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How Not To Buy a Fake Fender Stratocaster
So you’ve saved hard for that Fender Stratocaster you’ve always wanted. But what if it turns out to be a fake, a cheap counterfeit?
Here’s a cautionary tale, with some pointers to watch for. I hope it might save you some bother.
July 2008. It’s a sunny, optimistic Thursday morning, and off we go down the leafy English lanes to look over the antiques and collectables at our local auction house. We go bargain-hunting nearly every month to find interesting items that might turn a resale profit.
It’s viewing day. The place is stuffed with old brown furniture, old clocks, boxes of dusty books, bygones, piles of old crockery, weird memorabilia and ornately framed paintings. But look! Over there! Whoah.
Through the cheerful, jostling crowd, I can see it. Vivid cherry-red, contrasted against all the dull old tat, stands a gleaming, beautiful Stratocaster. I can’t believe my eyes. It absolutely shines. My insides lurch. What on earth is something like that doing here?
Fender Custom Shop
I pick it up. A Fender, no less. Actually a Fender Custom Shop, says the logo. Hmmm.
Back in 2008 I knew almost nothing about Fender’s various product ranges. Custom Shop is a range for collectors and, superficially at least, this instrument certainly looks the part. The sale estimate is £140 (about $227). How come such a low estimate? Fenders are not cheap.
In the sale catalogue it is listed as a Fender; surely this firm of auctioneers knows not to specifically name something without corroboration. Even though I trust their expertise in the traditional collectables, perhaps electric guitars are a new area for them. But right now, that’s their problem. I am seduced by its glamour and my greed. I want it. Now.
I examine it more closely. The decals on the headstock certainly look OK. I like the period tuners. Ah, but what’s this? There seems to be a little gap, a millimetre or two, where the heel of the neck fits into the body against the pick guard. I notice that the lacquer seems to have been rubbed off there, just where serial numbers are often stamped. It alters the rounded profile of the heel. A warning bell rings in my head: surely Fender would never let something like that pass quality control. But I ignore it. I ignore all my stabs of doubt. I go home, look up the Fender website, and some other sites that deal them. This little beauty might be worth quite a lot. In my imagination I rub my hands with glee.
You pays your money and you takes your chance ...
So next day I bid, and win it for £180 (about $292). Pleased as Punch, I am! I get it home, look over it. Plug it in and play a bit. Seems perfectly playable, and it’s quite well set up too – but then I’m more a player of acoustic guitars, not electric, so I’m not sure. But it looks fantastic. I try a few Hendrix-style dives with the whammy bar. It breaks off in my hand, leaving the threads in the block. Oops.
I’m not happy. I need to know more, so I decide to dismantle it. I’m especially doubtful about that gap between the heel end and the pick guard, not to mention that, umm, little accident.
Inside, it’s a mess. There’s all kinds of funny marks, including a date stamp on the underside of the heel. There is lacquer oversprayed all over the place. The tremolo assembly, clearly, is substandard: Fender would never use metals cheap enough to break. I don’t know enough about the wiring and electrics to make any judgement there.
I get deeper into my online research. I learn more about Custom Shop. I try to track the serial number 457. The information I gather seems to conflict. Other questions then arise: where is the certificate of authenticity, and where is its case? These seem obvious in retrospect. I haul it into the garden and take some photos. Just in case.
Get an expert’s judgement
After a weekend agonising, it’s Monday morning. So with hope and dread doing battle in my guts, off I go to the best guitar shop in Exeter. Probably one of the best in the country. It’s a glittering guitar palace. There, they know everything there is to know about guitars.
I lay it on the counter, heart pounding a bit. I want them to tell me it’s worth about £1200 (about $1950). The boy raises an eyebrow. Another assistant comes over. They look at each other, then back at me. ‘Fake’, they pronounce in unison.
Aw, man, I feel such a sucker. I knew it, I just knew it.
‘But ... but ... how can you tell?’
He grins, strokes his chin.
‘Where do I begin?’ he says. ‘First of all, it’s not even a Fender colour. Compare it with a real one.’
The difference is suddenly obvious. The varnish-like lacquer on the neck looks wrong too; it is thickly applied and overall too glossy.
He then proceeds to catalogue the many other faults. In short, the whole thing seems to have been cobbled together from a variety of components from who-knows-where:
• the body is from a cheap Strat-style copy
• who knows where the neck came from, but it could never have been an authentic Custom Shop – everything about it is wrong: the timber, the grain, the finish ...
• if the neck is wrong, then the logos must be deliberate fakes too, meaning that someone, somewhere, is skilled at applying decals and then lacquering over; I can’t imagine Fender ever releasing genuine decals, so the number 457 is clearly meaningless
• the hardware is all poor quality (see the comments on the tremolo arm)
• the tuners are poor quality too (though he did say they weren’t as bad)
• there is no certificate, and no case.
‘How much is it worth, then?’ I ask.
He says I might get £30 (about $50) for it if I’m lucky, as a reasonable beginner’s instrument.
Well, at least I know for sure now. I take it straight back to the auction house – minus the whammy bar, but they don’t notice that. Being a reputable firm, under the legal terms of sale they willingly give me an immediate full refund. But the customer confidentiality rules prevent them telling me who originally placed it. So they learn something to add to their store of expertise too.
Next month’s auction, and guess what? Relisted and up for sale again. Unbelievable. But this time just described as ‘an electric guitar’ (unnamed).
I never knew who bought it or for how much. It seems that unscrupulous people sometimes target obscure rural auction houses as ideal locations to shift dodgy goods. I was lucky: I got my money back. I also got a bit wiser, and so did the auctioneers. And I hope you are too.
So who made it, and where? Comments, anyone?