Appeals court ends discord over rightful owner of Elvis guitar

By Sam Knef | Sep 22, 2018

ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed judgment in favor of the National Music Museum: America's Shrine to Music, in a dispute over who owns the guitar Elvis Presley played during his final tour in 1977. 

Memorabilia collector Larry Moss had counter-sued his once friend, memorabilia broker and blues guitarist Robert A. Johnson for ownership of the Martin D-35 guitar that Elvis played during a show in St. Petersburg, Fla. Elvis had dropped the guitar during his performance and gave the damaged piece to an audience member, and Johnson purchased it in 2007.

Moss had claimed that Johnson reneged on a deal in 2009 that involved the purchase of four guitars for $120,000 in two separate transactions. In 2010, Johnson proposed that the two enter a partnership over the Martin D-35, but Moss refused, saying he got "screwed" on the four-guitar transaction.

However, the appeals court noted that "Moss did not ask Johnson to deliver the guitar, he did not initiate a lawsuit to enforce the contract, and he did not tender the $50,000 that was due on delivery of the Martin D-35 and Sonny Burgess guitars."

Johnson donated the Martin D-35 in 2013, after which Moss emailed the museum claiming that he was the rightful owner.

According to the Sept. 14 appeals court decision, Johnson sued Moss in chancery court in Shelby County, Tenn., alleging libel and defamation. Moss's counter suit alleged that he was "ready, willing and able to consummate" the second half of the purchase agreement in 2009.

In January 2015, the Tennessee court ruled for Moss, but a South Dakota federal court ruled in favor of the museum in its declaratory judgment action.

"We conclude that the Museum is not bound by the Tennessee judgment and that the federal district court properly reached the merits of the present case," the ruling states.

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