GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
It’s a familiar tune, a sad lament, actually, about a product falling victim to counterfeiters. Lately, they’ve been picking on guitars.
Last month, a Long Island music dealer was accused of selling $90,000 worth of knockoffs of classic Gibsons, a guitar known for its deep, melodic sound and used by virtually every country, rock and blues artist from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton.
“Unfortunately, consumers are ending up on the short end of the stick,” says Henry Juszkiewicz, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Gibson Guitars Corp.
Gibson guitars — inexpensive models start at about $2,000 — have a rich, distinctive sound that leads musicians to speak about them in reverent tones.
B.B. King is perhaps the best-known devotee. His black Gibson, nicknamed Lucille, shares nearly equal billing with the blues master onstage.
“Signing guitars that are not Gibson is like being married and kissing a woman who is not your wife,” Mr. King once huffed when asked to autograph a Fender guitar.
Some of Gibson’s Les Paul models, named for the creator of the solid-body electric guitar, can sell for as much as $10,000 new.
Knocking them off is a lucrative and easy business, according to Hank Risan, a founder of the online Museum of Musical Instruments, who owns an extensive collection of guitars and other instruments, including a $15 million guitar once owned by Mark Twain.
“To put together a replica might cost me a thousand dollars, more or less, depending on the instruments and parts,” Mr. Risan says.
Add a fake logo and insert serial numbers that appear genuine, he says, and “the average person, and most experts, won’t know if it’s a really good forgery.”
China, as it has with other consumer goods, such as electronics, designer clothing and cigarettes, has become the source of an influx of mass-produced counterfeit guitars, Mr. Juszkiewicz says. Gibson has a factory in China, and Mr. Juszkiewicz says that in addition to the legitimate factory, there is another one producing bogus guitars.
He estimated the knockoffs cost the industry millions, but he had no specific figures.
“Most of our leads come from consumers,” he says. “There are a lot of really bad instruments being passed off as Gibsons out there. The paint rubs off on your clothes when you take it out of the box, and they sound awful.”
A surge in recent years in the value of vintage guitars, some of which sell for millions at auction, is also helping fuel the market in fake Gibsons, Fenders and other six-strings.
Forged musical instruments are nothing new. There have been knockoffs of such valuable instruments as the Stradivarius violin since Antonio Stradivari began making them in the late 1600s.
“Just like in the art world, an expert can tell if something is fake, but you need to be an expert,” Mr. Juszkiewicz says.
If done properly and sold to the right unsuspecting customer, a vintage knockoff could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says.
The owner of the Long Island music store, Bernard Musemeci, has pleaded not guilty to trademark counterfeiting.
Mr. Musemeci, 44, insists he thought he was buying legitimate Gibson guitars from a dealer who advertised a going-out-of-business sale on the Internet.
“I’ve been playing guitar for years, and I couldn’t tell the difference,” Mr. Musemeci said after his arrest. “They looked right, they sounded right, they felt right.”
His attorney, John Fath, says Mr. Musemeci discovered they were fakes about two months after receiving them but had no luck in contacting the seller to get his money back. After that, Mr. Fath says, Mr. Musemeci only used them for parts to repair other guitars.
Mr. Juszkiewicz says his company maintains a 24-hour hot line for consumer complaints about counterfeiting and other issues but that ultimately he offers a familiar version of caveat emptor: “If it’s too good a deal, it’s too good a deal.”