeries.

When I first started collecting in the mid-1960s, copies of Fenders, Gibsons or Martins were virtually unheard of because the originals were readily available and relatively cheap. The first copies I encountered were Gibson Mastertone tenor banjos with “replica” five-string necks, which were due to the incredible rarity of original prewar five-strings. From renecking, it was only a short step to converting raised-head tone ring models to the more desirable flat-head configuration, and then onward to complete replicas of these instruments. Fortunately for me, it was not difficult to determine altered or fake instruments from originals since no one yet was doing workmanship that would truly pass for original.

By the mid to late-1960s there were also a few people altering Martin dreadnought guitars, particularly style D-28s, to resemble highergrade models such as the pre-World War II D-45. Some craftsmen went as far as altering the model number and serial number stamps on the neck block, occasionally even copying serial numbers of known genuine D-45 guitars. Still, to an experienced eye, the ornamental work differed from the genuine prewar D-45, and the overall dimensions and specifications of a 1950s or 1960s D model would not conform to the genuine 1930s original.

By the late-1960s Gibson F-5 mandolins, particularly those from 1922-24 signed by Lloyd Loar, were going up in value enough to attract forgers. In some cases they would build instruments entirely from scratch. The workmanship varied depending on who made them, but some were quite good and would require a discerning eye to identify them as fakes.

In the early-1970s, it was still very rare to encounter forgeries of Fenders, but during that period I did start to see forgeries of Gibson sunburst Les Pauls. Some of these were earlier Goldtops with added humbucking pickups and refinished sunburst tops. Others were 1970s Les Pauls that had been re-topped with a curly piece of maple and refinished cherry sunburst. By the mid- 1970s, as prices of 1958-59 Flying Vs and Explorers were rapidly escalating, copies of these instruments began appearing with some regularity.

During the 1970s, 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 to such a degree that I had no difficulty in distinguishing them. Additionally, there was virtually no one doing a refinish job at that time that would fool an experienced eye.

The scene today is very different. Original examples of pre-war D-45s, sunburst Les Pauls, Explorers and Flying Vs can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars. Early Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, especially in custom colors, sell for tens of thousands (and some for over a hundred thousand).

Obviously, there is a great incentive to make copies or alter instruments to more closely resemble the more desirable and expensive models. In the case of Fenders, 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. The best of today’s refinishers do work which can be fully equivalent in quality to anything done by the Fender factory. The art of the “relic” treatment is becoming more and more sophisticated, and old refinishes look more and more like old original finishes as the years go by, so determining originality is more and more challenging every day.

It is virtually impossible for even a very skilled builder to truly duplicate all of the distinctive workmanship of a factory-made instrument such as a Martin, Gibson or Fender. However, it takes years of experience and a keen eye to ferret out the originals from the forgeries and altered instruments being offered today.

While the proliferation of forgeries and altered instruments may seem frightening, the situation is not very much different from the art and antiquities world, which dealt with a similar problem for hundreds of years. It is absolutely critical for a buyer to be keenly aware of this situation and to act with proper caution. Just as an art collector would not buy a Van Gogh painting without a receipt and certificate of authenticity, one should not buy a vintage guitar at a high price without proper documentation and certification from the seller.

George Gruhn
has been dealing vintage guitars since the 1960s. Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars (co-written with Walter Carter) is the “bible” for vintage collectors. Visit www.gruhn.com or email gruhn@gruhn.com.

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