An Insider’s Guide to Sotheby’s ‘Rock and Roll Anthology’ Auction: Exclusive Interview
On Dec. 10, Sotheby's will bring to the auction block some of the most historically important artifacts of rock history. The New York auction will include lyric manuscripts, instruments, photographs, posters and personal items that belonged to John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and other rock icons. The memorabilia will be on exhibit as Rock and Roll Anthology: From Folk to Fury in New York, through Dec. 9. Richard Austin, head of Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts department, tells us some of the stories behind these one-of-a-kind collectibles.
What are a few of the items that rock fans will be most excited to see?
I think the Led Zeppelin manuscript of the lyrics for "Kashmir" is really exciting. There's just nothing of Led Zeppelin that's out there of importance that's available. There are a lot of Velvet Underground manuscripts, including the manuscript for an early version of "Heroin," "Venus in Furs" and "Black Angel's Death Song." They were probably the most influential underground rock band of all time. And there's almost nothing that survives from the early days of the Velvet Underground. And anybody that knows about Lou Reed's life – after that it's hard to imagine anything surviving the way that he was living.
In terms of instruments, we have a great upright piano that John Lennon kept in his home in Kenwood and used to compose a lot of the songs on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, including "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." This is the piano he started writing it on when his son came home with a drawing of a girl in the sky with diamonds, a classmate, that inspired him and he sat down and started writing it. This is a piano that he had in his home at least from 1966-1971. So if you can just think about all the things that Lennon would have sat down and started playing and working out on that piano, the mind really boggles. It was important enough to him that when he split up with his first wife and sold that home, he moved it with him into the new house that he was moving into with Yoko Ono. He took that piano with him.
What makes a rock item collectible and valuable?
The true rarities are the ones that come from the artists themselves where you can see the artist at work. When you can see someone scratch out a lyric or make a change, you really begin to see the song you're so familiar with take shape. That there was a process of creativity and composition that went on with the artist deciding what line to choose, what words to pick. If you go through the Velvet Underground manuscripts, you see very different lines than we're used to hearing on a record. The same thing with Bob Dylan's manuscript for "This Wheel's on Fire." It's a very different song when you're looking at it but then when you look at his edits you begin to see, "Oh, yeah, this is what I have on my album."
Is there a holy grail item from rock that you would like to acquire for auction?
There's always the dream of a Jimi Hendrix guitar. That's something that for anyone that's a rock fan having a guitar that he played, and really played, not one that he signed or played for one song, but something that's a significant Hendrix guitar would always be a holy grail for me. The Beatles are always in high demand, the Rolling Stones are always in high demand. There's less Rolling Stones material out there, it seems, certainly less manuscript material. There are more Beatles manuscripts floating on the surface.
Looking into the future, the memorabilia of what rock stars will be valuable?
It's hard to imagine any band being as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in terms of the fan base, in terms of people wanting to collect the material. But there is a lot more collecting interest in the punk bands, one reason being that it was probably the biggest youth movement after the '60s youth movement. The stuff is so ephemeral. So much of it was thrown away. There are a lot of Madonna collectors out there and Lady Gaga collectors but when you think about the people that really resonate – how many people have covered their songs and how many people know their songs? Someone like Bob Dylan, it's the test of the strength of his catalog that there are endless cover versions of his songs. There are endless cover versions of "Yesterday" by the Beatles. Every bar band covers Stones songs. You have to have a catalog worthy of being covered by other people. I don't know if Madonna or Lady Gaga are quite there yet.
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