Inside my Heart Shaped Box: Nirvana collectibles
Nirvana were a revolutionary force in the world of alternative rock, and were hailed as the voice of a generation. Kurt Cobain, the reluctant spokesperson for Generation X, was a classic victim of fame. His young suicide earned him the status of a martyr.
Cobain, his music, and his band Nirvana have become legendary, considered among the most influential artists of the 1990s, and a popular focal point for many music memorabilia collectors.
Nirvana was formed of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and later Dave Grohl, a group of listless teenagers from less than stable backgrounds, who started playing music together, never expecting that they would become one of the most famous and influential alternative rock bands of all time.
The group entered the mainstream with the single Smells Like Teen Spirit and the album Nevermind in 1991. They popularised grunge rock, and sparked a new movement in music.
In part due to Nevermind, alternative rock became a dominant genre, acknowledged as a viable type of music. This opened up a whole new audience that followed Nirvana’s ascent into the stratosphere.
Kurt Cobain’s lyrics in particular really hit a nerve. Whatever it was, his words and music struck a chord with a young generation. This led to Nirvana being hailed as the flagship band of Generation X, those teenagers and young people born after the post-World War II baby boom.
The band appealed to a new youth aware of politics and their power in society following the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Kurt in particular was vocal in his opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia, and vocally supported the pro-choice movement.
Kurt Cobain was anointed the spokesperson of Generation X, a responsibility he rejected. Cobain could not reconcile Nirvana’s success with his anti-commercial sentiment. He struggled with fame, as so many people propelled unexpectedly into the limelight have done, and resented the media attention.
The pressure he was under led to heavier and heavier drug use, and eventual suicide at the age of just 27 – although conspiracy theorists suggest that he was in fact murdered. This aura of intrigue adds to collectors’ interest in Nirvana and Cobain.
Types of collectibles
The most expensive items of Nirvana memorabilia are instruments used by Kurt Cobain. Kurt’s Mosrite Gospel Mark IV guitar, a rare instrument in itself even without his name associated with it, sold for $131,450 at auction in 2006. A Fender Mustang that he famously smashed on stage during Nirvana’s first US tour sold for $100,000 in a private sale in 2008. A microphone used by Kurt at a recording session in 1994 sold for $8,125 in 2009.
There are relatively few band-used instruments around, as the band had a short lifespan, and most are probably in the private hands of Courtney Love or friends of Nirvana’s members.
Personal items belonging to Kurt and other band members are a similar story. It is rare that they come into the public sphere, though not unheard of. In 2008, a watch worn almost constantly by Kurt Cobain, gifted to Babes in Toyland singer Kat Bjelland after his death, sold for $29,000.
Autographs and photographs
Nirvana autographs increase in value dependant on the significance of the item they were signed on. For example, an autograph on a photograph, instrument, a personal letter, concert ticket or record is worth more than one on a scrap of paper. The good news is that despite the band’s short existence, Kurt liked signing things. There are many items available with his autograph, and those of all the band members.
They are also currently relatively inexpensive. A signed document with the three signatures sold for $600 in 2006. A signed photograph of the three sold for $400 in 2007. A signed ticket stub for their concert in Leeds, England 1990 sold for just £60.
Photographs alone can sell for very little, $100 perhaps being the top end.
The value is likely to rise as they become more scarce, so the time really is ripe for collecting them. Of course, as with any autographs, there are numerous fakes floating around. Really know your stuff, and buy from a reputable dealer.
Rare examples of vinyl recordings are very sought after, such as test presses of albums, demos and live releases.
An example of this is the Pennyroyal Tea single. The finished product had just been shipped out to England and Europe when Kurt Cobain died. Because the B side of the single was a song entitled: ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, which seemed particularly poignant, the record company put the single’s release on hold and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Of course a few slipped through the net, and these became rare and sought after items of Nirvana memorabilia.
Concert memorabilia & merchandise
Memorabilia and merchandise from concerts, tours and promotion continues to be popular, not necessarily with collectors but fans in general. These items are good for collectors starting out or on a budget, as they are relatively inexpensive and widespread. Items include but are not limited to:
- Tour and promotional t-shirts, hats etc
- Promotional bags
- Signed promo CDs
- Backstage passes
Nirvana fans are now at the age when they are growing up, making money, and will start investing in their own brand of nostalgia – in this case, Nirvana memorabilia.
With the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death coming up next year, there could be a resurge in interest in Nirvana memorabilia – just as upon the 20th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, The Doors memorabilia experienced a renaissance.
These two facts combined make it a perfect time to get ahead of the crowd and start collecting Nirvana.
The mass-marketed items are very affordable at the moment, while one-of-a-kind items are already at an investment grade stage, such as the personal belongings and instruments of Kurt Cobain. The difference in value between a t-shirt with Kurt Cobain on the front, and a t-shirt that once had Kurt Cobain inside it, is enormous. These top class items are out of reach for most collectors, so the rule is generally, as always, collect what you like, and what you can afford.
As you have probably gathered, memorabilia related to Kurt Cobain is the most valuable and sought after by collectors, due to his young death and iconic status. However, Dave Grohl has forged a very successful music career for himself since Nirvana, in The Foo Fighters and other musical projects, and might be a good option to dabble with.
Another novel idea is to hang on to those old Nirvana cassette tapes. Cassettes are this generation’s version of nostalgia, and are likely to become collectors’ items in the future (if they haven’t already). Lots of people threw out their cassettes when it was possible to get CDs instead, so they will inevitably become more rare. They are unlikely to ever reach the status of vinyl records, however. With their large artwork and crackling authentic sound, records are things of beauty that cassettes could never hope to match.