With a drumbeat of 50th anniversaries, Beatlemania breaks loose all over again.
It was just a wall, a backdrop on a stage. It stood behind the performers on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and after it outlived its usefulness, it was destined for the trash heap. Then the carpenter who was going to throw it away noticed that four mop-haired members of a rock ’n’ roll band from Liverpool had signed it. He saved that section of the wall, gave it to a fan, and now that scrap of plywood and plastic has become a collectible item worth six figures.
You have seen the wall, if you have seen clips of the historic Beatles performance on the Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. That moment launched John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr into a stratosphere from which they have never descended. And decades later, collectibles from the Fab Four continue to soar too. “Everyone argues about who was the best band—the Beatles, the Stones, or the Beach Boys,” says Paul Fraser, founder of Paul Fraser Collectibles. “But there’s no doubt about the most collectible band.”
Particularly now. Beatles memorabilia is creating more buzz than at any time since the early 1980s, partly because enthusiasts are in the grip of a series of 50th anniversaries. Each year from 2014 until 2020—which will mark 50 years since the band’s breakup—will bring a significant Beatles milestone, including album releases such as Help! (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the White Album (1968), and Abbey Road (1969). “We’re sort of reliving their career now, 50 years later; all these anniversaries will fall in chronological order, bang bang bang,” says Russ Lease, a longtime collector who teamed with three others to open Fab Four Exhibits, a traveling museum of Beatles memorabilia.
“The Beatles are hotter than ever—that’s the power of anniversaries for you,” says Fraser, who has offices in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Channel Islands. “Yet if there’s one sector that doesn’t require a helping hand from an anniversary, it’s Beatles memorabilia. They are an evergreen investment.”
Garry Shrum has been in the Beatles business since 1976, when he opened a record store called Blue Meanie Records—a reference from the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. Now he is the consignment director for entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions. In December, Heritage conducted a Beatles auction with more than 200 items, including a signed copy of With the Beatles for $19,375, and three Reslo microphones for $28,125, which came from the Cavern Club, the venue in Liverpool that helped launch the band’s career in the early 1960s. Of the current incarnation of Beatlemania, Shrum says, “I’m blown away—it’s the quality of stuff that’s coming to market now, a lot of one-of-a-kind items. Some people have been saving them for the 50th anniversary, thinking they’ll get more money because of this. They’re probably right.”
(Continues on next page…)
When it comes to the beatles, absolutely everything is collectible. Every imaginable knickknack—lunch boxes, dolls, soap dispensers, purses, bobbleheads, and a thousand other things—was probably made at some point bearing the likenesses of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But most of that stuff is not terribly valuable, unless it is rare, unopened, or in pristine condition. For example, in December Heritage Auctions sold a 1964 Beatles record player with its original box for $15,000.
The most sought-after collectibles have been personally touched by one (or all) of the Fab Four. In addition to autographs, musical instruments, clothing, handwritten notes, and especially lyrics, all fetch top dollar at auction or in private sales. That personal touch is what makes the Ed Sullivan Show wall so distinctive. As the story goes, a stagehand named Jerry Gort lifted Starr up so he could sign at the top. McCartney put “Uncle” in front of his name. Someone else scribbled, “The Beatles were here.”
In 2002, Andy Geller, a voice-over actor and long time Beatles enthusiast, paid more than $100,000 for the 16-by-48-inch piece of wall. His attempt to sell it at auction last year caused a stir, though ultimately it failed to reach its $800,000 reserve. Since then, potential buyers have contacted Geller directly, but he may just keep it, partly because it is as unique as it is historic—the signatures are the largest Beatles autographs known to exist and are accompanied by caricatures drawn by the band members. But for Geller, the wall also represents a turning point in U.S. history: The Beatles arrived as the country still mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “Three months later,” he says, “there’s this band on television that kind of renews our faith in the magical, the possible.”
Such sentiments have made Beatles signatures the most valuable autographs on the market and, as a result, the most forged. Kevin Martin, CEO of Piece of the Past, says nearly every item with all four authentic signatures predates 1970, and most pre-date 1967. In many cases, only experts can tell the difference between real and forged signatures. “You’ve got to be very, very vigilant and careful,” Martin says.
