By Paul Kennedy
In the spring of 2013, Heritage Auctions sold a copy of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the culturally mind-blowing album from 1967. The album’s center spread was autographed by band members in big, bold signatures. It was modern-day Beatlemania in action.
The signed album sold for $290,500.
Noah Fleisher was shocked. He could see the future and it was most definitely his past.
A lifelong Beatles fan, Fleisher, then public relations director for Heritage, was experiencing firsthand a new wave of Beatlemania taking the music and entertainment memorabilia world by storm. Check that. Nearly $300,000 for an autographed album? This storm was more like a tsunami.
More amazing auction results followed. John Lennon’s lost Gibson guitar sold for $2.4 million; the drum head on Ringo Starr’s drum kit for The Beatles’ 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show sold for more than $2 million; and the first record cut for The Beatles, a 10-inch 78 acetate from 1963, sold for $110,000.
“The moment that signed album sold,” Fleisher says, “I knew the collecting world had changed.”
Welcome to The Golden Age of Beatles collectibles, and Beatlemania
In his new book, The Beatles: Fab Finds of The Fab Four, Fleisher explores a veritable treasure trove of rock relics telling anew the story of The Beatles. I worked with Fleisher on the book and was equally amazed by the skyrocketing value of all things associated with The Beatles. We sat down recently to discuss his book, the market and the transcendence of a band.
Paul Kennedy: The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and Beatlemania was born.
Here we are more than 50 years later and The Beatles music, as well as their brand, remains dominant in a highly disposable pop culture world. What gives?
Noah Fleisher: Amazing, isn’t it? I think, as with anything that pertains to this band, it always comes back to the music – they were just that good. Everything that has come since has been in imitation of the Beatles. How many times throughout your life has some band or other been hailed as “the next Beatles” or some new release been touted as “the most important debut since the Beatles?” Countless. Yet how many of them make it past a few years?
The Beatles brand is almost equally as impressive as the music – almost. The music was the doorway and the merchandising was the fix. We’re all so fascinated by how they did what they did that we got personally involved with their stories and their images. How do you feel close to your idols? To people that you love with all your heart and soul but to whom you have almost no chance of ever meeting? You buy the stuff. The surviving band members, the families of John and George and Apple Music have all also been very careful and litigious about the brand, which they have controlled where and when it showed up and who gets to use it. This has ensured that the image stays evergreen. The music, well, it needs no help to remain so. It’s just simply still the very best rock ’n’ roll music ever created.
PK: The Beatles emergence was a perfect storm of talent and timing. That story has been told in countless ways. What’s to be learned by reading the Beatles story through their memorabilia and marketing?
NF: The memorabilia and marketing, as I hope the book shows, mirrors the Beatles’ career as a band – and individually – to a tee. The early part of their fame can be documented by massive amounts of material that was released with their names and images on it, much of which they didn’t control. The middle period, when they stopped touring, and the end, saw a good bit less of the trinket type pop culture material. Their image was more mature and the market in memorabilia matured the same way, focusing on autographs, records and more personal material. The end of the band saw very little material, and you can see in the book it’s much more scarce from the final period of the band’s time together and more valuable for that scarcity.
PK: Your book, which has more than 600 images, has been described as a “modern-day archeological dig.” What it’s like to sift through more than five decades of Beatles memorabilia?
NF: Amazing, inspiring, and an incredible amount of fun. If I could spend every day of my life as fully ensconced in the Beatles music and merchandise as I did when I was writing this book then I would die a very happy and fulfilled man. In case you can’t guess, I absolutely love the Beatles.
PK: What delighted you most in your research?
NF: It was really feeling like I got to know the band all over again, in many different ways, from the beginning of its remarkable career. There is so much rich material here, provided by the generous and brilliant contributors to the book, that I was able once again to feel like I was learning the history from the ground up. I was also delighted by the amazing amount of new material that has shown up in recent years. Both Heritage Auctions and Julien’s Auctions, the major contributors of photos, have brought to light so much amazing material it’s astounding. From the Uwe Blaschke Collection at Heritage to the Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach Collection at Julien’s, these were all groundbreaking in terms of what they offered. I think readers of the book will be equally delighted by the quality and variety of material.
PK: There are some truly incredible pieces of Beatles history here – from John Lennon’s lost Gibson J-160E guitar to the most expensive record in the world (the first pressing of the UK mono copy of the double LP, The Beatles, aka ‘White Album’ owned by Ringo Starr which sold at auction for $790,000). It’s difficult to wrap my head around all of this, yet there’s the feeling that these values being realized today will be surpassed. Is that your impression?
NF: That is indeed my impression and a very good insight on your part. In all my time in the business — working in it, writing about it and observing the trends — there are very few evergreen names when it comes to entertainment, but the Beatles are one of the two names that come immediately to mind. The other is Marilyn Monroe.
With this band it all comes back to the music. They are working now on their fifth successive generation and the music sounds as fresh, innovative and inspiring as it ever has. As long as the tunes these men wrote and recorded together continue to sound so damn good, I cannot imagine that the attendant memorabilia won’t continue to bring a premium. The $2.4 million paid for John’s Gibson J-160E is going to look like a bargain in 20 years.
PK: You note in the book that the world of Beatles memorabilia changed when Ringo Starr sold his collection at auction in late 2015. Why do you consider that auction, which featured the iconic Beatles drum head from their first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a game changer?
NF: Because it is the first time that a Beatle, an actual member of the band, opened his doors to the
fans. It provided a priceless glimpse not only into what he had but also to his entire career. He and his wife also donated all the proceeds to charity – 100%. It was an incredible, selfless move on his part and fans and collectors alike responded with incredible enthusiasm. The result is that a ton of great stuff, with impeccable, unimpeachable provenance found its way onto the market. We can only hope that, one day, Paul and the families of John and George, decide to do the same thing.
PK: A great deal of Beatles-related memorabilia has come to market, yet arguably the most prized item, Paul McCartney’s original Hofner bass, is still out there presumably in his possession. Can you take a guess of the value of the instrument when it comes to market?
NF: I really shouldn’t, because it will likely never happen, but I’d have to say —conservatively — $5+ million.
PK: If you had unlimited resources, what item that you came across would you want for your own?
NF: There are so many things that I would want in that book, across all the periods, that it’s an impossible question to answer fully. Off the top of my head: the Buck Owens guitar gifted to Ringo by Buck himself – I’m a huge fan of the Bakersfield sound and I absolutely love Buck, just as I love so much old school Americana music. I also was enamored of George’s original lyrics to “Isn’t It a Pity,” one of my most favorite songs in the world, and certainly one of George’s greatest works, even done post-Beatles. Who am I kidding, though? I’d really take John’s Gibson J-160E or Ringo’s White Album #1. Who wouldn’t?
PK: There is sweetness, a real sense of innocence, in much of the early career items showcased in the book, isn’t there. The 1960 Ringo postcard to his grandmother signed “Richy” comes to mind. It’s a simple yet beautiful moment in time captured on a postcard.
NF: You have touched on one of the key things that makes both the memorabilia and the music so attractive. We know these boys. They were like all of us when they were young: hungry, talented and driven, yet at the same time they were keeping in touch with Grandma. It’s hard to resist falling in love with this sort of thing because it’s so relatable. That’s one of the things I loved most about doing this book, and what I’ve always loved about The Beatles. No matter how famous, brilliant or controversial, I have always felt like I could relate to them musically and personally. As I say in the book, were I to ever have had the chance to get to know any of the boys, I am sure we would have been good friends. I am sure of it, as I know so many others are.