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The strange world of music memorabilia

I recently did some spring cleaning in the home office which involved asking if everything on my shelves of music memorabilia still sparked joy. A set of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy beer steins purchased at The Ramones Museum in Berlin? Gotta keep those. An Oasis-branded Frustration board game? Still appreciating on eBay. A box of Rush PopTarts? I have no idea where those came from, but I’m keeping them.

This went on for a while. A Kurt Cobain Unplugged action figure. A matryoshka doll featuring the members of U2 purchased at some flea market stall in Moscow. An Abbey Road coffee mug that I might have accidentally put in my pocket. A Kirk Hammett Funko doll still in the package.

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In the end, nothing got thrown out. How could I part with these unusual physical connections to music? My pack-rattery could be so much worse and far more damaging to the bank account, not to mention my marriage.

My own collection is nothing compared to that of others, like Vern Simon of Maple Lake, Minn., who is on a mission to be recognized as having the world’s largest collection of KISS memorabilia.

Case in point: Any rock’n’roll memorabilia auction conducted by Juliens, Sotheby’s, or any of the other big auction houses. Such giant estate sales have become big business over the last decade with people picking over the mortal remains of some very notable musicians. Some of these sales, like the one for David Gilmour’s guitars a few years back, even see the artifacts going on a world tour with weeks-long exhibits in major cities to show everyone what they could have for the right price.

The biggest auction on the horizon involves the personal possessions of Freddie Mercury. When he died, he left virtually everything to his long-time companion, Mary Austin. After more than 30 years of caring for these items, she’s handed everything over to Sotheby’s which will put everything under the hammer this fall. All the usual items are there: guitars, handwritten lyrics, stage costumes. The more interesting bits can be further into the auction catalogue. An old-fashioned Bakelite rotary dial phone, still in working condition. A custom silk waistcoat featuring the images of five of Freddie’s beloved cats. A silver mustache brush from Tiffany’s. You can browse now, but no buying until an exhibition of items has run in New York, LA, Hong Kong, and London. Hey, at least they’re free.

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Why would anyone want to sell such irreplaceable objects? To top up the retirement fund of the estate. Maybe to raise money for charity or other philanthropic endeavours. Or it could be that the estate just needs the money.

Years ago, I was invited to the New York penthouse apartment of Diana and Allan Meltzer, the founders of Wind-Up Records, home to bands like Evanescence, Creed, and Finger Eleven. Near the kitchen were what looked like John Lennon doodles.

“Are these real?” I asked Allan. “Sure are. When we were living in Connecticut, [KISS guitarist] Ace Frehley needed some money so he sold off some of his stuff. I wandered over to his place and picked up these original John Lennon drawings.”

“You bought some original Lennon sketches at Ace Frehley’s garage sale?”

“Yep. Beautiful, aren’t they?” They sure were. I have no idea what he paid for them but they couldn’t have come cheap.

Just about anything a star musician has touched can be sold for silly prices. Julien’s upcoming auction Music Icons auction features many personal effects of Amy Winehouse. Amongst all the dresses, shoes, tour costumes, bras, and bikinis, deep-pocketed fans might spring for a bottle of Amy’s organic bath oil (three-quarters full), a tube of her favourite Mac eyeliner (used), and some very red Mac lipstick (also used.)

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The same auction, which starts on Friday (May 21), will offer more than 1,200 items once owned by Nirvana, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Bob Dylan, and more. Here’s a preview.

Not everything is sold through an auction house. Just last week, a hardcore Taylor Swift fan noticed that a pair of Tay-Tay’s used dried-up contacts were for sale on a site called Depop. Before the listing was deleted, these contacts carried a price of US$10,000. It was all a hoax, but before the seller came clean, Swifties were lining up to buy them.

Selling jars of air has been a thing. Back in 2015, a fan tried to sell a Ziploc baggy containing nothing but air captured at one of Kanye West’s live shows. The starting price quickly went from US$5 to US$65,000. I’m guessing — hoping — that the 90-ish bidders for the baggy were in it ironically and not hoping to actually buy it.

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When Moby started making significant money by licensing his music for TV, movies, and commercials, an eBayer offered up a glass jar that he claimed held Moby’s soul, which had been lost because of his preponderance to sell out. (Everyone is now doing the very same thing. Moby was just 25 years ahead of his time.) I have no idea if that seller found a buyer.

Props to a Liam Gallagher fan named David Watson. When Our Kid played a massive outdoor show at Knebworth in 2022, Watson bent over and plucked a piece of grass from the field. He placed it safely in his shorts and when he got home posted it on eBay. The price quickly went up to £65,000 (almost $110,000 CAD). Again, I’m not sure of the outcome, but I do know that Watson planned to use any proceeds to buy a bouncy castle business.

Everything you just read in the previous paragraph is true.

The weirdest of all music memorabilia collectibles involves actual body parts. Dr. Michael Zuk, a dentist from Red Deer, Alta., bought a diseased tooth that once resided in the mouth of John Lennon for $30,000. He purchased “the yellowy, browny” cavity-ridden molar from Lennon’s housekeeper in 2011. After keeping it at the office for a couple of years (next to a dental crown made for Elvis Presley), he tried to flip it in 2014, saying that this was an opportunity to own John Lennon’s DNA. When that didn’t work, he planned to use that DNA to help anyone who claims to be related to Lennon to prove their blood relationship and thus stake a claim in Lennon’s net worth.

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Not gross enough for you? Joni Mabe of Athens, Ga., has the remains of a wart removed from Elvis’ right wrist just before he ended the army in 1958. It paired nicely with the toenail clipping she found while crawling around on her hands and knees in the Jungle Room at Graceland. Without proper analysis, she can’t prove that the nail fragment was one attached to Elvis. But who else would be clipping their names in the Jungle Room? Mabe is hedging her bets, calling this the “Maybe Elvis Toenail.”

We’ll end with this that I posted in 2015.

This seems like a good place to stop.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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