As a veteran of numerous rock and roll memorabilia auctions, I have come to find them to be far more than mere orgies of consumerism. Depending on the nature and quality of the featured items, these auctions can range from intriguing front page celebrity events to tasteless exercises in greed and avarice. Pricing can fluctuate dramatically on similar lots as the cyclical nature of buying/selling in the collector marketplace dictates resultant supply and demand, making most auctions fascinating character studies and explorations into macro-economic theory. One constant, however, is unpredictability. At the very least, auction goers always bring their checkbooks and expect the unexpected, as pre-auction prognostications are often far off the mark.
13 May 2003: Sotheby's London
In May, Sotheby’s Olympia London played host to the auction of the John Entwistle Collection. The much anticipated proceedings came less than a year after the untimely passing of the Who’s bassist. Entwistle’s lifelong penchant for collecting guitars and basses generated interest from a wide array of attendees; deep pocket investors sat side by side with optimistic fans carefully scrutinizing each lot for collectible appeal/value and pricing practicality. The standing room only crowd came to spend and be entertained, and the vast majority went away satisfied on both accounts.
The auction was split into two sessions, one morning, one afternoon, and made up of 386 total lots. The bulk of featured items were individual instruments, consisting of assorted guitars, basses and brass. A large number of record awards were available, as were various clothing/personal effects from stage-worn jackets to wristwatches and cufflinks. Additionally, much of Entwistle’s original artwork was highlighted, while some of the more unusual items included life size trophy fish castings from Entwistle’s pub room, the “Barracuda Inne”, and a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox.
Session I began at roughly 10:35 a.m. and took exactly three hours for its 185 lots to be sold. If prospective buyers were looking for a sign of what would transpire throughout the day, they needed only to wait for the opening lot to be offered, as a group of framed Who photographs immediately doubled its anticipated sale price of £ 600 to 800. Bidding was fast and furious as successive lot #s came up on twin large screen TVs and disappeared with amazing quickness. The first surprises came within the initial hour as an Alembic Explorer custom bass (featured on the Entwistle solo album Too Late the Hero) fetched a generous £ 12,500, while a pair of gold awards for the albums Tommy and Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy sold for £ 6,000 and £ 5,500 respectively. Bidders and spectators were not satisfactorily stunned however until the hammer fell on Lot 89, another Alembic Explorer custom bass, and one of three specifically made with a “Boris the Spider” motif. Pre-auction estimates had been listed at between £ 2,500 and 3,000 for this instrument, thus the final selling price of £ 42,000 drew several discernable gasps and a hearty round of appreciative applause. Two other individual instruments offered during the morning session also surpassed estimates and shocked the masses: A 1964 Gibson Thunderbird IV bass used extensively by Entwistle during the early 1970s brought a price of £ 24,000 (four times its estimate), while a Fender Precision bass dubbed “Frankenstein” (for its origins from five separate basses) elicited a fierce bidding war, ultimately selling for an astounding £ 52,000. The sale of the latter was without question the talking point of the morning.
After a quick one hour lunch break, Session II began with a buzz as three of the auction’s most anticipated items were set to go on the block. Lot 198 was a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar, a rare collectible with an estimated price of between £ 30,000 and 50,000. Based on the level of bidding established earlier in the day, it was somewhat surprising to see this beautiful guitar come in at the bottom of its predicted range, selling for £ 32,000. Even more surprising than this sale was the pricing realized on three original posters advertising performances by the Detours circa 1963. Estimated at roughly £ 1,500 to 2,000 each, the trio did considerably better, selling for the unbelievable amounts of £ 15,000, £ 15,000 and £ 11,000, respectively.
Lot 346 (the second of “the big three”) consisted of Entwistle’s “Flock of Buzzards”, five Status Graphite Buzzard model basses tucked neatly away in a huge flight case. Although doubling the pre-auction estimate by selling for £ 17,000, this lot seemed to be an extraordinary bargain based upon its contents and provenance, as well as the pricing of earlier instruments. Nothing could compare however to Lot 353, the crown jewel of the entire auction and companion item to Lot 198, a breathtaking 1958 Gibson Explorer guitar. Although the ‘58 Flying V had sold for somewhat less than anticipated, the consensus was that the Explorer would garner the headlines by selling for top dollar. Estimated at between £ 50,000 and 70,000, #353’s price shot skyward as bidding rose steadily from £ 20,000. At each £ 5,000 plateau the din grew louder as telephone bidders battled those in attendance for the prized instrument. The drama unfolded within seconds as Sotheby’s representatives fielded competing bids with precision, quickly surpassing the estimate and dropping the hammer on a final price of £ 80,000, (approximately $129,000 U.S.), eliciting a roar from the awestruck crowd.
In addition to generating virtually twice the proceeds of what had been expected for the Entwistle estate, the auction provided an interesting contrast on a personal level. Many of the premiere items were purchased by the bidder for an unnamed world renowned establishment. There is no competing with this type of organization, as it is solely motivated by its desire to accumulate and horde as much as possible for its locations. Armed with a fistful of blank checks, this bidder was able to steamroll anyone in his way, and did so on multiple occasions. Tempering this gross display of monetary muscle was a young man from the Netherlands who had made his way to the auction by bus. He came as a loyal fan with a dream of taking home something of value from his idol John Entwistle. He went home with a £ 200 lamp, a smile and a wonderful adventure story.
The auction was also a study in conceptual contrast. On one hand, collectors were afforded the opportunity to purchase items otherwise unavailable to them. In the process they were able to grab a small bit of history for their respective inventories while reveling in their new acquisitions. Conversely, the entire auction resembled a scene from the African Plain, vultures circling a lifeless carcass as groups of predators competed for the last vestiges of flesh off bones bleached by the sun. There is an underlying tragic irony when a man’s life and career, traditionally defined by artistry and creativity, can be reduced (even briefly) to mere monetary values as his possessions are sold off to strangers.
That said, Sotheby’s Olympia London was, for better or worse, the place to be for action on 13 May. Interesting? Exciting? Opportunistic? Dramatic? Sad? The celebrity memorabilia auction is all of the above.