The vigilant and careful are rewarded. Since 2000, signed Beatles photos have nearly quintupled in value, from an average of $8,970 to $43,000, according to an index kept by Fraser. Signed albums so rarely come to market that they almost always yield big-dollar bids. RR Auctions in Boston sold a signed copy of Meet the Beatles for $118,230 last February, and Heritage sold a signed copy of Sgt. Pepper’s for $290,500 in 2013.
But the mere presence of four legit signatures does not a gold mine make. In April, Heritage Auctions sold a signed copy of Let It Be, the last studio album the band released. But all four signatures came post-breakup, which to collectors makes them less valuable. Plus, the cover was actually a composite of two. Lennon signed the first cover in 1975. In the 1990s, Harrison signed a separate cover, with Starr’s signature joining his in 2006. A paper restorer melded the separate covers into one, and in 2010, McCartney’s signature completed the quartet.
With those diminishing factors—post-breakup signings and the two covers in one—the album sold for just $32,500.
(Continues on next page…)
Many collectors consider handwritten lyrics the most valuable artifacts, and the more popular the song, the more valuable the lyrics. Early in the band’s career, Lennon and McCartney wrote songs together. As their relationship deteriorated, they wrote separately, though the songs were still credited to both of them. “A Day in the Life” was a true collaboration. Lennon penned most of the lyrics, with McCartney contributing a bridge that starts with the famous line, “Woke up, fell out of bed, / Dragged a comb across my head.”
The most recent auction of Lennon’s handwritten lyrics speaks to the song’s popularity: They were sold for $1.2 million by Sotheby’s in 2010. By comparison, Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to the more obscure “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” which were inspired by a poster for a carnival, sold for $239,412 in June.
“The value of the Beatles’ handwritten lyrics is due to the correct perception that their main talent was in the songwriting,” Lease says. “While being a very good and tight rock band, none of the four were virtuoso musicians.”
Which is not to say collectors do not care about the instruments used to play the music. Lease would know: The most valuable item in his collection is a 20-inch bass drumhead with “The Beatles” painted on it. He bought it for $44,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994. Through meticulous research, he discovered a secret: Starr played the drum in the famed Ed Sullivan appearance. Authentication of that fact, which came after the purchase, tripled the drumhead’s value.
Lease, who owns a business that makes stage outfits for Beatles tribute bands, originally intended to sell the drumhead in 2014 to take advantage of the 50-year anniversary, but decided to keep it to show in his Fab Four Exhibits display. He will sell it when the exhibit is done, in late 2016 or early 2017. An appraiser estimates that its value then will be $1.5 million to $2 million—more than 30 times what he paid for it. Lease marvels at that increase, partly because it is not unusual. “There’s no question that the value of anything that came into contact with them continues to rise,” he says, “and it has never leveled off, and it has never fallen.”
It is hard to imagine a surprise like Lease’s drumhead hitting the market today, because there are no secrets anymore. The lots that make big money often come from collectors who bought the item years ago and let the equity build up. The deaths of Lennon in 1980 and Harrison in 2001 mean there have been no new items with all four autographs for decades, and neither their estates nor McCartney or Starr sell items from their private collections. “You’re not going to get Paul’s lyrics,” Martin says. “It’s definitely a case of the same items trading hands.”
In November, TracksAuction sold tuning pegs and a pick guard that once belonged to Lennon. They were removed from his 1958 Rickenbacker 325 when he had it refurbished. Who cares about tuning pegs and a pick guard—or more to the point, who wants to pay $43,100 for tuning pegs and a pick guard? Beatlemaniacs, it turns out, because the pieces came from the guitar Lennon played on the Ed Sullivan Show and used from 1960 to 1964. Lease calls it “quite possibly the most significant guitar in rock history, which would make it the most significant guitar in history.”
