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From Johnny Ramone to Bob Dylan: The cost of rock memorabilia

Part and parcel of pop culture is the iconography that goes along with it. In fact, one of the most defining features of art since the dawn of popular music is the absorbing world that goes along with it. Music isn’t just about melodies as it has been for millennia gone by; it’s now a celebration of the full artistic gestalt on offer. 

Thus, it stands to reason that fans are eager to get their hands on a piece of history to call their own. With records so easy to come by, the best physical token of the past is something that your hero has handled, their metaphorical paintbrush, so to speak. Naturally, these investments set you back a pretty penny, but just how much exactly?

Below we’re looking at some of the most eye-watering music memorabilia purchases in history and the stories they hold, from Bob Dylan’s vilified first electric guitar to Johnny Ramone’s punk pioneering trusty axe. 

The cost of rock memorabilia:

Bob Dylan’s electric ‘Judas’ guitar – $965,000

The beatnik crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival sat patiently under the boon of the summer sun. They eagerly awaited the arrival of Bob Dylan like pilgrims in a promised land confident that a six-stringed miracle was handily scheduled in for their adoring eyes to behold. Bob Dylan was the messiah of folk music, and even Joan Baez was announcing him as such, but in one swooping electric middle finger, Dylan went from Jesus to Judas to the backbeat of a fuzz pedalled hum. 

After the show at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan boarded a light aircraft flown by Victor Quinto, who used to shepherd folk acts to and from the festival in the 1960s. When Dylan disembarked from the Quinto’s plane, he erroneously left the Strat behind. Quinto spotted that Dylan had left his guitar and took it home with him that evening to ensure that it wasn’t stolen when another pilot got behind the joystick. When at home, Quinto contacted Dylan’s management to make them aware of the mix-up, and they replied that somebody would stop by to pick it up. 

Years went by, and the guitar was forgotten about. Finally, it was rediscovered, and when rumours circulated that it was Dylan’s infamous Judas guitar, the Quinto relatives were prompted to reach out to a PBS television show called History Detectives. The show made contact with a guitar gear expert, Andy Babiuk, and asked him to cast his expert eye over the Strat. He concluded he was 99.9% certain that Strat he examined was the very same one that Dylan played when he made the seismic shift to sonic modernity.

It was later put up for auction, and one anonymous buyer was so convinced by Babiuk’s assessment that he purchased the guitar for $965,000, making it the most expensive guitar ever auctioned at the time. Included with the guitar was the original case, handwritten lyrics, drawings and photographs.

Johnny Ramone’s Mosrite guitar – $500,000?

Just like fellow New York band The Velvet Underground, The Ramones’ debut album was initially met with pitiful chart success but now resides as an LP that you couldn’t imagine the evolution of music without. The album might have only shifted around 5,000 copies in its first year, but since then it’s made one hell of an impact and turned the Ramones into legends with their punk pioneering ways. Everything about their debut record is now iconic and certainly lost… or at least until now…

The cover image, taken by punk’s foremost photographer Roberta Bayley for only $125 and the trashy sound recorded in seven days on a meagre budget of $6,400, represents a steal for an album that changed the world. Getting your hands on a piece of that pie, however, proves rather more costly.

As the current auction lot states regarding Johnny Ramone’s guitar: A 1965 Mosrite Ventures II electric guitar personally-owned and used by Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) for nearly two decades… with the back of the guitar signed in black felt tip, “Johnny Ramone, My Main Guitar, 1977-1996.” Cummings played this guitar at every Ramones performance until his retirement: from November 1977 through August 1996, for a total of approximately 1,985 shows. Additionally, this guitar was used by Cummings for the recording of all 15 Ramones albums (studio and live) from this time period.” 

All in all, it’s a pretty seminal guitar and it has all the prangs, scratches and cigarette burns to prove the measure of its influence. So, just how much is it expected to fetch at auction? Well currently, the bidding stands at $275,000. Bidding is set to conclude on the 26th of August, and many suspect that it will fetch the estimated $500,000 by the close of the sale.

John Lennon’s Steinway Piano – $2,100,000

Earlier this month, John Lennon’s iconic Imagine album turned 50. Since its release on September 9th, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s paean for peace with ‘Imagine’ has become the sort of track that transcends the clutches of culture, grabs the lapels of society at large and gives it a rattle.

Tied up in its transcendent ways is the angelic white video that went along with it. The image of Lennon behind that pristine Steinway is etched indelibly on the sensibilities of society at large. As Yoko Ono Lennon has announced: “John and I were both artists and we were living together, so we inspired each other. The song ‘Imagine’ embodied what we believed together at the time.”

With such a seismic presence in pop culture, it is no surprise that the piano fetched such a hefty fee. However, the story of the auction is ironically a moment of cultural history in itself, because it was snapped up by none other than George Michael. 

Apparently, the Wham! star outbid the Gallagher brothers and Robbie Williams at the auction in 2000 at the Hard Rock Café in London in a beautifully juxtaposed, almost satirical affair. George Michael paid £1.45m for the piano and announced, “It’s not the type of thing that should be in storage somewhere or being protected, it should be seen by people.” Thus, he toured the piano around the world “as a symbol of peace”, and used it during the recording of his song ‘Patience’ in 2004.

Jimi Hendrix Woodstock Start – $2,000,000

Few concerts in history continually pop up in the discourse of culture quite as frequently as Woodstock. It was the actualised zenith of the counterculture movement that not only featured Jimi Hendrix at his spellbinding best on the bill; it also saw an ensemble of other performers from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Joan Baez and The Who. They all came together in a wonderful kaleidoscopic encapsulation of a moment in time, “with a cast of half a million outrageously friendly people” in attendance. 

However, as Joni Mitchell would later say, it was a naïve high that led to a postlapsarian comedown. “There were so many sinking, but I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”

The crown in the moment of this musical piece of history was Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitarist of all time, belting home some anthems. Little did he know, he was holding a couple of million dollars in his hands in the process. Eventually, in an auction, the 1968 Fender Strat was bought by Paul Allen who paid $2 million for it to be placed at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Jimi Hendrix’s hometown.

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