SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – An acoustic guitar Elvis Presley smashed during his final tour has sparked a custody fight between the South Dakota museum that currently displays it and a collector who insists the instrument never should have ended up there.
Now a federal judge must sort out whether blues guitarist Robert A. Johnson even technically owned the broken instrument last year when he donated it to the National Music Museum along with one of Bob Dylan’s harmonicas, a guitar made for Johnny Cash and two other items.
The museum, based in Vermillion, insists in a lawsuit that it is the legal owner of the Martin D-35, which the rock-and-roll king played during his 1977 tour and gave to a fan in St. Petersburg, Florida, after he broke it when a strap and string snapped.
But Larry Moss, who has a long history of litigation against Johnson, contacted the museum, arguing that Johnson agreed to sell the guitar to him before it was donated. Johnson and Moss, both of whom live in Memphis, Tennessee, are each listed as defendants in the museum’s complaint.
The museum in court filings argues that even if Moss was the owner of the Elvis guitar before Johnson donated it to the facility, his ownership ended when the museum acquired it. The complaint states that if Moss feels he was wronged, he should sue Johnson for damages.
“There are significant issues with his claim including the fact that this guitar was apparently on display for an extended period of time in his hometown and he made no effort to go get the guitar,” the museum’s attorney, Mitchell Peterson, said Thursday.
Johnson, who played with singer Isaac Hayes and the band John Entwistle’s Ox in the 1970s, donated the Elvis guitar and other items to the museum in April 2013, and in exchange received $250,000 for his 1967 Gibson Explorer Korina wood guitar. That instrument was formerly owned by Entwistle, who is best known as a member of The Who.
Moss’s attorney, Randall Fishman, moved this week to transfer the case from state court to federal court. Moss did not return phone messages left at his businesses, and Fishman declined to comment about the specifics of the suit.
Records for a libel and defamation lawsuit filed by Johnson against Moss in state court in Tennessee in January 2014 shed light on the collector’s dispute over the guitar.
The lawsuit’s exhibits include a payment agreement signed by both collectors in 2008, in which Moss agreed to pay Johnson $120,000 for various guitars including the one now on display at the museum. Those records also include an email Moss sent to the museum in December 2013 claiming ownership.
“Johnson did not have the right to transfer ownership of that guitar in any way, via sale, via donation, via trade, via loan, or any other method,” the email stated. “(I) will not yet claim that the guitar is stolen, but I paid him for that guitar 5 years ago, and have been trying to get possession ever since.”
In an affidavit filed in the federal lawsuit in South Dakota, Moss claims that the value of the Elvis guitar is “well in excess of $75,000.”
Federal court records show Johnson has not responded to the lawsuit. An attorney for Johnson has not being named in court filings and phone numbers listed for him and his business, Mint-Man, LLC, have been disconnected.
Johnson’s donation to the museum also included a Chet Atkins hollow body guitar given to country pianist Floyd Cramer and later played by Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, a 1966 custom Grammer guitar made for Johnny Cash, a 1961 Kay Value Leader guitar signed by blues legend Muddy Waters and one of Bob Dylan’s Hohner Marine Band harmonicas.