Exclusive Photos Show How Sotheby's Is Selling Rock History To Wealthy Collectors

For the first time in over a decade, esteemed auction house Sotheby’s held a “Rock & Roll” themed sale, offering more than 100 historically significant items.

The auction, which took place this past Tuesday in New York, included Bob Dylan’s original handwritten notes for “Like A Rolling Stone,” John Lennon’s piano, Elvis Presley’s iconic peacock jumpsuit, and guitars from Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stone’s Ronnie Wood, and Kurt Cobain, many of which fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Out of the 139 items on auction, 96 sold for more than $US4 million in sales.

We headed to Sotheby’s New York headquarters to get a special inside look at the auction, seeing everything from preparations last week to the exhibition this past weekend to the actual auction on Tuesday.

In the days prior to every major auction, Sotheby's will run an exhibition so that prospective buyers can inspect the goods. When we showed up five days before the 'Rock & Roll History: Presley to Punk' auction, the Documents and Manuscripts team had just begun preparing the gallery.

They were still scraping off the lettering from the last show when we arrived.

The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, is like a museum gallery, except visitors can get much closer to the pieces.

A few Sotheby's crew members set up the space. While those in charge of the exhibition have a general idea of how things will be arranged, they continued to make last-minute adjustments even the day before.

It has been over ten years since Sotheby's ran a Rock & Roll auction. According to Richard Austin, the head of Books and Manuscripts, the impetus for this auction was a combination of collectors bringing interesting items to the company and the recent high-priced sale of manuscripts from '60s era musicians. Here, many of the items wait in dollies to be hung.

The auction is a 'testing of the waters' to gauge interest in the genre, says Austin. For that reason, the collection is diverse, with posters, manuscripts, clothing, instruments, and other materials. The one thing you won't find is standard memorabilia, such as autographed objects with no actual association to the artists.

Here's Elvis's iconic peacock jumpsuit, worn during performances in 1974, waiting to be hung up.

The exhibition included an entire room dedicated to Bob Dylan, including such items as his harmonica, photographs, posters, and his personal manuscripts.

This is Bob Dylan's harmonica, used on tour in 1988. It looks pretty worn. Sotheby's estimated that it would sell for between $US3,000 and $US4,000. It ended up going for $US4,688.

This 'homoerotic birthday card' is one of the most interesting pieces in the collection. John Lennon and Yoko Ono made this collage for Elton John's 28th birthday.

You can see John and Yoko's birthday message to Elton John. Sotheby's estimated that the card would fetch between $US20,000 and $US30,000, but it ended up not selling. Around 2/3 of the lots offered did not find buyers.

This is what the completed exhibition looked like on Friday. It was pretty quiet, but Sotheby's expected the crowd to heat up over the weekend. The exhibition ran from Friday to Monday, so that people could look at items up until the day before the auction.

Elvis's peacock jumpsuit looked ready to be worn. It ended up selling for $US245,000.

iPads were stationed around the gallery so that prospective buyers could look through the digital catalogue, view expected prices, and read more about each item.

One unique aspect of an auction preview is that any person who attends can touch the objects. Because every item at Sotheby's is sold 'as-is,' buyers need to get a close look at what they are purchasing. Prospective buyers are welcome to play this beat-up guitar from the Rolling Stones' Ronnie Wood, who used it at home, on tour, and in the studio from 1977 to 2013.

And anyone could play John Lennon's piano from New York's The Record Plant. While Lennon didn't own the piano, he used it every time he recorded at the Plant. It was also played by numerous other famous musicians of the era.

We got to handle Elvis Presley's personal bible. There were personal annotations and notes throughout. Here, Presley wrote out the famous verse, 'For what is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world, and lose himself or be cast away?'

Sotheby's estimated that the bible would sell for between $US8,000 and $US10,000. After a bidding war, it eventually sold for $US25,000.

The auction also included a lot of iconic outfits. On the far left is Michael Jackson's red military jacket from 1984, which sold for $US10,000. The center item is Sly Stone's fringed stage vest. It sold for $US17,500, more than double the expected price.

This Grammy award for June Carter and Johnny Cash's 1967 hit 'Jackson' was one of the few country items in the auction. It sold for $US37,500.

This Sex Pistols record is extremely rare. A few months after A&M Records signed the band, they were dropped due to a combination of bad behaviour and fear over reaction to their anti-monarchist single 'God Save The Queen,' which was to be released during Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee. Nearly every copy of the record was destroyed. This one sold for $US25,000.

According to Austin, one of the biggest changes in the market over the last decade has been a renewed interest in original manuscripts, like this one of Joni Mitchell's famous single 'Woodstock,' which she actually didn't attend. It sold for $US37,500.

Paul McCartney's original manuscript for 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' has numerous variations from the lyrics that ended up on the record. Sotheby's expected it to sell for between $US250,000 and $US300,000, but it ended up not selling.

Bob Dylan's handwritten notes for 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' sold for $US485,000.

We headed back to the auction house on Tuesday to check out the action.

We got there early, but there was already a small crowd filing in.

Sotheby's representatives sign in attendees and assigned them paddles, which is still the way to offer up a bid in the room. Those who planned to bid on the more expensive items had to demonstrate they had the assets before bidding.

On the day of the auction, buyers could get a last look at the highest priced items in the auction, including this Vox guitar organ prototype, made for John Lennon. It sold for $US305,000.

The auction room was divided by seating for bidders in the middle, the auctioneer and Sotheby's representatives in the back, and phone operators on either side.

The auction began promptly at 10:00 am, led by auctioneer Eli Rodriguez, who also specialises in wine.

The auctioneer began each lot by announcing any bids submitted prior to the start of the auction. This set the starting price. Unlike auctions in movies, every lot put up for auction had a secret 'reserve price.' Bidding begins below that price and if that price isn't reached, the item doesn't sell.

Once the bidding started, bids came in from everywhere. Many museums, galleries, and private collectors prefer to submit bids anonymously and remotely, because they believe that someone knowing they are involved in the bidding will drive up the price.

'One of the biggest changes over the last 10 years has been the rise of bids on the internet,' says Austin. Now, most of the bidding in an auction occurs outside the room via live bidding on Sotheby's website and through phone operators.

'At any given time, there could be 4 people competing online with a person on the phones, a person in the room, and person who has left a bid,' explains Austin. 'Bids come from everywhere.'

During the auction, Rodriguez spoke rapidly to relay to phone operators and people in the room where the bid was at. With so many bids coming from the internet, Rodriguez consulted a computer to stay up to date.

For most of the auction, the room was filled with just a handful of bidders. Most were ageing baby boomers looking to capture a slice of their youth, while the younger bidders were mostly emissaries bidding for buyers too rich to show in person. Sotheby's protects the anonymity of its buyers zealously, so we had to photograph from the back of the room.

Bidders could see the current price on screens situated around the room. Prices were listed in most major currencies.

This Sotheby's representative was on the phone with one bidder for most of the sale. The representative would tell the anonymous collector how many people were bidding on the item to help him determine if it was worth jumping into the fray. He bid on nearly every lot offered up.

When bidding slowed down and a price was reached, Rodriguez called for any last bids. If none came in, he slammed his hammer and the item was sold.

The highest priced item in the auction by far, Bob Dylan's handwritten notes for 'Like a Rolling Stone,' written on stationery from The Roger Smith Hotel in Washington D.C., sold for $US2.05 million. We didn't see the winner.

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