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|SOUTH DAKOTA MUSEUM DEFEND OWNERSHIP OF GUITAR
August 03, 2016 - The Argus Leader / Elvis Express Radio
|The fate of a guitar played by Elvis Presley rests in the hands of a federal judge following a colorful one-day trial on Tuesday.
Presley played the Martin D-35 guitar during his final tour in 1977. On Feb. 14, 1977, the guitar was damaged during a show in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Presley gave it to a fan. Six
months later, “The King” died at the age of 42.
In 2013, the guitar was one of several pieces that ended up at the National Music Museum in Vermillion after a blues guitarist and memorabilia broker named Robert Johnson struck
a deal with the museum. The deal also included a Gibson Korina Flying V guitar that was once owned by John Entwistle of The Who.
But following the transfer to the museum, Larry Moss, a Memphis-based business executive and memorabilia collector, claimed ownership of the Elvis guitar, saying he had already
purchased the guitar in 2008 from Johnson. In 2014, the museum filed suit, asking a judge to declare that it was the rightful owner.
Moss was represented by Randy Fishman and Richard Townley of Memphis and Ron Parsons of Sioux Falls. The National Music Museum was represented by Mitchell Peterson of
Both Moss and the museum say they acquired the guitar as part of package deals. The museum board of directors came up with $250,000 during a board meeting in the fall of
2012, museum director Cleveland Johnson recounted.
“Essentially, they basically passed the hat, figuratively speaking, and within 10 minutes they had the pledges for $250,000,” he said.
The museum – which is world renowned for its collection of classical instruments – hoped the Elvis guitar could be marketed to a broader audience, board member and advertising
executive Scott Lawrence said. The guitar was advertised on a billboard on Interstate 29 near the Vermilion exit to entice visitors.
“I’m a marketer. That’s what I do. I saw the value of being able to promote it,” Lawrence said.
“The deal was $250,000 for a group of guitars with an Elvis guitar,” he added.
In Moss’ case, the guitar was one of four he agreed to buy from Robert Johnson for $120,000 in 2008. Johnson turned over two guitars to Moss for $70,000. At the time, the Elvis
guitar in question was on display at the Rock N’ Soul Museum in Memphis. A fourth guitar owned by Sonny Burgess was never delivered.
Moss told Judge Karen Schreier that he was fine with the guitar being on display at the Rock N’ Soul Museum, and that he kept his ownership a secret at Johnson’s request. But a
year later, he noticed the guitar was no longer on display and learned that Johnson had taken it back. He maintained that the $70,000 he did pay to Johnson secured his interest in
the two guitars Johnson delivered, as well as the Elvis guitar that had been on display.
But a hand-written note that itemized the sales price for each of the guitars showed that the Elvis guitar and Burgess guitar were worth $50,000 – the difference between what Moss
paid Johnson and the total sales price for all four guitars.
Johnson was a central character to Tuesday’s trial, but he wasn’t there. Though he was named as one of the defendants in the museum’s lawsuit, Johnson has never responded.
He and Moss had been longtime friends since the early 1980s before the Elvis guitar deal went south. Both Fishman and Peterson told Schreier that Johnson had “fallen off the face
of the Earth.”
Reached Tuesday night by Argus Leader Media, Johnson dismissed Moss’ claim on the Elvis guitar. Moss, he said, paid for the two guitars that Johnson did deliver, but not the
other two, including the one in dispute.
“Him winning this case would be like him finding a needle in a million haystacks,” Johnson said. “He’s never touched the guitar. He’s never paid for it. He had ample opportunity. He
just dropped the ball.”
Ultimately, Johnson said he packaged the Elvis guitar into a donation for the museum after the museum came up with the $250,000. The real value in the package, he said, was the
Entwistle guitar. Within the world of Elvis memorabilia, the Martin D-35 was not a major piece because Elvis was addicted to prescription drugs at the time he played it.
“It was an unsellable piece,” Johnson said. “It had a little bit of a dark area to it just because Elvis was screwed up at the end of his career.”