On The Case

Jeff Beck and the case of the (allegedly) stolen guitar: a jurisdiction story

(Reuters) - There’s nothing like a legendary rock star and a mysteriously vanished guitar to liven up a story about, um, personal jurisdiction and the disputed service of a complaint.

In the summer of 1969, the guitarist Jeff Beck was touring the U.S. with his eponymous band. The tour is best remembered for the extraordinary combination of Beck on guitar and a young Rod Stewart on vocals, but that’s another story. We’re focusing instead on a show that went awry at the Tamarack Lounge in Ellenville, New York. Something set the crowd off -- Beck’s drummer would later say that the guitar player sprayed a fire extinguisher on the audience -- and security personnel hustled band members off the stage, leaving their instruments behind.

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Someone took advantage of the chaos and lifted Beck’s guitar. The vanished instrument, a 1959 Les Paul Standard that Beck bought from a dealer who went on to become the lead guitar player for Cheap Trick, became something of a legend in its own right, featured in stories about famous stolen guitars.

In 2000, a Long Island musician and vintage guitar dealer named Perry Margouleff got word that a guitar collector was selling an instrument that had once belonged to Jeff Beck. The identity of the seller is not publicly known. Margouleff has never revealed anything about him except that he is a man who collects guitars.

Margouleff was acquainted with Beck, whom he had met at a 1983 birthday party in New York for Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood (who, coincidentally, was also part of the Jeff Beck Band during the 1969 tour when the guitar was stolen). Before he agreed to buy the guitar, Margouleff called Beck’s then-manager to ask if Beck would object.

Accounts diverge from here. According to a lawsuit Margouleff filed in federal court in Manhattan in August 2018, Beck himself got on the telephone to bless Margouleff’s purchase. According to the complaint, Beck told Margouleff that he wasn’t interested in the guitar and would not object if Margouleff wanted to buy it.

Beck’s lawyer, David Baum, told me in an interview that there was no such conversation. “That didn’t happen,” Baum said. “He didn’t speak to Jeff.”

Margouleff ended up buying the guitar, according to his complaint, for $75,000. He contends that after the purchase in 2000, he informed Beck’s manager, who told him not to worry about it. Margouleff said he has owned the guitar ever since.

In January 2018, a different manager for Beck contacted Margouleff. This manager told Margouleff that the guitar he bought in 2000 had been stolen from Beck at that 1969 show in Ellenville -- and that Beck wanted it back. After lawyers for Margouleff and Beck failed to resolve the dispute, Margouleff’s counsel from Withers Bergman filed a complaint. The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that Beck had abandoned or waived any claim to the guitar and that Margouleff is its rightful owner.

Beck’s lawyer, Baum, almost immediately highlighted a problem for Margouleff in a letter to U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams of Manhattan: Beck lives in London and did not want to engage in expensive litigation in New York to determine ownership of the guitar. “Although Margouleff appears to see these factors as leverage to force Beck into a settlement whereby he would relinquish the guitar,” Baum wrote, “Beck simply does not wish to engage the issue in any respect in New York, and there is no basis to compel him to do so.”

Margouleff’s lawyers had attempted to foreclose the issue of personal jurisdiction by serving Beck with the complaint. They hired a process server to approach the guitar player at his concert in Port Chester, New York. The process server would later say in sworn affidavits that when Beck descended from his tour bus, she followed 10 or 15 feet behind him, shouting that she intended to serve him with a complaint and summons. She said that as Beck entered the stage door, she tossed the documents at his feet and announced that he had been served.

Baum’s letter to Judge Abrams argued that security video footage and testimony from witnesses at the scene contradicted the process server’s account. Beck was not properly served, his lawyer said, and, in fact, only learned about Margouleff’s suit when he read about it in the New York Post. Beck would accept service, Baum said, but only for the purposes of moving to dismiss Margouleff’s suit for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Margouleff counsel Joseph Gallo of Withers Bergman did not respond to my email request for comment.

Margouleff’s lawyers offered several rationales for New York’s jurisdiction over the case in their brief opposing Beck’s dismissal motion. By appearing at the 1969 show in Ellenville where the guitar was lost -- stolen, according to Beck; abandoned, according to Margouleff -- Beck had “purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections of New York law, and thereby unquestionably transacted business within New York for the purposes of personal jurisdiction.” Moreover, the brief said, New York has jurisdiction because Beck allegedly sprayed the crowd with a fire extinguisher -- a tortious act that led to the dispute over ownership of the guitar. Finally, Margouleff argued, Beck was subject to personal jurisdiction because he had been served in New York.

In a ruling on Tuesday, Judge Abrams dismantled the first two arguments. (The ruling was first reported by the SDNY Blog.) The transaction at the heart of the ownership battle was not the 1969 concert in Ellenville, the judge said, but Margouleff’s purchase of the guitar in 2000. Beck was not involved in that transaction at all, the judge said. It’s not even clear, given that Margouleff has not identified the guitar’s seller, that the purchase took place in New York or even related to New York. “The fact that Beck’s guitar was stolen in this state is, by itself, far from sufficient to satisfy personal jurisdiction over him,” Judge Abrams said. Being a crime victim, she explained, does not fall into the category of “purposeful activities” specified in New York’s rules of civil practice.

Margouleff’s assertion of jurisdiction based on Beck’s alleged fire extinguisher antics fared no better. Judge Abrams called it “meritless,” because Margouleff’s claim of ownership derives from his purchase of the guitar, not from Beck’s loss of the instrument.

Judge Abrams left a sliver of hope alive for Margouleff, ordering a hearing on his attempt to serve Beck at the concert in Port Chester. The judge said that the video evidence was inconclusive and that she needs to hear from the process server and from Beck. Beck’s lawyer, Baum, previously said in a brief that the guitarist was reluctant to submit an affidavit because “there is a concern that Margouleff would monetize a document signed by Beck as memorabilia and/or misuse a signed document to increase the notoriety of the guitar for a sale.” But Baum told me that if Judge Abrams needs a declaration from Beck, Beck will submit one.

“This is all just a waste of time,” Baum said. Even if Margouleff was under the mistaken impression that Beck had blessed his purchase of the allegedly stolen guitar, Baum said, Margouleff now knows that Beck does not approve.

“Why would you buy a stolen guitar?” Baum said. “This guy claims to be a rock and roll fan -- just give the guy back his guitar.”