John Lennon's Guitar, Stolen 52 Years Ago, Turns Up in San Diego

A San Diego man discovered the guitar he had unwittingly jammed on for the better part of 45 years once belonged to the legendary John Lennon, stolen from the Beatles in 1963.

The story of the long-lost guitar began in 1962, when Lennon and George Harrison picked up two, store-ordered Gibson J-160E in Liverpool. Lennon played his on tour for about 15 months, until it went missing after a pre-Christmas performance in London.

In 1969, it landed in the hands of John McCaw, a San Diego building contractor. McCaw told NBC 7 that a friend had unknowingly bought Lennon’s Gibson in a local music shop a couple of years earlier. That friend sold it to McCaw for about $175.

Forty-five years later — after decades of using it to teach his sons and strumming on it during amateur jam sessions — McCaw began to realize what he had.

"[I] went through a lot of different emotions," said McCaw. "The first one was excitement. Then started to be overwhelmed, realizing what we did have, what it meant and could mean to the world.”

The realization dawned on McCaw when he opened a 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado last year and saw a picture of George Harrison’s guitar between the folds. It matched McCaw’s.

john lennon guitar
John McCaw
John Lennon's stolen 1962 guitar

Wanting to confirm his hope, McCaw and his friends reached out to international experts to authenticate that the Gibson was once Lennon’s. It helped that Lennon had played the guitar roughly, leaving behind marks as he slapped and strummed hard behind the strings.

The scratches and scars led to a positive identification.

"Then it became a whole different piece. Before, it was a guitar. And after it was authenticated, it became a Holy Grail,” said McCaw.

But from that Holy Grail, McCaw demanded no fame or fortune. Instead, he wanted to return it to the world at large.

"I think he's looking down,” said McCaw of Lennon. “I've felt that since Day One. And I think he'd say 'I knew this guitar would come back now me.' And now it has."

The Gibson's immaculate condition adds to the wonder of the find.

McCaw’s friend and performing guitarist Marc Intravaia said McCaw paid great care to the guitar, making sure it was never damaged.

"It ended up in the right person's hands,” said Intravaia. “And I think the world should be grateful to him that they now get to look at a piece of history exactly as it was in '63. It stepped right out of 1963. ‘Here you go. I'm back.'"

A confidential process steered Lennon’s guitar to the Grammy Museum Hall of Fame in Los Angeles. Currently, it is on display at the LBJ Presidential Museum in Texas, a part of the “Beatlemania” festival. It will go back to the Grammy Museum from next month through August.

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McCaw told NBC 7 he is excited Beatles fans now have a place to pilgrimage to see the revered instrument.

"People are really excited about it, and understand what a great story it is. And so we want to keep that going — keep the positive going,” he said.

McCaw kept his amazing discovery under wraps until all the details were finalized. In the meantime, friends like Intravaia reveled in the find. A Beatlemaniac, Intravaia calls playing the guitar a spiritual, transformative experience.

“When we brought it to Carmel Del Mar Elementary and we shared it with the kids and they sang 'Imagine' as I was playing the guitar, we were all …” Intravaia trailed off, wiping tears from his eyes.

Later this year, the guitar will go to a private auction house sale, where private collectors will get a chance to bid on a piece of history – starting in the upper six figures. A portion of those proceeds will go to Spirit Foundation Charities.

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