Jerry Garcia’s Guitar Helps Raise $3.8 Million for SPLC

Jerry Garcia and his guitar "Wolf"
Jerry Garcia and his guitar "Wolf," Photo: Roberto Rabanne/Courtesy Guernsey’s Auctions

Arlan Ettinger, who for a long time owned an estate in Remsenberg and since then has been a frequent visitor to the Hamptons, has a long history of auctioning off serious antique collection—odd things and artifacts of the Hamptons—mostly at venues such as the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. It was there, I recall, that he famously auctioned off hundreds or rare John F. Kennedy artifacts several years ago. One year, he conducted an enormous auction of abstract expressionist paintings at the Armory, including a painting painted by Willem de Kooning on the toilet seat from the outhouse of a home in Bridgehampton during a party there in the 1950s. (It didn’t sell.) Last year, Ettinger held an auction of the contents of the antique store Urban Archaeology.

This auction included an iron statue that once stood at L’Etoile on the Champs-Elyseés, but had in recent years sat in front of Urban Archeology on Main Street Bridgehampton.

That is just the tip of the iceberg of remarkable things that Ettinger, through his company Guernsey’s, has auctioned off. One time, he took up an entire armory auctioning off the contents of the ocean liner U.S.S. United States. He has also auctioned off items involving Rosa Parks, Princess Diana, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Mickey Mantle and The Beatles.

But last week was the topper. It was in most of the media the next day—an astonishing thing. It was one single item. A guitar. And it sold for $1.9 million, one of the largest amounts ever paid for a guitar. The proceeds raised are to go to charity. But here—let me tell you what Ettinger told me about it when I asked one week before the auction.

“When Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away in the mid-1990s, his two most prized guitars—Wolf and Tiger, beloved by millions of Deadheads—were willed to Doug Irwin, who was the luthier who had made those instruments for Jerry 25 years earlier,” he told me. “Guernsey’s featured them in an auction we held 15 years ago at Studio 54, where the two together sold for about $1.75 millon, both far eclipsing the prior world record for any single guitar ever sold.

“Tiger, which was played by Jerry at the end of his career, was sold to an NFL team owner and entered his substantial guitar collection. Wolf, played by Jerry during the very heart of his career, was sold to Dan Pritzker, a musician and philanthropist. Over the following years, Pritzker became a friend of mine. Three months ago, he called to voice his concern over the new government. He then indicated that he wanted to do ‘something meaningful’ with Wolf. He proceeded to re-consign it back to us with instructions to re-auction it and give all the proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is dedicated to fighting racism, poverty and assorted hate groups [neo-Nazis, the KKK, etc.] in the courts.

“Accordingly, on the evening of May 31 at NYC’s Brooklyn Bowl, we will do just that. This one-lot auction will be surrounded by hours of great rock & roll provided by more than two dozen noted musicians all of whom have volunteered their time. All receipts from ticket sales will go to SPLC. And Morris Dees, co-founder of SPLC, will be there, as will many accomplished people including Jerry Garcia’s daughter, Trixie. At a divisive time like this, we all need positive events.”

I went to this auction to see what would happen. The Brooklyn Bowl is a bowling alley with four bars, a restaurant, a stage and a dance floor that can accommodate about 1,000 people. It was packed.

The bands played for an hour, mostly covers of old Grateful Dead songs, and the crowd cheered the musicians on when Wolf was brought out to become the lead guitar for the evening. (It WANTED to be played!) At 10 p.m., Ettinger went onstage, and the bidding started at $900,000.

The bidding went up and up, and when it finally came to a halt, the winner paid $1.9 million (a bid of $1.6 million plus a $300,000 buyers premium). The music resumed and continued into the small hours. The winning bidder was Brian Halligan, CEO of the software company Hubspot, based in Boston. He said he’d lend it out to any member of Jerry Garcia’s family anytime. And at other times, he’d give it a good home and play it himself.

Halligan told Rolling Stone afterwards that “the auction was a chance to indulge two passions of mine at the same time: social justice and the Grateful Dead.”

In addition to the $1.9 million paid, an additional donation doubling the winning bid amount was made anonymously. So SPLC received $3.8 million. What a night!

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