How to spot fake vintage guitars

How many fakes are out there?

British artist John Myatt created around 200 forged paintings in what Scotland Yard described as “the biggest art fraud of the 20th Century”. He faked works by artists such as Chagall, Giacometti, Dubuffet, Ben Nicholson and Matisse, which were convincing enough to appear in the catalogues of several big-name auction houses including Christies, Sotheby’s and Phillips. Myatt was arrested in 1995 and, having helped to convict his accomplice John Drewe, was sentenced to one year in prison.

Myatt was by no means unique in his nefarious practices. Indeed, Yann Walther, head of the Geneva-based Fine Art Expert Institute, believes that over 50 per cent of the art circulating today may be forged or misattributed.

So, is the market for vintage instruments equally inundated with items that are not exactly what they claim to be? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’.

Is anyone faking pre-war L-5s and other vintage archtops?

Luckily for fans of vintage L-5s and other pre-war archtops, the incidence of outright fakes is relatively small. Apart from Loar-signed examples and L-5PNs – the latter model desirable thanks to its cutaway and Natural finish – Gibson’s acoustic archtops simply don’t command sufficiently high sums to make them worth faking. “I don’t recall seeing Gibson forgeries especially,” says dealer Laurence Wexer (wexerguitars.com). “A forgery is made with the intent to deceive. As such, I have seen many F-5 mandolin copies that said ‘Gibson’ on the headstock but very few were intended to fool someone.” 

In addition, there are few luthiers capable of building an L-5 or Super 400 replica that would deceive an expert. To quote vintage dealer Joe Vinikow (archtop.com), “If you have the skill of a Gilchrist or Cunningham, you’re going to work under your own name, legit.”

Besides, why go to the trouble of hand-carving an archtop guitar when a 1950s Blackguard Tele, custom colour 1960s Strat or original Gibson Korina is easier to build, appeals to a wider market and as a consequence, fetches a far higher sum?

How to avoid getting burned

Collectible archtops that sell for top dollar are those in clean, all original condition. A refinished instrument or one that has had much of its original hardware replaced is inevitably worth less than a pristine guitar that remains as it left the factory. A re-fret or neck set – providing that it was done by a professional – should not be a deal breaker and a degree of honest playing wear won’t devalue an instrument too much.

Modifications made to vintage instruments may not be intended to mislead – for example it’s not uncommon to encounter a Type Three L-5 with its block inlaid fingerboard replaced by a dot board. In the wrong hands however, the guitar may later be offered for sale as a more desirable – and pricier – Type Two example.

Knowledge is power

Apart from the obvious, how can you tell if a vintage instrument has been modified? If you want to know if the mid 1930s Advanced L-5 that you are considering purchasing still has its original hardware then go here

Learn as much as you can about the model that you interested in and if you get the opportunity, there’s no substitute for the hands-on experience of holding and playing a genuine vintage instrument. Books to get you started include Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars, Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902 to 1941 and The Gibson Super 400by Tom Van Hoose. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most collectors of vintage instruments are only too happy to share their knowledge and may even invite you to see their collection!

Seeing what we want to see

Finally, if a deal seems too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper authenticated The Hitler Diaries despite the fact that they contained a number of historical inaccuracies. The diaries, which were purchased in 1983 for 9.3 million Deutsche Marks ($3.7 million) by the West German news magazine Stern, turned out to be forgeries but at the time Hugh Trevor-Roper simply saw what he wanted to see. Caveat emptor as they say!

This ‘ES-150’ started life as an L-50 – a 16-inch acoustic archtop with a solid carved spruce top, flat maple back and 24 ¾ scale length. “With the addition of a CC brand Charlie Christian style pickup and appropriate electronics, it was reportedly marketed to our customer as an ES-150.” Says dealer Joe Vinikow.

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