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Collecting Rock Memorabilia

by Laura Woolley

Rock & roll memorabilia consists of several "types" of property: including Gold and Platinum records, Acetates, awards, instruments, documents, clothing, autographs, recordings, and personal property. These items can be divided into two categories; personal and career. The most highly valued and sought after pieces are those closely associated with the career of an artist. A dress from Madonna's personal wardrobe is not worth as much as one of her red carpet dresses which is not worth as much as a dress worn in one of her early videos. There is a hierarchy to all collecting markets and important career pieces are at the top of the Rock & roll pyramid. Below are details about each of the property types in our list.

GOLD & PLATINUM RECORDS

The most common questions typically asked about Gold and Platinum records are, "Why did the artist part with this? How did it come to be sold?" There are a couple of answers to these questions. Artists like The Rolling Stones have made over 35 albums during a 40 year period, releasing 20 before 1975. The memorabilia market didn't exist as it does today and many artists in the 1960s had no idea these things would be worth what they are today. In many cases band members gifted the albums to friends and family members.

The most important thing to keep in mind is the number of Gold and Platinum records that are produced. On October 25, 2002 the Rolling Stones album Hot Rocks received 12 time Multi-Platinum status from the Recording Industry Association of America, also known as the RIAA. According to the RIAA certification process, each member of the band, the record company and all of the producers and engineers associated with the album received a Gold record when the album sold 500,000 units, their first Platinum album when the album sold 1,000,000 units, and 11 additional Platinum albums each time the album sold an additional million units. Therefore each person associated with the project received 13 framed commemorative RIAA awards for their participation on this one album. Multiply that by the 102 albums listed for The Rolling Stones by the RIAA certification database and you can see why many of these items come to market.

The RIAA presentation records have changed through time. The most desirable are the earliest "white matte" albums from the 1960s. The first RIAA award was given on March 14, 1958, the year the awards were launched, to Perry Como for his hit single, "Catch A Falling Star" (RCA Records). These early awards framed the Gold record with a white linen matte. The platinum album was not introduced until 1976. (therefore a pre-1976 platinum award is fake) With the invention of the CD in the mid 1980s the RIAA introduced the Multi-platinum award and in 1999 they introduced the Diamond certification for the sale of 10 million plus units.

With so many variables within the RIAA records some basic principles to keep in mind when collecting are: records presented directly to artists are worth more than to record companies and engineers; records presented for an artists most critically acclaimed works are worth the most; early white mattes, if available, are the most desirable.

ACETATES

In the 1960s, before digital media ruled, acetates were pressed for artists and those involved with an album, before they began making test pressings for the LP. They are created in heavy lacquer or metal and they were done in very small quantities. These are the last version an artist would hear and sign off on before making any last minute changes to an album. Therefore they often contain variations and alternate versions un-released to the public.

AWARDS

The first rule in assessing the value of an award is perhaps the most obvious; who is it from, who is it to, and what is it for. There are so many awards ranging from a civic honor like receiving the key to a city all the way to a GRAMMY. A key presented to Elvis Presley from the city of Memphis Tennessee would have more significance than a key presented to John Lennon from the city of West Orange New Jersey. The context is the key to awards. The more respected and widely know the institution giving the award the better. Awards given to an artist celebrating their most well remembered work have the most value.

INSTRUMENTS

The category of musical instruments goes beyond the obvious guitars, harmonicas, and pianos. Signed drum heads, drum sticks, and other instrument related equipment. Julien's recently sold a coil of fiber-optic cable and a violin bow used by Jimmy Page on stage during Led Zeppelin's well remembered performances at Knebworth in 1979 for $4,200. Guitars are by far the most popularly collected of the instruments with the world record holder, Eric Clapton's guitar "Blackie," selling for $959,000.

An important place to start when appraising guitars is to determine their intrinsic value. How much would it cost to buy this guitar from a retail store if it had no connection to anyone famous? 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitars, with no connection to a celebrity, sell for over $100,000 these days on the vintage guitar market. On the other end of the spectrum it has become very popular for dealers to buy brand new foreign made guitars worth no more than $300-$500 and have them signed by famous musicians. These are to be considered nothing more than glorified autographs as the guitars do not have much value on their own. The majority of signed guitars have never been owned or played by the artists who sign them.

Instruments that have been personally owned and played by an artist are the most desirable. The more recognizable and heavily used, the more value the guitar will have. Instruments used on stage and/or in recording sessions during the height of an artist's career have the most value, and as previously mentioned, photographs remain a key element.

Whether it is a Bob Dylan used harmonica or a pair of drum sticks used by Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, which Julien's recently sold for $1,200, it is important to determine if the item was owned and used by the artist or just signed, as this greatly affects the value.

DOCUMENTS & AUTOGRAPHS

The documents on the market today include a great variety of material: handwritten lyrics, set lists, contracts, sketches, letters, postcards, Dr. bills, divorce papers and grocery lists. Documents that relate directly to an artists career generally have more value than personal documents however there are exceptions to this rule. In August 2004, Julien's sold a childhood drawing by Kurt Cobain of Ronald Reagan for $14,400.

Legal documents derive their value from not only the artist's signature but more importantly the content of the document. Although it is common to find a contract between an artist and a concert venue, The Beatles contract with Shea Stadium for their first U.S. concert would have a great deal of value, as only four copies are known to exist.

