It’s no wonder the 1961 Fender Precision Bass guitar was looking a little worn around the edges when it went up for auction online last weekend in California. It had once belonged to the legendary bassist James Jamerson, session musician to The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder, among others. In fact, so prolific was Jamerson that he is thought to have played on 95% of Tamla Motown recordings. Marvin Gaye wouldn’t settle for anyone else. But when recording What’s Going On in 1971, nobody knew where Jamerson was. Gaye scoured the bars for Jamerson, eventually finding and bringing him back to the recording studio. It’s said that Jamerson laid down the track’s famous bass line while lying on the floor.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Jamerson lent the 1961 Fender to fellow musician Billy Hayes, and never asked for it back. It was the most expensive item at Heritage Auction’s two-day sale, raising $68,750, inclusive of the buyer’s fee. Other lots included the cardboard cut-out of Tony Curtis (later signed by the actor), used for the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50 years ago. There was also a mint-condition “first state” copy of The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today album from 1966, only released in America and bearing the infamous “Butcher” cover, depicting the Fab Four in white butchers’ coats sat smiling among dismembered dolls and hunks of meat. Both fetched $57,500.
In total, the sale made $1,241,218, which just goes to show that there is serious money to be made in holding on to entertainment memorabilia. According to specialist auctioneers Julien’s, the first auction of this type was held in 1970, when MGM Studios was having a clear out of its props and costumes that included a pair of the iconic ruby red shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Back then, the shoes sold for $15,000. Last October, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History raised $300,000 just to have a pair restored.
Where possible when buying or selling, obtain a certificate or letter of authenticity, or clear photograph, tying the item to the celebrity. And always watch out for fakes. As with all quirky investments, it pays to do your homework, but buying from a reputable auction house helps. On 28 June, Bonhams in London is holding a sale of entertainment memorabilia, including the green suede jacket worn by original Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, estimated to fetch between £15,000 and £20,000. And at the end of September, Audrey Hepburn’s belongings will be going under the hammer at Christie’s London offices.
The King dethroned
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, would no doubt have been left “all shook up” on finding out that no one is buying his memorabilia. But it’s true, says Oobah Butler in The Guardian. There was once a time when “prices of the King’s records rose to astronomical levels”. But in December 2015, a “one of a kind” acetate recording of Suspicion (1964) fetched only £6,500. It had been expected to make almost twice that. As for Elvis records that would have made £15 to £20 each during the 1980s, nowadays “you can hardly give them away”.
So, what’s going on? “It’s depressingly apt that John Duffie, the first collector I wanted to ask that question to, [had] passed away,” says Butler. The Elvis Shop London, meanwhile, has had to close its doors for want of custom. The hard truth, as Butler explains, is that the King’s original fanbase is now in its 70s and 80s and dwindling. As attics and garages are cleared, Elvis memorabilia has flooded the market, driving down prices for those still collecting.
Perhaps the clearest sign that the market has stalled came in May when Presley’s 1962 red Lockheed JetStar private jet, with red velvet seats, fetched just $430,000 at auction. It had been sitting on the tarmac in New Mexico for 35 years and was missing an engine. But the sellers had hoped the jet would make $3.5m.
The first map of Disneyland from 1953 is expected to make between $700,000 and $900,000 at Van Eaton Galleries in California on Sunday. Walt Disney had artist Herb Ryman hand-draw the large plan in a single weekend in order to convince investors to put their money behind the theme park. Featuring the now-famous Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the theme park opened two years later. Other items in the sale include an original car ride from the Autopia attraction, valued at between $18,000 and $20,000, and an opening-day guidebook, signed by Disney, at $7,000 to $9,000.
Two years ago, a similar sale of items at the same auction house in Sherman Oaks made $1.7m in total. Among the lots, which all came from a single seller, was a skeleton prop and concept art by Marc Davis, both for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, raising $129,800 and $70,800. But the most expensive item was an animatronic Tiki Bird, which sold for $153,400.