It's fitting that when I first try to reach John Tefteller, he was negotiating a rare record deal and asked to call me back. I called Tefteller, an Oregon-based record dealer whose collection numbers more than 400,000 45s, 78s and LPs, after hearing of his astounding purchase of bluesman Tommy Johnson's "Alcohol and Jake Blues" for $37,100. It's the most anyone has ever spent on a 78 rpm record and one of the highest prices paid for any record.
Tefteller, who makes his living buying and selling records and dealing blues memorabilia, has been collecting records for more than 40 years, but even he couldn't believe his luck upon discovering a near-perfect copy of "Alcohol and Jake Blues." The record is considered a Holy Grail among blues record collectors and stands as a vital historical document of the genre.
One night, as he does every night, Tefteller was trawling eBay when he came across the record from a seller in South Carolina. The anonymous seller found the record at an estate sale years ago, and posted it on eBay with no knowledge of the record's true value. The record was set to sell at $16,800 when, minutes before the auction ended, it shot up to $37,000. Tefteller won't reveal what his maximum bid was, but suffice to say, it was enough to edge past the highest bidder and get him the record.
Soon, Tefteller will remaster the record and release it for free as part of an upcoming compilation album. But for now, the record aficionado gave us details on the record, the sale and why he actually got a pretty good deal.
What makes the record worth that much?
These original Paramount delta blues records have attained such a mythic status over the years, and there are loads of people who would love to buy one of these things, that it just becomes so legendary. When you actually see one for sale, which happens once or twice in a lifetime, you have to make a decision.
It's also historically extremely important because there are no masters on these records. You think of modern-day records and there are master tapes that you can go back to and make new copies of. When you go back to these 1920s and '30s blues recordings, this is it. The masters were destroyed years ago and there's no way to recover them. The only way anyone is able to hear this stuff now is to search out an [original] commercial pressing. So when you find one of these blues records in really super nice condition, that's an earth-shaking event in the record collecting world.
Looking at it that way, it sounds like it's difficult to put a price tag on it.
Well, that's exactly the point. When someone is shocked or awed to see that a record sold for $37,100, because that is a large amount of money in anybody's bank account, on one hand you could say, "That's nuts. Why would someone do that? That's crazy!" But when you think of the historical importance of what this is, how do you put a price on it? It's an amazing masterpiece of a record that previous to this copy, there was only one other, which I also had.
Wait, you already owned a copy?
Yup. My original copy never sounded real good; it was in hammered condition. This new copy is in beautiful condition and there's almost no wear on it. I have a lot of very rare records.
How much did you pay for that copy?
It was several thousand dollars. I'm not sure because I'm not home, so I don't know exactly. I know it sounds weird to most people because if you paid several thousand dollars for a record, you'd darn well know exactly how much you paid. But in my world of buying records for thousands of dollars on a routine basis, it's very easy to forget exactly how much you paid for one.
Is it weird to part with $37,000 or is this just all in a day's work?
[Laughs] No, it's not normal and commonplace. But records of this caliber are undervalued right now. When you compare the rarity, desirability and historical importance of this to Superman No. 1 or a Honus Wagner baseball card, etc., the prices on those things are dramatically higher.
So you think you got a deal on this?
I actually believe I did. Some people will probably say I flipped my wig by saying that.
Do you plan on selling the record down the line?
No. [Laughs] If I buy something for my collection, it stays in my collection. For the last 30 years, I've been assembling, very slowly and carefully, the world's greatest collection of blues records. Its value is in the millions. I'm 54. At some point, I will have to sell this. However, I don't know if there's anyone who could afford to buy my whole collection. But that's how it should be sold.
So this record is not for sale?
No. They can offer me $400,000 for it and I wouldn't sell it.
Are you secretly some billionaire that just buys $40,000 records for fun?
[Laughs] Oh God, no. The first thing I thought when I saw the record on eBay was, "Oh my God, there goes the bank account for many months to come."
You're based in Oregon and the seller was in South Carolina. I assume you didn't trust the USPS to mail the record to you.
I traveled to South Carolina the night before the auction was over. I was that confident that it wasn't going anywhere else other than home with me. I checked into a hotel at 7 P.M. the night before it was over and e-mailed the seller and said, "I would like to come over and have a look at this before I make my final bid." He wrote back, "Nope. I'm definitely afraid of going outside the house with this thing. I don't want anyone knowing my address. You wouldn't believe what types of scams people have been trying to perpetrate on me with this record. Someone wrote me from New York City saying the record had been stolen from him and they wanted it back immediately. If you end up the winner, I'll meet you somewhere."
So where do you go from here?
There are a handful of legendary records on the Paramount label of which no copies exists that we know of. I believe they exist and are sitting in the garage or the basement and the owners don't understand how significant they are. Those are my Holy Grail records and I will not lose them. My challenge to the world is, you go find those records, bring them to me and you'll see how big the check will be.
Check out Tefteller.com for a catalog of records for sale and Bluesimages.com for Tefteller's blues memorabilia. For more stories of obsessive record collectors, check out Fuse's Crate Diggers series.