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EC's Christie's Guitar Auctions: A Look Back

Published // 24.Jun.19

Twenty years ago - on June 24, 1999 - Eric Clapton sold over 100 of his guitars and other items in a charity auction. The sale smashed records for fretted instruments. Exactly five years later, history repeated itself with the sale of Eric's "A Team" and guitars donated by his musician friends. Together, the 1999 and 2004 auctions at Christie’s raised nearly $11 million for Crossroads Centre Antigua, a residential treatment centre for alcohol and chemical dependencies.

Eric founded the 36 bed residential facility in 1997 as he saw a great need for the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction in the Caribbean as well as around the world. Crossroads Centre Antigua opened its doors in October 1998. Eric said at the time, “I had treatment and I wanted to give something back. Something that recovery from drugs and alcohol has given me - the chance to live again - with my health - and a better understanding of who I am and what is important in my life.”

In the catalog for the first auction, he wrote, "I have to admit that it wasn't my idea to sell these guitars, it was suggested by a friend who thought it would be a good way to illustrate my committment to Crossroads Antigua and also raise money and awareness for the centre at the same time ... The guitars themselves represent the journey I have made through music over the last four decades of my life, they reflect my tastes in music, and sometimes the heroes I hae tired hard to emulate. They all have a place in my heart and my life, and each one tells a part of my story. It is no easy thing to say goodbye to them, but I cannot play them all at the same time, it is time to let them go, to let others share in these beautiful things that have given me so much joy, and brought such meaning to my life."

Prospective bidders and fans were able to view the lots at Christie's London in early June. The guitars were then shipped to the United States and were put on view at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center, New York in the days leading up to the June 24 sale.

Over 1,000 persons assembled in the salesroom shortly before 2PM. Sixty telephone lines were readied for phone bids in addition to the absentee bids submitted in advance. From the first lot, many of the guitars opened at bids double their pre-sale estimates and numerous instruments ultimately sold for three or four times that number.

The most important guitar in the 1999 sale was undoubtedly "Brownie," EC's favored 1956 sunburst Fender Stratocaster. Extensively played at recording sessions and onstage, it was the guitar he used to record "Layla" for the Derek & The Dominos album, "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs." Brownie was also played by Duane Allman and George Harrison. It was sold to an anonymous bidder for $450,000 (without buyer's premium) which became the world auction record for a guitar.

Actor Michael J. Fox - star of the Back To The Future film franchise, Family Ties and Spin City - purchased two of the lots. The first was a circa 1949 sunburst Gibson ES-125 with mahogany neck which Eric used in the promotional video of "Motherless Child" in 1994. The second was a 1930s National Duolian resonator guitar. Following the sale, the actor said "Eric Clapton and the blues mean a lot to me. I could not pass up this auction with the money going to help people at Crossroads. It was magic."

The total amount raised for Crossroads Centre that day was $4,452,000. Prior to the sale, Eric said he was hopeful it would raise £500,000. When it was over, Eric issued a statement which read, "I can't believe it. I am totally overwhelmed. I had no idea the auction would do so well. I want to say thank you to everyone who showed up and made this such a memorable occasion. I also want to say thank you on behalf of all the patients who will get free treatment as a result of this sale."

In February 2004, Eric announced his first Crossroads Guitar Festival - which built on the one-night 1999 Eric Clapton and Friends fundraising concert at Madison Square Garden - and his second auction. He said: "These guitars are in fact the ones that I kept back from the first auction because I seriously couldn't consider parting with them at that point ... I think they are a really good representation of Rock Culture ... all great Rock and Blues guitars. These guitars are the A-Team ... What I am keeping back is just what I need to work with. I am selling the cream of my collection,"

The second Christie's sale - "Eric Clapton & Friends For Crossroads Antigua" - had 88 lots and took place on June 24, 2004. In addition to 64 of Eric Clapton's personally-owned guitars, stagewear, autographed items and an amplifier, his friends including Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Carlos Santana and BB King donated an additional 24 guitars.

A credible rival to 'Blackie' and a star of the sale was Eric's 1964 cherry-red Gibson ES-335. Although most associate this ES-335 with his days with Cream, he used it throughout his career. It was the second electric guitar Eric ever bought and he saved up money playing with The Yardbirds to purchase it. He said of it, “No other tool in my life has been as long-serving." The pre-sale estimate of 60,000 to 80,000 was an extreme undervalue and it sold for $847,500 and at the time, setting a record price for a Gibson electric guitar.

Eric's well-played 1939 000-42 Martin, which he called an "incredible guitar" broke the first record. It was the main instrument for his MTV Unplugged appearance, one of the pivotal moments in his career. Pre-war era Martins were and are highly collectible in their own right, but with the Clapton provenance, the price soared. It sold for an astounding $791,500 and at the time, set a new sale record for an acoustic guitar.

"Ivan The Terrible," the heavily embellished 12-string he co-designed with Tony Zemaitis in 1969 was modeled after a Zemaitis guitar that a teen-aged EC had seen being played by a Bohemian street musician called Buck. Eric used Ivan to record the album Blind Faith. According to the guitar's maker, it was loaned to George Harrison who apparently used it on the recording of My Sweet Lord. Dave Mason also borrowed Ivan and is pictured playing it on stage with Eric at the Dr. Spock Concert, at the Lyceum in London, June 14th, 1970.

Pete Townshend, BB King, Carlos Santana, Albert Lee, Jimmy Page Larry Carlton and others donated instruments to help the cause. The key “friends” guitar was Lot 83. Donated by Jimmie Vaughan, "Lenny" was the first of Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitars to be sold on the open market since his death in 1990. A composite Fender Stratocaster, it sold for $623,500 and earned the nod as the second highest price paid for a Fender Stratocaster at auction.

The final lot was the auction centerpiece - 'Blackie,' another composite Fender Stratocaster. The well-played 1956 / 1957 instrument would have likely sold for $3,000 to $5,000 without Eric's partnership. But, Blackie was assembled by Eric from three different Stratocatsers and was practically his sole stage and studio guitar from 1970 to 1985. Blackie was also the template for Fender's 'Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster' model which went into commercial production in 1988.

With "Wonderful Tonight" as the accompaniment, a white-gloved Christie's employee walked out and displayed Blackie front and back to the wildly cheering crowd. Many stood to give the guitar (and Eric who was in attendance) a well-desered ovation. Bidding opened at $100,000 and at first, the auctioneer seemed to struggle to keep up with the sea of waving paddles. The pace slowed at $500,000 and dwindled further at $700,000. After several nerve-wracking moments, the gavel came down at $959,500, a new world record price for a guitar at the time.

Blackie, along with Eric's Cherry Red Gibson ES-335, Stevie Ray Vaughan's Lenny and a small-bodied Martin guitar owned initially by George Harrison but given to Eric were all acquired by the Guitar Center. 

The 88 lots in the 2004 sale garnered a record-breaking $7,438,624 million (including buyer's premium) with approximately $6.4 million going to Crossroads Centre at Antigua. 


CLICK HERE for complete 1999 sale details

CLICK HERE for complete 2004 sale details

 

The Crossroads Centre, Antigua

Founded in 1998, Crossroads Centre, Antigua was created to provide treatment and education to chemically and alcohol dependent persons, their families and their significant others. Treatment is provided through residential care, family and aftercare programs. The pathway to recovery is founded on the 12 steps and a change in lifestyle. Crossroads Centre, Antigua also operates a 16 bed halfway house in Antigua called the Bevon House and facilitates various ongoing recovery initiatives on the island of Antigua and the Caribbean.

For more information visit www.crossroadsantigua.org