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Visual Arts

Punk Invades the Auction House

Stacey Brook

There were no shocking sales at the first-ever Christie's auction of punk and rock posters, but plenty of surprisingly good deals

For those longing to own a piece of music and pop culture history, Christie’s the famous auction house, provided quite the opportunity in New York on November 24, with its first-ever Punk/Rock auction from their new Popular Culture category. Pop culture auctions, have recently gained popularity among many of the larger auction houses, many presenting items that would make music and movie fans with a deep internal catalogs salivate. Christie’s now holds auctions of this ilk twice a year, the next one taking place in March.

For their first stab at the Punk/Rock auction, Christie’s put up for bid a selection of music memorabilia, with emphasis on 1970s and early '80s punk-rock fliers, apparel and promotional materials; classic '50s and '60s rock-and-roll artifacts; as well as a few contemporary music-related offerings. A group of between 30 and 60 participants graced the bid chairs during the auction’s two sessions, the crowd a mélange of more relaxed galleristas and rock fans with polish -- everyone looking just old enough to be toting the disposable income needed to vie for artwork and collectibles but young and tart enough to crave a little Mick Jagger with their Jasper Johns. Bidders casually strolled in and out of a room whose walls were bedecked in punk and grunge era imagery that sharply contrasted with the dark oak podium and phone banks. Many more bidders participated in the auction online and over the phone.

The first session began at 10 a.m. and focused on posters, fliers and zines for iconic bands like the Ramones, Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. Also up for grabs in the morning was punk-rock apparel from such legendary labels as Westwood/McLaren and BOY, and a selection of so-new-they’re-out-of-place urban vinyl items by designers like Mark Nagata, Dalek and Kaws.

It was clear some of the wares up for bid were of a breed the Christie’s staff rarely encounters. “Opening at $250 is the ‘Fuck Your Mother' T-shirt,” said auctioneer Tom Lecky, introducing a Westwood/McLaren design that was eventually sold for $313. “Think it’s the first time I’ve said that up here,” he quipped from the lectern.

Many of the pieces in the auction’s first session underperformed their catalog’s bid estimates. Only a handful of items brought in numbers that exceeded expectation, including Black Flag fliers by Raymond Pettibon, some of which sold for as much as $2,500, the more recognizable of the Sex Pistols promotional posters, which garnered bids as high as $6,250, and a glowing, oversize portrait of Debbie Harry on which she scrawled the lyrics to “One Way or Another,” that went for $8,750. A Clash Sandinista! poster sold for $1,063 -- about half its catalog estimate. Fliers for the Germs and the Weirdos, with catalog listings between $500 and $1,500, went home with bidders for as little as $125.

The auction market is definitely down due to the recession, but the discrepancy between the lots’ estimated value and price realized may have to do with the short period of time between the production of these items and their inclusion in the world of collectibles. Old LPs, rock posters and punk-era garments hold nostalgic appeal for fans of music eras gone by, but these artifacts haven’t been around long enough to be tested in the market. It felt a bit like Christie’s and collectors were working together to wrap their heads around the value of items that may still be more hold more sentimental than investment value.

Bidders looking to score items in the designer-toy category full of illustrative vinyl figurines - some of which were created as late as last year - nabbed especially sweet deals, amidst almost no competition. One absentee bidder picked up lot after lot of rare urban vinyl with $50 to $125 bids. Another auction participant walked off with seven Frank Kozik skate decks, (which run between $50 and $100/ea retail) for the bargain price of $500. As if that weren’t enough, each deck also came with an accompanying signed Kozik print.

The 2 p.m. session kicked off with a selection of '50s and '60s posters that sold for anywhere from $375 for a Newport Jazz Festival print to $3,250 for a Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson show announcement poster. The rest of the offerings ranged from the understandably coveted to the ridiculously coveted. “The Fender of Fame,” a guitar signed by more than 170 musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Cash, and Iggy Pop was scooped up for $7,500. A heated battle ginned up an astounding (but expected, according to the catalog) $182,500 for the Vox Continental Portable Organ played by John Lennon at Shea Stadium in 1965. Another bidder paid $3,500 for Madonna’s bra and underwear.

Not all the items in the auction’s second session broke the bank. Some bargains were there to be found. A Les Paul guitar, signed by Les Paul himself, was snatched up for a mere $438. An oversize neon-orange poster of the Police, signed by the band, was carried away for $500 -- half its estimated auction value. And a Polish poster for A Hard Day's Night went to a slightly balding man in the second row, who by the end of the day, had won the reputation as the bidder willing to buy anything on the block as long as he could score it for $125 or less.

One of the best deals in the house -- the lot that brought attracted me to the auction -- was a group of contemporary posters from the '90s and '00s, the majority of which are signed and numbered by the artists who created them, according to the catalog. It was a collection of posters long enough to line the sidewalk from my Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment all the way back to auction house in Rockefeller Center, in midtown Manhattan. This collection of modern poster art, whose estimated catalog price was quoted at a surprisingly low $2,000 to $3,000 ($2 to $3 a poster?), ended up selling for just $1,875 -- $1.88 a poster. Though the work in the lot may not be consistently collectible (“Sizes vary,” the catalog description disclaimed), any of those pieces of inked paper by the legendary Frank Kozik (the catalog promised he was included) could be worth a couple hundred dollars a piece.

Again, it is hard to tell why this collection wasn’t fought over by a hundred avid modern poster collectors. Perhaps the publicity didn’t reach wide enough to capture the attention of these enthusiasts. Maybe no one wanted to take a risk on a lot of 1,000 pieces whose contents were impossible to verify if you lived outside of the New York area or didn’t have time to check out the preview the weekend before the auction. It’s likely that outside of the realm of modern poster collectors and resellers -- people who would be prepared to store and potentially resell a good portion of the 1,000 prints -- this lot wasn’t even a consideration. But as someone who drools over early 90s and early '00s posters with their hyper colors and slickness and deep-black outlined illustrations; or off-register printing and photo collages -- regardless of whether or not I’m familiar with the bands or the artists -- I don't look forward to having to admit that I was there when this deal went down. For years to come, I may wake to nightmarish visions of the classic Kozik Soundgarden and Beastie Boys prints that just barely escaped my clutches.

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