The most commonly miss-identified Rock & Roll document is The Who's original contract from Woodstock. The Who Live At Leeds released in 1970 was designed to look like a bootleg album complete with facsimile copies of a number of important early documents leading many people to believe that they have stumbled upon a hidden treasure.

Lyrics have set some of the highest auction records in rock & roll memorabilia. It is most important to make a clear distinction between "working" lyrics, written lyrics and signed lyrics. The most valuable of them all are the genuine working lyrics which show the creative process including notes, re-writes and crossed out text. Very often artists take these lyrics into the studio while recording a song, and they may include musical annotations. Many times after a song has become popular, friends and fans may ask the artist to write out the lyrics of a song in their hand. These will appear very clean and are sometimes just a few verses of the song rather than the entire song. The least valuable are printed copies of the lyrics signed by the artist. John Lennon's working lyrics for "All You Need Is Love" recently sold for $1,250,000 at auction. This was a new record in this area. Just a year before Lennon's "Nowhere Man" lyrics sold for $455,500. This is the high end of the market as the prices start at approximately $1,000 and up depending upon the artist and song.

Letters and other documents from an artist's personal life derive their value from the content. The most valuable, are pieces that give some insight into an artist's psychology. Although generally memorabilia most closely associated with an artist's career has the most value, Julien's sold John Lennon's handwritten list of chores for his assistant Fred Seaman, in 2004 for $5,000. This item had nothing to do with Lennon's career but demonstrated his whimsical humor. On the list was a reminder to make a dentist appointment for Yoko, "Remind Y.O. her teeth will be needed in later life (i.e.: Dentists must be visited.)"

Autographs are the most abundant collectible on the market. The factors affecting the value of an authentic autograph are, what period the signature is from, and what has been signed. At the low end of the autograph market are "cut sheets." These are signatures on small pieces of paper (usually removed from autograph books) which are trimmed around the autograph.

Many dealers matte and frame these "cut sheets" with photographs of the artist to create a display piece. If you are trying to collect band's autographs, the difference between having the signatures on separate sheets vs. one piece of paper can be dramatic. For example, Julien's sold a complete set of authentic Beatles signatures done on separate cut sheets matted together with an image of the Beatles for $1,600 in 2004. In the same sale, a complete set of Beatles signatures on one sheet of paper sold for $6,600.

Autographed photos are generally worth more than signatures on plain pieces of paper. In 2004, Julien's sold an early Beatles photo signed by all four members for $9,000. Signed albums have enjoyed even greater success at auction. In 1999 a Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band LP signed by all four band members across the gatefold cover sold for $57,500.

This market varies greatly however with anything from a $500 cut sheet signature of Janis Joplin, a $1,300 cut sheet signature of The Jimi Hendrix Experience or a receipt from Manny's Musical Instruments signed by Hendrix for his Fender Twin Reverb which sold for $3,800.

The biggest problem in this area is authenticity. The number of forged signatures on the market today is staggering. This is a very subjective field. It is much more difficult to prove the authenticity of a signature on a cocktail napkin than on a legal contract and specialists often cannot agree. Signatures do change through time and no two are identical so it can be difficult to identify fakes. Many artists have administrative staff respond to fan requests for autographs, so it can be difficult to be sure an item was signed by the artist first hand. Frank Caiazzo is a recognized expert in the field of Beatles signatures and is one of the few people who can identify the nuances between secretarial, forged and authentic Beatles signatures. (beatlesautographs.com)

CLOTHING

The key to assessing the value with celebrity clothing and costumes depends on how iconic the piece is, on what occasion it was worn and how many similar pieces exist. Costumes made for tours are made in multiples. There are a number of Michael Jackson sparkling white gloves in existence. Some were made with sequins, others with crystals. Gloves from the Thriller era of Jackson's career are worth more than those from his later stage performances. Julien's sold a sequined glove at auction in 2004 for $6,600.

The most desirable costumes and clothing are pieces worn in music videos, during memorable stage performances, during photo shoots for promotional materials and album covers, or during award show presentations. In October of 2005 Julien's sold the white suit worn by John Lennon on the cover of Abbey Road for $117,600. (the more photographed and documented the better) Items from an artist's personal wardrobe are generally not as iconic and have less value than pieces more closely associated with their career. In 2002 Julien's sold a denim vest worn by Madonna in an early promotional shoot for $25,000.

The value plummets without a photograph of the artist wearing a piece. While Jimi Hendrix is one of the most highly collected artists in the rock & roll pantheon, in 2004 Julien's sold one of his shirts for $1,200. If there had been a photo of Hendrix wearing the shirt, it would have garnered up to ten times this price at auction.

RECORDINGS

As with many of the other types of memorabilia, The Beatles 12 of the top 15 prices for rare recordings. Recordings do not come to market often as the only pieces that have value are generally lost or previously un-released recordings which have historic importance bringing to light previously unknown songs or information. Recordings could include music or lost interviews. It is exceedingly rare to discover such unique examples, but when they are discovered they command high prices at auction.

PERSONAL PROPERTY

This catch all category includes just about anything and everything else associated with a star. Julien's sold Cher's 'Fatboy' Harley Davidson motorcycle in 2003 for $24,500, one of Elvis' personal copies of the Bible which for $7,200, and a grade school book report written by Britney Spears for $1,800. Most recently Julien's negotiated the sale of William Shatner's kidney stone to Goldenpalace.com for $25,000 to benefit Habitat for Humanity. Now that's personal property!

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