I regularly receive emails from Wolfgang’s Vault, promoting the latest items that it wants me to purchase. Wolfgang’s, if you’re not familiar with it, is the archival trove and then some of concert promoter Wolfgang Grajonca, better known as Bill Graham, he of the Fillmore fame. It is a vast compendium of photos, vinyl, books, merch, and posters from the venues (e.g., The Filmore, Winterland, Avalon Ballroom) at which Graham staged what can now only be considered legendary shows, even though back in the ‘60s they were considered, well, shows.
The posters are the most wonderful objects. Graphic artists including Wes Wilson, Lee Conklin and Rick Griffin created a visual vocabulary on the posters they designed. In addition to the full-size posters, these works of art—yes, commercial art, but be that as it may, they were artists, not just layout jockeys—were printed as 5 x 7-inch postcards, which increased the opportunity for ownership.
In addition to the wildly imaginative lettering and graphics that these objects embody, there is another fascinating aspect to them, which are the performers they promote. As the setting was San Francisco, it is not at all surprising that The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane loom large. Often, the two bands were on the same bill.
But what is in some ways more interesting than the art is the selection of performers on a given night. The Who and Cannonball Adderly. Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Led Zeppelin and Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity (in my humble estimation one of the best groups of the last half of the 20th century that never got its due). The Yardbirds and The Doors. Pink Floyd and Procol Harum. These and many other shows are the stuff that audio dreams are made of, the sorts of events that give rise to “If only. . . .”
As I grew up in Detroit, there was the Grande Ballroom and similar handbills created, many penned by Gary Grimshaw, many including the MC5, which was something of the house band but one that would often get top billing, except in cases like playing second to Cream and Jefferson Airplane. Again, shows that only the imagination can capture.
This paean to the posters and performers described on them came to mind when I received an email (I’ve got to do something about the amount of email I get) alerting me to “The Rock & Roll Pop Culture Auction Summer 2022” organized by Gotta Have Rock and Roll and held between August 3-19.
Among the items on offer:
- “John Lennon Owned and Worn Windsor Reading Glasses”
- “The Beatles Paul McCartney Signed Acoustic Guitar RWAL”
- “George Harrison Owned and Played Tambourine”
- “Extremely Rare Beatles Pete Best Owned 1964 U.S. & Canada Concert Tour Itinerary”
- “Phil Spector Signed Letter to Beatles Road Manager Mal Evans”
- “The Who Zak Starkey’s 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony Zildjian Custom-Made Cymbals.”
- Keith Moon Stage Used Drumsticks October 9, 1971 Surrey University Gig
These—just randomly selected from among what are many more—all happen to have estimates in the thousands. The Moon sticks, for example, have a minimum bid of $4,000 and an estimate of $7,500 to $10,000. (As this is being written, more than halfway through the auction, there are no bids.)
Here’s the thing: What does someone do if they buy any of those things? Wear Lennon’s glasses? Hit Zak’s cymbals with Keith’s sticks? What do you do with an itinerary or a letter?
Arguably, any and all of those things would be placed in a vitrine or otherwise behind glass. But are they intrinsically, visually interesting in and of themselves?
That is a guitar. That is a tambourine.
Certainly the ownership and use of those objects by famous people make them more valuable because those objects are related to those people. Since many of those people are dead, there will be no more of those things owned by them (their estates are another matter, but we’ll skip that path). Phil Spector isn’t writing any more letters to anyone. The song is over for Moon.
There was only one 2012 London Olympics so while Zak Starkey can or does own dozens of Zildjian cymbals, there will not be another set like that. McCartney, however, undoubtedly owns warehouses full of instruments, to perhaps that particular guitar doesn’t have the same what as the other objects. At some point, those instruments are going to be released. Will even a kazoo from the collection be somehow intrinsically more valuable than one that is on a shelf in someone’s basement right now even if the one in the McCartney collection never had his lips on it?
The real question is what is the what that causes the difference? What makes any of those things valuable? Arguably it all comes down to the original ownership of the object: would the itinerary be anything more than a, perhaps, interesting document were it not that it is associated with the guy who was fired from the Beatles before they were on that tour? Does the bathos make it somehow more valuable?
But where does the value come from?
Let’s say there was a 50 pence coin found in John Entwistle’s pocket after he died. It is precisely like millions of other 50 p coins produced by the Royal Mint. But it is verified that the Ox had it in his pocket. He owned it. Would that coin be more valuable than the coin that someone is receiving in change at this very moment at a Tesco? Or would it be 50 p?
Certainly I understand that people collect things that are special to them in some way. All of those auctioned objects are one of a kind.
But I think about the Fillmore posters that have gone through many printings. And it seems to me that what can be readily seen on the surfaces of those posters, the art, has a visual interest and value that transcends its material existence.
In 1919 Marcel Duchamp created a work of art titled 50 cc of Paris Air. It is a glass ampoule he picked up at a pharmacy that was filled with air from the place Duchamp was living at the time.
In 1949 the ampoule was broken. The air escaped. The ampoule was fixed and Duchamp presented what he termed a replica to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is a valuable part of the Duchamp collection.
Is there Paris air in there? Does it matter?
Is it the who rather than the what that gives any of these things the extra value?