Cash, Beatles Sell Big

Classic artifacts heat up memorabilia market

By |

Johnny and June Carter Cash hoarded family heirlooms and kitschy knickknacks for decades -- their Tennessee rooms were famously filled with antique pocket watches, honorary police badges, a photo of themselves with President Bush, a signed letter from Elizabeth Taylor and, of course, guitars. But after the Cashes died, their heirs couldn't afford to keep it all, so they sold hundreds of items for almost $4 million during a Sotheby's auction in New York last month.

The Cash auction was the second major treasure trove of the year -- after Eric Clapton's $7.4 million charity auction of "Blackie" as well as other guitars and items in June. Thanks to the Internet, prices have soared to unprecedented heights -- the online auction house Itsonlyrocknroll.com sold a poster of the Beatles at Shea Stadium, which a fan tore from a telephone pole in 1966, for $69,000 in late June.

The buyers in the Cash auction included veteran collectors, who since the mid-Eighties have transformed the rock-memorabilia market into a multimillion-dollar business, as well as people such as Sharon Graves of Grand Island, Nebraska, whose late husband, Terry, was an early member of the Man in Black's fan club. "I wanted to do something special, in my husband's memory," says Graves, who bought Cash's late-Sixties Grammer acoustic guitar with a $110,000 bid.

For the Cash family, the auction was bittersweet. After June died in 2003, Johnny contacted Sotheby's, leaving his children to continue the auction process last year. "After his passing away, it became a necessity to the family because of estate taxes," says son John Carter Cash, who attended the auction and estimates the family sold a little more than a third of his parents' personal items. "It was hard. I found myself wanting to bid on things."

High-end buyers include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the Hard Rock Cafe and Guitar Center chains. The heavyweights in the market have driven prices up: a Keith Moon drum set went for $216,000 at Christie's in London late last month. "Beauty's in the eye of the beholder with this stuff," says Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a lifelong collector who owns a 1974 tour jumpsuit signed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. "I've paid a lot of stupid money for a lot of stupid things."