December 13 2009
For a pop group whose last public performance was in January 1969 (on the roof of Apple’s headquarters in London), The Beatles still attract a huge following of memorabilia-seeking fans. “They’re massive market leaders in the pop-collecting field, way ahead of Elvis and The Rolling Stones,” says Stephen Maycock, entertainment consultant to Bonhams auctioneers. “It’s to do with something The Beatles touch in people’s psyches. Collectors are driven by the thrill of having something that provides a personal connection with the band and a chunk of social and cultural history.”
“The memorabilia draws you in because it’s a direct, physical line to the guys and their music,” says Joe Dumas, 47, a Virginia-based architect whose collection of Beatles memorabilia began when he was 11.
“It’s almost like a drug,” says Dr Andrew Phillips, 55, a Surrey-based nuclear engineer, who saw the band play in 1964 and has many programmes, tickets and rare records. “The Beatles’ story is magical and their music transcends time. I’ve never lost interest and invest for the pleasure it gives me. It’s part of my life.”
Since the provenance and authenticity are essential, savvy collectors buy from established salerooms – Bonhams holds four Entertainment Memorabilia sales annually (two in London; two in Los Angeles), while Christie’s Rock & Pop Memorabilia sale in London is an annual fixture. Neil Roberts, head of Christie’s popular culture department says, “This is a self-perpetuating market because of the music.”
Another source are reputable specialist dealers such as Tracks. Despite the usual caveats, internet trading has proved influential. “Collecting has become more rarefied because sites like eBay have brought a lot of material out of the woodwork and that has increased the value of one-offs as more collectors trade up,” says Tracks director Paul Wane.
Roberts agrees and believes there are many more permutations in the signatures market than 15 years ago. “Collectors understand the market better and know which material is the most desirable,” he says. Thus prices for autographed material vary considerably. Signatures by all four Beatles on a scrap of paper or autograph book page fetch around £2,000, while signed concert programmes, records or posters can go for two or three times this amount. “It all depends on condition,” says Gordon Herd, 50, a Glasgow-based employment law consultant, who has bought several sets of Beatles autographs from Bonhams and Christie’s. “Look for four clean, clear signatures because any kind of deficiency reduces the price.”
Handwritten letters command much more money (a two-page letter by John Lennon fetched £11,500 at Bonhams in May 2006), while handwritten lyrics are the Holy Grail. Lennon’s lyrics to All You Need Is Love set a world record when they were sold for £690,000 by specialist dealer Cooper Owen in July 2005, while a Xerox copy of the Revolution lyrics, with the last verse added by Lennon in ink, estimated by Bonhams at £20,000-£30,000, went for £72,000 in April 2005. Tiers of desirability also apply to lyrics. “The song, which Beatle wrote it down and whether it’s the full lyric or just a few lines – all these factors come into play with the value,” says Maycock.
Personal possessions, clothing and instruments – especially those belonging to the late John Lennon and George Harrison – are highly sought after. A Hofner Senator 1958 electric guitar owned by Lennon, with a letter of authenticity from Harrison, outstripped an estimate of £100,000-£150,000 when it sold for £205,000 at Christie’s this year. Tracks sold Lennon’s check suit jacket, worn frequently in 1963, for £20,000 earlier this year, while a wide-brimmed black felt hat, in which Lennon was photographed, sold for £9,200 at Bonhams in 2006. Meanwhile, a shirt worn by Lennon on the Beatles’ last US tour in 1966, currently in Paul Wane’s personal collection, is valued at £50,000.
Prices for most Beatles memorabilia have escalated. “In the 1980s you could pick up a signed photo or record for a few hundred pounds,” says Maycock. “The same item would now be worth at least 10 times that.” Dumas confirms the trend. “I bought a signed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album for $2,500 on eBay in the early 1990s and sold it two years later for $28,000. And in 1992 I bought six complete sets of 1963 autographs from Sotheby’s for $12,000 in total. I recently sold all six sets individually for between $6,000 and $8,000.”
Photographs and original artwork, especially by Lennon, are also gaining in popularity. “Collecting is moving into more personal areas so when we’re offered anything these days we ask for a letter about its history,” says Roberts. Nor is this just to establish provenance. “People want to get close to the band members, so the story can add to an item’s value,” he explains, citing a 1953 school photograph, signed by Paul McCartney and his classmates, which sold for £3,500 at Christie’s this year.
Wane, whose own favourites include a 1963 Scarborough concert poster (“nice graphics that represent the period perfectly”) and a set list, handwritten by Paul McCartney, for a Sheffield concert in 1963 (“rare and very personal”), believes that the rarer memorabilia will continue to increase in value over time.
“The market is driven by collectors who love the objects and generally hold on to them,” says Maycock. “But the general trend is always up. You could be looking at an astonishing profit margin on [some of the less commonly found] original Beatles items kept since the 1960s.”