Searching for Robert Johnson

Frank DiGiacomo – Vanity Fair

Copyright Vanity Fair
In the seven decades since his mysterious death, bluesman Robert Johnson’s legend has grown—the tragically short life, the “crossroads” tale of supernatural talent, the genuine gift that inspired Dylan, Clapton, and other greats—but his image remains elusive: only two photos of Johnson have ever been seen by the public. In 2005, on eBay, guitar maven Zeke Schein thought he’d found a third. Schein’s quest to authenticate the picture only led to more questions, both about Johnson himself and about who controls his valuable legacy.
by Frank DiGiacomo November 2008
In June 2005, Steven “Zeke” Schein was killing time on his home computer when he logged on to eBay and typed “old guitar” into the auction site’s search engine. Classically trained as a guitarist, Schein had turned his longtime passion for the instrument into a profession when, in 1989, he had joined the sales force at Matt Umanov Guitars, in Manhattan’s West Village. In the more than 15 years that Schein had worked there, he had cultivated a regular clientele that included Patti Smith, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and record producers Daniel Lanois and John Leventhal; he had also sold guitars to Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp, among other celebrities. His job had also exposed him to the painstaking, detail-oriented detective work that often goes into identifying and authenticating vintage guitars. Even when the make, model, and serial number of an instrument are apparent, pinpointing its age and value sometimes requires scrutinizing the idiosyncrasies of its construction. The design of the instrument’s tailpiece, its headstock, the number of frets embedded in its neck, its paint job or finish—all could be identifying factors.
Possibly a photo of Robert Johnson, left, and fellow bluesman Johnny Shines
The photograph bought on eBay by Zeke Schein, who believes it depicts Robert Johnson, left, and fellow bluesman Johnny Shines. © 2007 Claud Johnson.
Schein enjoyed this aspect of the business, and when he had nothing better to do, he would sometimes log on to eBay to test his knowledge against the sellers who were advertising vintage guitars on the Web site. At the very least, he found it amusing that some people had no idea what they were selling.
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