That Time Bob Dylan Lost a Million-Dollar Guitar

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Then refused to take it back — twice …

Sometime in 1966 Bob Dylan lost a million-dollar guitar — and when the finder phoned up, couldn’t be bothered to get it back.

The guy on the other end of the line was New Jersey charter pilot Vic Quinto. He moved a lot of Albert Grossman’s talent and their gear around, and one crew had just left three guitars on his plane, each with “Property of Ashes & Sand Inc.”  — Dylan and Grossman’s production company  — stenciled on the case. One of these was a recent model Fender Stratocaster along with a strap and a few pages of draft music lyrics in a case pocket.

Quinto had Ashes & Sand’s number and Dylan’s home number at Woodstock, NY, in his address book, so he called up the company about getting the instruments back. He was told not to trouble himself.

In all fairness, the math was a bit different in ’66. After all, this was just a production Fender Strat that Dylan had grabbed off the rack a couple years earlier at Manny’s Music on West 48th Street in New York, because that’s where Grossman had an account. Shipping was expensive, and Manny’s was still just down the block. Not to mention, Dylan was then recording with CBS, which owned Fender — he had no shortage of Strats.

And so the three guitars ended up in a pilot’s attic, where they sat untouched eleven years later when Mr. Quinto died at age 41, leaving the home to his wife. And there they remained for two more decades until Vic’s daughter Dawn Peterson, just 8 years old at the time of her father’s death, took them to her house.

It was there that a friend of her husband’s saw the Strat, heard Dylan had abandoned it in ’66, and mentioned that Bob had played a starburst Fender Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65.

In case that doesn’t ring any bells, before his July 25th set at Newport, Bob Dylan had never played live with a band or with electric instruments. On stage, he was still a young folk singer plucking an acoustic. But his last album Bringing It All Back Home, released just 4 month earlier, featured an electric side A. And it had been less than a week since CBS had released Dylan’s electric single “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Dylan showed up at Newport on July 24th intending to put on his one-man acoustic set the next day. But after watching the Paul Butterfield Blues Band play an electric set, he “did this very crazy thing.” Somehow he convinced Michael Bloomfield and two other members of the Butterfield Band, plus keyboardists Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg who had played on “Like a Rolling Stone” and happened to be at Newport, to form an impromptu group, practice one night, then go on live at America’s most prominent folk festival the next day  — with electric instruments amped up to the rafters.

Which they proceeded to do.

When the opening salvo of “Maggie’s Farm” blasted into the crowd of folk music fans, festival organizers Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax sent the sound director back to the desk to get Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary fame) to dial back the volume, but he refused. Meanwhile on stage, the band was struggling to adapt their traditional 12-bar blues style to Dylan’s new material. The drummer played on the off-beats for the entire opening number, and the rhythm section lost it altogether as Dylan lurched into “Like a Rolling Stone”.

As Dylan biographer Paul Williams described the scene, for the folkies “it was not just electric instruments on a ‘folk’ stage but probably the loudest, most piercing, most cacophonous noise they ever endured in the name of entertainment”. And folk purist Pete Seeger famously remarked, “if I’d had an ax I’d have cut the cable”.

The brief, 3-song set was regaled with boos and jeers. Dylan had to be coaxed back on stage to make nice with the crowd (and the organizers) by playing a short solo acoustic set on a guitar Johnny Cash handed him backstage. But the genie was out of the bottle, and neither folk music nor American popular music would ever be the same.

Dawn Peterson got to wondering if the Strat from her dad’s attic could be “the guitar”. And in 2011 she submitted her case to PBS’s History Detectives who showed the lyric sheets to music memorabilia expert Jeff Gold and the Strat to vintage guitar expert Andy Babiuk. Gold confirmed that the lyric sheets were Dylan’s — early drafts of material that ended up on the album Blonde on Blonde. But it was Babiuk who hit paydirt. He compared the wood grain in the body and neck of the guitar to high quality color photos of Dylan playing at Newport in ’65. It was a perfect match.

Dylan, however, refused to believe it, insisting that he still had the Newport guitar around somewhere. Everyone else disagreed, however, and in 2013 the instrument was auctioned by Christie’s and sold for $965,000.

But that’s the funny thing about value. To understand what a thing is worth, you can’t just look at it. Because its value depends on what we think, on the emotions we attach to the objects of our lives.

Bob Dylan lost a million dollar guitar, yes, but remember, the importance of the event to him was that he lived it. For the rest of us, the guitar is the closest we can ever hope to get to that moment in history. And for someone out there, holding that moment in their hands was worth a pretty penny indeed.

Jimi Hendrix' white Stratocaster, Eric Clapton's Martin acoustic, and Bob Dylan's sunburst Stratocaster on display at the Met
Bob Dylan’s Newport Stratocaster, right, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from current owner Jim Irsay, 2019 (photo by Janine and Jim Eden, Flickr Creative Commons)

Header image: Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974, by Jim Summaria

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.