Auction houses expect to be flush again this year with Beatles items. In many cases, specific details about lots were still being sorted out as this issue went to press, but some intriguing items have emerged. In March, Bonhams will sell pieces from the family of the British journalist Peter Noble, including autographed copies of Meet the Beatles and Please Please Me.
In May, Julien’s Auctions will offer a guitar played by Harrison at the Cavern Club. Martin Nolan, Julien’s executive director, expects the guitar to fetch mid-to-high six figures, based on the $605,000 sale by Julien’s last year of a Rickenbacker used by Lennon and Harrison. Over the years, Julien’s has sold everything from Beatles guitars to Beatles eyeglasses, including a pair of Lennon’s granny-style spectacles that fetched $25,000 in November, and Nolan sees no end to the band’s tenure atop the memorabilia world. “Their legacy,” he says, “will live on for generations to come.”
The writing about that is on the wall.
(Continues on next page…)
Magical History Tour
A brief chronicle of the Beatles and Beatles memorabilia.
July 6, 1957
Paul McCartney meets John Lennon after Lennon performs with his band the Quarrymen. A man in the audience named Bob Molyneux records the performance. In 1994, the tape— Lennon’s first known recording—sells at Sotheby’s for $124,380.
February 9, 1961
The Beatles play for the first time at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. A Maton MS500 guitar that George Harrison borrowed to use in those shows will be auctioned by Julien’s in May and is expected to sell in the mid-to-high six figures.
February 1, 1964
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” becomes the band’s first No. 1 hit in the United States, with Harrison playing a Rickenbacker 425 that he had refinished in black to match Lennon’s guitar. In May 2014, the Harrison Rickenbacker sells for $605,000 at Julien’s.
February 9, 1964
The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. In April 2014, a photograph signed by the Beatles and Sullivan sells for $125,000 at Heritage Auctions.
June 3, 1965
John Lennon takes delivery of a Rolls-Royce. A few years later, he has it painted in psychedelic colors. On June 29, 1985, it is auctioned for $2.3 million to Jim Pattison’s Ripley International Inc. Pattison donates the car to the province of British Columbia, and it is now stored at the Royal British Columbia Museum.
August 15, 1965
The Beatles perform at Shea Stadium in their most famous concert in the United States. The amateur photographer Marc Weinstein was one of only two photographers granted access to the stage area, which he gained by showing a fake press pass and lying to security that he was in the band’s entourage. In 2013, his 61 black-and-white negatives from the show are auctioned by Omega on the 50th anniversary of the album Please Please Me. Selling price: $46,700.
August 25, 1965
The movie Help! hits theaters. In March 2014, a coat worn by Ringo Starr in the film sells for $100,534.
June 20, 1966
Yesterday and Today is released with the “butcher cover.” The album is quickly recalled by Capitol Records, which glues on new covers. In 2006, Heritage Auctions sells one of ex-Capitol CEO Alan Livingston’s pristine butcher-cover albums for $38,837.50.
June 1, 1967
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most influential albums in rock history, arrives in music stores. In 2010, Lennon and McCartney’s handwritten lyrics to “A Day in the Life” sell for $1.2 million. In June 2014, Lennon’s handwritten lyrics for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” sell for $239,412.
June 25, 1967
The Beatles perform “All You Need Is Love” live on “Our World,” the first live, international satellite television special, for more than 400 million viewers. In 2005, Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to the song fetch $1.25 million at a Cooper Owen auction.
November 22, 1968
The Beatles release the White Album. The records are numbered, and the four members of the group received Nos. 0000001 to 0000004. In 2008, No. 0000005 sells for $30,000.
August 8, 1969
The cover of Abbey Road is photographed and the album arrives in stores a month and a half later. The cover is one of the most famous, imitated, and controversial images in rock ’n’ roll history: Paul is out of step, barefoot, and smoking—sparking the urban legend that Paul is dead. Photos from the shoot sell at a Bloomsbury Auction in November 2014 for $281,500.
May 8, 1970
The Beatles’ final studio album, Let It Be, is released after the band breaks up in April. In April 2014, a reconstructed copy of the album bearing the signatures of all four Beatles sells for $32,500 at Heritage Auctions.