Entertainment & Arts

Grateful Dead's signature guitar could be yours at auction

Jerry Garcia Image copyright Roberto Rabanne
Image caption Jerry Garcia was the best known member of the Grateful Dead

It's more than 20 years since Jerry Garcia died ending the glory years of the Grateful Dead, one of the most popular rock bands to date. These days some ardent fans (or "Deadheads") will pay top prices for the right piece of band memorabilia. But now, possibly the ultimate Garcia artefact is coming to auction in New York - his favourite guitar, nicknamed Wolf. And a single charity is to benefit.

Officially the Grateful Dead had no leader. But from the band's origins in 1965 to his death 30 years later, Garcia was the best known member of a group which still evokes the excitement of American counterculture in the 1960s.

As well as '60s psychedelia, the group's albums show the influence of jazz, bluegrass, mainstream pop and even their early days as a jug band. But when they toured it was the lengthy jam sessions fans loved - and central to those was the Garcia guitar sound.

Image copyright Roberto Rabanne
Image caption The wolf motif was added by the guitar's maker when it was sent back to him for repairs

Devoted Deadheads identify five classic guitars which Garcia played at different times: Alligator, Rosebud, Lightning Bolt, Tiger and Wolf. The last two were auctioned together in 2002 and made more than $1.5m (£1.2m). Now Wolf is back at the same auction house to benefit the advocacy group the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Arlan Ettinger runs Guernsey's auction house in New York which is handling this month's sale. Guernsey's specialises in the unusual. "I've loved having a pioneering sale of John F Kennedy memorabilia or jazz artefacts," says Ettinger.

"But selling Tiger and Wolf the first time round was a huge thrill because real fans are amazingly passionate about the Grateful Dead. It's like they've become the ultimate rock icon of '60s America and all that excitement and the passion that went with it."

Tiger was bought in 2002 by the hugely wealthy Jim Irsay, who owns the National Football League (NFL) team the Indianapolis Colts. Wolf went for more than $700,000 (£543,000) to Dan Pritzker, whose family founded the Hyatt hotel chain.

Ettinger remembers there had already been a lot of press interest in who owned the guitars.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Surviving members of the band such as Phil Lesh (left) and Bob Weir have played together occasionally in various combinations since splitting

"They were consigned to Guernsey's by the man who made them - the luthier [guitar maker] Doug Irwin. In his will Jerry had bequeathed the guitars back to Doug but the band members challenged that legally. Times had been tough for Doug Irwin and he had at times been homeless.

"Everyone was saying they were worth maybe $25,000 (£19,000) or $50,000 (£39,000) apiece. But we built a big auction of Grateful Dead material around them and we proved they were worth a lot more. The auction was at the ultra-hip disco Studio 54 in Manhattan which made it pretty special.

"So I was surprised and delighted when Dan Pritzker got back in contact to say all these years later he wants to auction Wolf again for charity. Dan is intent that every dollar of the hammer price should go to the Law Center and we've agreed to that.

Image copyright REX/Shutterstock
Image caption "There is so much interest still in Jerry and the band," says Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey's auctioneers

"Given what it sold for in 2002 and given how great a cause this is, we're hoping the Center will get more than $1.5m (£1.2m) from the sale this month."

Wolf 'accident'

The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in Alabama in 1971 to focus on civil rights. Ettinger thinks Garcia would be delighted to see it benefit from the sale of Wolf.

"Southern Poverty has fought racism and hate groups and neo-Nazis through the courts. So I thought it was a noble thing for Dan Pritzker to do. It's a pure gift with no tax write-off and there's no seller's commission for us.

"Dan told me he was deeply troubled by the direction our new government is taking. He wanted to take some proactive steps to do something important and good with the money the auction will raise."

The guitar's Wolf association came about almost by accident: it wasn't something Irwin included when he made the instrument. Garcia stuck a cartoon wolf on the guitar as a joke. At one point the instrument went back to Irwin for repairs and he decided to incorporate the cartoon wolf more permanently.

Ettinger thinks only the most obsessive Deadheads can identify exactly which guitar Garcia played in each recording. "But the Wolf design means you can often pick out that exact instrument at a particular concert in photographs and film footage.

"There is so much interest still in Jerry and the band. There's a new Martin Scorsese six-part TV series about them: I think that will tell us about the world they lived in, not just about their music.

"It's funny when you think of the guitar as just wood and strips of metal and wire strings. But it takes people back to very important moments in their lives. It's been around since 1973 so it's fantastic that all these years later it will do so much good in the world."

The guitar will be auctioned at Guernsey's in New York on 31 May.

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