The Enduring Appeal of John Lennon
John Lennon would have celebrated his 72nd birthday on the 9th of October. Best known as one of the founding members of the international sensation pop group The Beatles, Lennon’s legacy runs strong and deep throughout the world, even three decades on from his tragic death.**The Beatles revolutionised the world of popular music, and won a following of avid and loyal fans over several decades greater than any seen before. The band’s influence cannot be overstated. Lennon himself, during his time with the band and following their split in 1970, became an immensely significant public figure, fashionably, creatively, and as a figurehead of political activism.
In keeping with the vast impact that Lennon’s career and persona had on the world, his short life produced an impressive scope of collectible items. From music memorabilia, relating to both the Beatles and his solo career, to personal items, literature, art, politics, and some more unusual pieces, collectors are spoiled by a plethora of Lennon related collectibles.
His prolific creative output, influence on billions worldwide, and tragic early death have married to make Lennon memorabilia a hotbed of collecting and investment interest.
Collecting John Lennon
Top-end investors in Lennon memorabilia will typically tend to focus on his autograph, either on its own or on a record, photograph, or piece of gig ephemera. According to the PFC40 Autograph Index, in 2012 Lennon’s autograph reached a value of £6,500, becoming one of the top 10 most valuable autographs in the world. The copy of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s 1980 album Double Fantasy, autographed for Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman five hours before he shot him, sold for $150,000 at auction in 1999 and has been valued by some experts at more than $800,000.
However, the top auction prices for John Lennon consistently see personal items reach the highest bids. This suggests that even top end investors of John Lennon are collectors at heart, with an interest in the star that extends beyond monetary value.
The most expensive item of Lennon memorabilia to sell at auction to date is his psychedelic Rolls Royce Phantom V, sold at auction almost three decades ago for an incredible $2.29 million – a vast sum in 1985. Lennon had bought the car in 1965 and made it his own, painting it with a psychedelic colour scheme, adding a Sterno Radio Telephone with its own number, converting the back seat into a double bed, and installing a sound system, television and fridge.
‘Before they were famous’ items often attract a lot of interest from music memorabilia collectors, charmed by the notion of an item that represents the making of the icon, before they or the world had any idea of the effect they would one day have. Lennon’s 1952 schoolbook sold for £110,000 in 2006. These sales are often the result of unexpected discoveries in attics or charity shops. Lucky collectors may be able to dig out a few lost or as yet unknown items from around Liverpool!
More unusual personal items relating to Lennon have also fetched large amounts at auction. His porcelain toilet from his Berkshire home sold for £9,500 in August 2010, and his tooth sold for £19,500 in November 2011.
Handwritten song lyrics are seen again and again in the most expensive sales of Lennon memorabilia. This evidences the significant link between Lennon and his words. Lennon’s lyrics are considered ‘self-portraits’, speaking ‘to, for and about the human condition’, first presented to a generation of music listeners for whom this was novel and deeply affecting. Thus Lennon’s songs can be considered his most important legacy, and his handwritten lyrics possibly the most significant collectible items available.
The handwritten lyrics for Nowhere Man sold at auction for $455,500 in 2003. These are considered by many to be Lennon’s most important lyrics, as they instigated a revolution in the writing of pop songs, both by the Beatles and also their contemporaries. Nowhere Man was pivotal in encouraging a focus on more serious issues than the traditional love and heartbreak themes, such as alienation and loneliness, politics and society.
Instruments played by Lennon, especially those used in the composition of iconic songs, are a favourite of collectors. The piano he used to write Imagine on was bought by singer George Michael in 2000 for £1.45 million. His Yamaha organ fetched £140,000 in 2005, and his Hofner Senator guitar sold for £205,250 in 2009. Generally these items remain in the possession of celebrity friends or family, so they are very hard to come by for less wealthy or connected collectors.
Stage worn costumes, as well as interview worn costumes, also see high prices. The development of The Beatles can be tracked through changes in their dress and appearance, and of course they were also fashion trendsetters in this sense. The iconic jacket worn by Lennon in 1966’s Life Magazine photo shoot sold for $240,000 in 2010.
Books and Artwork
John Lennon was a prolific writer, not just of lyrics, but of poetry and prose. His nonsense literature is revered by some as high philosophy, though Lennon himself attested it was all written ‘for a laugh’. It is full of puns, near-homonyms, bizarre imagery, disconnected narrative threads and references, creative misspellings etc, making use of Lennon’s intelligent sense of free association and improvisation.
His first published work, In His Own Write (1964), is a collection of nonsense short stories and poems by Lennon, plus surreal line drawings. In England, the initial printing sold 50,000 copies in the first day in England, and 90,000 in America. First editions of this work (Simon & Schuster of New York and Jonathan Cape of Great Britain) can be hard to identify, but certain attributes – such as a red sticker reading ‘The writing Beatle!’ and a price marking of $2.50 on American copies. Autographed first editions sell for up to $2,000 at auction, those without autographs for up to a couple of hundred, or as little as $10 for first editions, later printings.
In His Own Write was followed by A Spaniard in the Works (1965), a similar collection. Other works and collections were published posthumously.
These books present a good start for a budding Lennon collector, as they command lower prices than other Lennon memorabilia. Their value is also sure to rise as first editions become scarcer and in higher demand, as interest in Lennon and his creative works shows no signs of diminishing.
Lennon was also a keen artist from a very young age. Original drawings or paintings, or even doodles are much sought after. A signed original watercolour sold for £70,000 in 2005.
Lennon’s legendary Bed-In for Peace with his wife Yoko Ono in 1969, a protest against the war in Vietnam staged on their honeymoon, saw Lennon doodling and writing constantly. An original drawing ‘Hair Peace’ dating from this event sold for $32,000 in 2006. Placards drawn by the couple, such as the L’Amour et La Paix placard sold for £73,250 in 2009, and the Bed Peace placard sold for £97,250 in 2011, are desirable items.
Lennon’s choice to take up a direct opposition to US President Nixon over the Vietnam War, to risk his career for what millions of young people across the world also believed about right and wrong, is another important reason for the respect he commanded from fans, and his everlasting appeal.