I stifled my skepticism but kept my mouth shut for the first few minutes as I examined and played the guitar. From the get-go, I knew there was something amiss. The case it came in was definitely a cheap OEM hardshell, with cheap clasps and the top and sides even bent slightly when I pressed on them. Oh well, I thought, maybe the original owner chose to keep the original case and sold it in this cheaper one, which would be reflected in the price. But after only a minute or so of playing it was clear. Regardless of the perfect Martin logo on the headstock, this was no Martin. The sound was thin and slightly dissonant. The neck was the wrong shape and fret edges were rough. The inlay around the sound hole was wrong – and slightly off center upon close examination. Looking inside, I could see some drops of glue along a few of the braces, something Martin would never allow. And the “rosewood” sides and back had a strange color, more of a tan brown than the deep chocolate hues of a real Martin. I have no idea what the wood actually was. Yes, the top was solid spruce judging by the edge of the grain around the sound hole. But that was just about the best thing you could say about this “Martin.”
As gently as possible I instructed my student to tell his friend that he’d been had. I asked if he could get his money back and my student said it was probably doubtful as the thing was purchased at a flea market in another state.
You can easily see how pervasive this influx of bogus instruments is by doing an internet search of “fake Martin guitars.” You will immediately find a number of web sites of companies in China who will gladly sell you not only a bogus Martin but also a fake Gibson or Taylor, and multiple models of each, too. Incidentally, the most recent price listed for bogus Martin HD-28 is $549. So not only was my student’s friend taken by the seller in terms of what he thought he was buying, but also in the price he paid!
I confess that I too have fallen for a guitar that was not what it was supposed to be, in that case a supposedly all-original early 1960s Gibson ES-225 hollow body electric. It turned out that this particular guitar, while in fact being a Gibson ES-225 body had all reproduction parts, making it worth about half what I had into it. I had traded perhaps the best sounding Martin HD-35 I’ve ever owned or played for it, and when I tried to get my Martin back the person who traded me the Gibson claimed he had already sold it and had no way of getting it back. Live and learn. That one still hurts. A lot.
But with acoustic guitars you usually don’t have to worry about something as basic as swapped-out parts. While the example of the fake Martin I saw was shoddy, at best, I have seen in recent years a couple other Chinese “Martins” that to the untrained eye would seem identical to the real thing. The sound wasn’t even close of course, but there is a larger issue here.
Both Martin and Gibson have gone to great lengths in recent years to shut down these Far East operations, with limited success. They have also alerted the border authorities of counterfeit imports and many Chinese fakes have been seized and destroyed. But with lax enforcement in China the practice of making and exporting fake high-end guitars to the U.S. will no doubt continue.
What can the consumer do? First and foremost, buy from a legitimate dealer here in the U.S. While that may sound obvious, there will always be those who let their better judgement be suspended when confronted with a “bargain.” Places like flea markets, second hand stores, and even Craigslist should be shopped at your own risk. In the case of flea markets, it is even more insidious because criminals sometimes dump “hot” (stolen) guitars in these places and buying a real Martin, Gibson or Taylor in such a place can lead to that guitar being confiscated by the police if the true owner happens to get wind of it being sold or happens to spot it when you’re innocently playing it somewhere.
Educate yourself to look for telltale signs that a guitar is not what it’s purported to be. There is an excellent video on You Tube that shows the difference between a real Martin D-45 and a fake one. The old adage about “if a deal seems to be too good to be true, it probably is!” certainly holds true. In this age of detailed information about prices of used guitars being almost instantly available online, you should assume that EVERYONE knows what a guitar is worth.
But in spite of this, and perhaps because of shows like Storage Wars and even Antique Road Show, there are people who are convinced that an undiscovered and undervalued pre-war Martin is languishing out there somewhere, waiting for the savvy buyer to swoop in and grab it for pennies on the dollar. Who knows? Maybe there is. But also remember that famous adage from P.T. Barnum: “There’s sucker born every minute!”
Peace & good music,