VERMILLION, S.D. (CN) – A small college town on the South Dakota prairie may not seem the most likely home for a guitar played by Elvis Presley on tour, but that’s where it will stay thanks to a museum’s victory after a three-year court battle with a private collector.
“One point I keep making is how important it is that the instrument will remain here with us in a public institution,” National Music Museum director Dr. Cleveland Johnson said in an interview. “To have something like the Elvis guitar, which is such an iconic, mass-market popular culture thing, to have that in a public institution where anyone can come seven days a week and see it is just a wonderful treasure that we’ve retained.”
The King of Rock and Roll retired his Martin D-35, which he played on his 1976-77 tour, on Valentine’s Day of 1977, when mishandling onstage caused it to crack. He gave the guitar to a fan, which started its journey through private ownership.
In February of 2013, Robert Johnson, a music enthusiast and collector, sold the guitar to the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, as part of a “package” that also included a Gibson Korina Explorer guitar once owned by The Who’s John Entwistle. The museum paid $250,000 to get both guitars, along with other instruments.
But later that year, the museum started receiving phone calls from Larry Moss, another private collector. Moss also claimed ownership rights to the guitar.
U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier, the judge presiding over the case, outlines the history of the dispute in her 11-page opinion.
In 2008, friends Robert Johnson and Larry Moss entered into an agreement for Moss to purchase four guitars, including the Martin D-35 and two others owned by Elvis, for $120,000. Moss made a partial payment and received two of the guitars. He did not take immediate possession of the Martin because it was on loan to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
When the loan expired in 2009, Robert Johnson and Moss did not get in touch about delivering the guitar to Moss. The relationship between the men deteriorated, and in 2010 Robert Johnson offered the Martin D-35 to the National Music Museum.
Cleveland Johnson said Robert Johnson (no relation) attempted to resolve the dispute about ownership of the guitar “quietly.” First, he offered Larry Moss a different guitar owned by Elvis as compensation, and then he tried to convince the museum to accept another guitar connected to Elvis.
“It was a movie guitar that had just been used as a prop on a set,” Cleveland Johnson said of the second guitar offered to the museum in exchange for the Martin D-35.
The museum’s stringed instruments curator, Arian Sheets, explained in an interview why this was not an acceptable trade.