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This is the first edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with Altan Insights on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. Altan Insights provides data and quantitative analysis to help collectors and businesses navigate the emerging collectible asset markets.

The music hasn’t stopped in rock and roll memorabilia markets

In fact, you could argue we’re in the middle of a pretty epic guitar solo. It might not be the kind that makes Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar drop to their knees and shout “we’re not worthy!”, but there’s still music being made.

Back in early May, Sotheby’s conducted the massive $3.9 million sale of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar from the Hot For Teacher music video. Trophy asset sales are not at all uncommon across categories in 2023, so while this was a standout result, it didn’t necessarily say a lot about the rest of the music memorabilia market.

May’s large Music Icons event at Julien’s Auctions, though, provided a broader indicator. While headline numbers were down, a look beneath the surface suggests that despite missing a few notes, the market is still humming.

The event generated $4.9 million in total sales volume. That’s a far cry from 2022’s $13.7 million. The gap, though, isn’t as large as it seems at face value. For example, the 2022 event featured the $4.7 million Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt Cobain guitar, as well as a massive consignment of memorabilia from Rush’s Alex Lifeson (more than $3.5 million in sales).  Backing those out reduces the total to $5.4 million. There are episodic events and outliers in almost any auction, so completely discounting those unique sales is perhaps not appropriate, but it still hints at normalized sales totals that are holding up better than they seem in 2023.

Notably, the 2023 Music Icons total was up 6% over 2021’s tally of $4.6 million. There aren’t many collecting categories where that would be the case, given how red hot speculation was in the spring of 2021.

Some of the sales highlights from the event:

  • Nearly $1.7 million in guitar sales alone, led by Kurt Cobain’s smashed guitar from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” era. The guitar was estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $80,000, but ultimately fetched $596,900. 
  • $955k in John Lennon memorabilia sales, including $676k consigned directly from Julian Lennon. The lots included Beatles Gold Records, handwritten lyrics, sketches, instruments, animation cels and more.
  • $279k in Michael Jackson memorabilia, consisting primarily of stage-worn clothing.

What types of items comprise these music memorabilia sales? If you look at the top 100 sales, here’s the breakdown:

  • 31 awards or gold records
  • 31 instruments or pieces of musical equipment
  • 18 artist-worn or owned pieces of clothing or accessories
  • 6 handwritten lyrics, documents, or sketches
  • 2 original records
  • 2 concert or album posters
  • 10 miscellaneous items (how does one categorize John Lennon’s Honda Monkey Bike?!)

When we analyze some of the specific sales in greater depth, we get a better sense of how the market is evolving over time. While this event had a lot of fresh-to-market material, we can still find trends. Let’s take some repeat sales for example. These are items that have sold at Julien’s previously and returned to auction this past weekend.
  • Back in 2015, a pair of drumsticks custom-made for Ringo Starr and used by the legend sold for $3,250. Those sticks returned eight years later to a vastly higher price of $22,100 (against an estimate of $2,000 – $4,000).
  • From the OG teenage sensation (The Beatles) to a newer edition (One Direction), an acoustic guitar believed to be Niall Horan’s very first used in lessons last sold in 2015 for $6,875. It nearly doubled in value, reaching a $12,700 price at this weekend’s event.
  • Elvis Presley’s 14K gold Crucifix ring notched a price of $3,200 at last year’s event. Whether that sale was consummated or not is unclear, but the ring was up for grabs again this year, and this time the price was much steeper at $9,100.
    There are also data points that don’t reflect a precise repeat sale, but still give us a feel for price action.

    • Back in 2016, when Abbey Road Studio Two was under construction, 210 bricks were removed, cleaned, restored, and placed in a presentation box. Number 15/210 sold back in 2020 for $3,520. At the recent sale, number 16/210 was up for bidding, and with an estimate of $300-400, it sold for $11,700.
    • Olivia Newton John cleaned up at the American Music Awards in the mid 1970s. Back in 2019, the 1974 and 1975 awards for “Favorite Pop Female Vocalist” sold for $10,240 and $8,960 respectively. This weekend, the 1974 and 1975 awards for “Favorite Country Female Vocalist” sold for $13,000 and $15,875. 
    • An Eddie Van Halen signed and stage-played 2004 Charvel sold for $114,300. Stage-used and signed Charvels have more commonly occupied the $40-60k range in recent years, so it appears there was a post-Sotheby’s sale bump.
    Music memorabilia is not an emerging category, but it does seem it’s now beginning to enjoy a more proportionate share of interest and demand than it had in years past.

    You’ll notice, though, that – Niall excluded – much of the action is concentrated firmly in Boomer territory, with some movement across the border into Gen X.  If you look at the taop 100 sales, the music of all the artists featured remains quite popular for the most part. But, the popularity of only two individuals amongst the top 100 sales actually originated after the turn of the millennium: Niall Horan and Amy Winehouse. That’s it. 

    Or look at the various awards sold. Just two of them date to award shows that took place after the year 2000: VMAs for the Beastie Boys in 2005 and for Moby and Gwen Stefani in 2001. “Ch-check It Out” and “South Side” are great songs respectively, but you might not expect them to motivate younger bidders.

    The concentration in the music of older and middle-aged generations is of course logical given the stage of life those generations are in, but it will be incumbent upon auction houses and marketplaces to reach younger fans and consumers to forge more active markets for “active” artists.

    If and when they do, Niall’s first acoustic guitar might be heading in only One Direction: up.