Collecting pieces of rock 'n roll history may not be easy or cheap, but it's definitely worth it once you have them in hand. Here's what to look for.
You'll have to decide if you want to deal with auctions, and the steel nerves required, or just plunk down the cash to pay for an item outright.
If you decide to go the former route, take your chances on eBay (EBAY) (check seller feedback and return policy). But if you're dealing with a reputable house such as Christies, Sotheby's (BID) or Julien's Auctions on the West Coast (which authenticates items for a fee), it's much less risky.
Items Julien's has handled in the past have included the white suit John Lennon wore on the cover of the Abbey Road album, which went for $117,600 in October 2005; Bono's famous shades ($24,000); a guitar used in concert by Bob Dylan ($192,000); and Elvis Presley's microphone from his pre-fame days on the Louisiana Hayride ($15,000), as well as various gold and platinum albums presented to artists.
The auction rule of thumb is to bid the absolute utmost you would pay for the item. Don't lowball just because there's a low opening bid, or there doesn't appear to be any action going on; there are often "snipers" lurking in wait, ready to pounce and put in a high bid at the very last second.
Or, you can patronize a place like Gotta Have It! (Joni Mitchell's signed guitar: $3,500) or Wolfgang's Vault (the company behind the late Bill Graham's Fillmore empire), and pay whatever the market will bear.
Remember who you're competing against: It isn't just the sharks who are looking to buy and re-sell for a profit, but the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which mostly looks for donations), the Hard Rock Café, with its seemingly bottomless pockets, and other well-heeled collectors.
If you see it, and you want it, and it has the imprimatur of authentication, grab it while you can, because they're not making any more and the price will probably be more next year -- even if, say, Jimmy Page's bow never quite fetches the price of a Van Gogh canvas.
The Beatles still far and away outrank every other artist, even Elvis, not only because of the fond memories of Beatlemania, but also due to the brevity of their recording career (about six years) and their multigenerational appeal.
John Lennon's working lyrics for the song "All You Need is Love" sold for over $1 million at auction, setting a new record (previously, his lyrics for "Nowhere Man" sold for a comparative pittance at almost half-a-million bucks). But this is the high end; depending upon the artist and the fame of the song itself, prices can start as low as $1,000.
Larry Marion, once auction director at a rock memorabilia house and currently a consultant to Gotta Have It!, says "the biggest growth has been in the area of the items from the 1950s and '60s: The Beatles, Elvis, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and so on. The icons who have endured are the most secure investments, and have risen steadily in value."
But without strong authentication, an item may be worth little. Julien's, in talking about a Jimi Hendrix shirt that sold for $1200, notes that it went for a relatively low price since there were no pictures of the artist wearing it. If there had been, the piece could have gone for 10 times its final value.
The hottest categories, Marion estimates, are stage-worn clothing, plus stage-used and celebrity-owned instruments (guitars are by far the most popularly collected; the world record-holder, the Eric Clapton guitar nicknamed "Blackie," sold for $959,000). The original working lyrics for famous songs are also extremely desirable.
GottaHaveIt.com which will be holding a huge auction in July featuring Elvis Presley's favorite peacock jumpsuit ("surprisingly small," Marion muses), along with items such as The Beatles' 1964 Forest Hills Music Festival concert poster (the earliest known U.S. Beatles concert poster), never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia from the Beatles' road manager, handwritten letters from Paul McCartney, hand-annotated lyrics by John Lennon and a Stratocaster played by George Harrison, an album cover proof from the Rolling Stones' 1968 classic Beggars Banquet, as well as handwritten lyrics and costumes from Madonna and personal items from Britney Spears.
Marion thinks that items from artists such as Madonna and the Stones "have not reached the value that they will surely have in the future," but believes that you might want to hold off on, say, the Britneys or Blink-182s.
"Memorabilia from modern groups or artists is a risky investment," he warns. "Groups or artists that may top the charts and sell out arenas today may prove to be in the 'Who were they?' category a few years down the road."
Note to self: Hold on to those old Springsteen picture discs.
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