By Stephen M.H. Braitman
Apparently it was the first time Kiss had made the cover. “Emotionally, that magazine brings home more memories to me than anything else.” It was, as he said, “a life-changer.”
That change in life turned van Gool into a music collector, growing a personal collection into a significant leisure activity apart from his main gig in the globetrotting corporate world. When he and his wife Kelli became fed up with relentless travel and no home life, they seized on the opportunity to capitalize on their obsession with music memorabilia. Jacques and Kelli now run Backstage Auctions in Houston, focusing on collectibles personally owned by artists, managers, producers and promoters.
We wanted to hear from van Gool as someone totally immersed in the world of music memorabilia for a perspective many collectors simply can’t have. Like other professionals in his field, he has a view that is helpful on many levels to understand the dynamics of the market. Like, what the heck is happening now? And should I buy everything in sight?
Jacques van Gool: Honestly, I try not to define it. To me, memorabilia is anything that you enjoy collecting. And if you ask a thousand people why they collect, you probably get a thousand different answers. So, if collecting medicine bottles is your thing, then by default those bottles become memorabilia to that collector.
Having said that, I personally don’t believe that absolutely everything is worth buying and selling. We’ve been offered many very personal items over the years and that’s where I draw the line. Sure, I’ll take Bruce Springsteen’s boots, jeans and sweaty shirt any day, but I’ll pass on socks and underwear. I’ll gladly offer up Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics or letters, but an expired passport or a hospital bill with a social security number goes a step too far. I realize that the lines have been blurred over time, but I still believe that true music memorabilia is comprised of items that were meant to be collected: records, posters, shirts, autographs, photos, instruments, lyrics, magazines, etc.
Fortunately, that still makes up 95% of what’s out there, so I think we can easily group the remaining 5% as novelty items, which, by nature and design, attract mostly a different audience than the traditional collector.
JvG: Oh man, you sure know how to ask the tough questions, don’t you? I guess that once it became clear that there was money to be made in music memorabilia (and this goes back to the 1970s), you started seeing the first counterfeits. It likely began with autographs but has since spilled over to high-end concert posters, rare vinyl, vintage T-shirts, toys, tour programs, you name it.
It’s really no different than what you see among sports or movie memorabilia, or art, coins, stamps, jewelry — heck, even wine for that matter. I’m not sure that you can weed it out, but as an auctioneer you have an obligation to your buyers to protect them from fraudulent practices. We’ve eliminated it by exclusively representing the authentic source of whatever we auction, which creates huge peace of mind for everyone involved.
Short of that, if you want to sell or buy an item that comes from a secondary source, you really need to do your homework. Fortunately, there are many experts in many different fields who can help you authenticate. I must add, though, that you have to make sure that this expert is truly independent and has no other agenda but to serve you with the highest level of integrity.
Naturally, the most suspect area is that of signed memorabilia, simply because we all want a fully signed Beatles photo or poster from 1964. The reality is that only so many true signed pieces are in circulation and once the prices start to hit the four and five-digit levels, it’ll bring out the crooks from around the world. I’ve seen loads of fake autographs coming from Australia and Europe and Canada, so it’s not an American problem per se.
I’m not even going to touch the whole subject of whether to use a forensic expert or an autograph expert. At the end of the day, even though this is a massively complex issue, I believe that it’ll come down to something very simple: If you, as a buyer — in heart and mind — are happy and satisfied with the item you bought, than that’s all there is to it.
Every collector has a unique standard to which they measure their own collection. Some may need three independent reviews, letters and documents to pull the trigger, whereas the next buyer acts on impulse and buys simply because he or she likes what they see. That’s something that we (the sellers) can’t control. But what we can do — and must do — is take every step possible to provide the right stuff. After all, we are being looked upon to uphold a standard, and I like to believe that — since we have seen it all — we should know how to separate right from wrong.
JvG: I agree that there is a ton of stuff out there and naturally, from a competitive viewpoint, I’d like to see less; but that’s a bit of a double edged-sword. The fact that so many generic auction houses have jumped on the music memorabilia market also helps the rest of us in that it supports and promotes the overall hobby. The more places there are where you can buy collectibles, the more potential there is to create or generate new collectors, something that in the end is always good for our business.
I don’t believe it is a bubble market, though. Collecting music memorabilia is something that I see continuing for as long as there is music. The only fluctuations you will see is in the number of sellers. When the market is strong, there will always be an increase in auctioneers, retailers and stores that want a piece of that pie. When the market slows down, some will retreat and move on to something else. The diehards will always remain loyal and fortunately, there are some great music memorabilia stores and sellers who have truly been dedicated to serving the market for decades.
What type of people are actually spending thousands of dollars on higher-priced items and objects? Are there enough rich or well-off collectors out there, or is the market mixed with pure investors?
JvG: Well, you never can have enough rich collectors as far as I consider, but in reality, the real high-rollers make up for perhaps 5 or at best 10 percent of collectors. The beauty of collecting is that literally everyone can do it — and does do it. As such, you’ll see a perfect bell-shaped graph, which I believe to be a reasonable reflection of the income classes in the industrial world.
You’ll always have a good chunk of collectors that solely operate at the lower value end, the largest population is to be found in the middle, and only a small percentage operates at the very top of the curve. I have always operated on that principle and, as such, aim to have our auctions reflect all three levels. In other words, I always want to have something to offer for every wallet, and no one should ever feel left out.
As for who buys the higher-end collectibles, in my experience that’s an exotic blend of clients. Naturally they have one thing in common, which is sufficient disposable income, but as far as their motives for collecting, I think only a small portion buys for the purpose of “investing.” Most high-end collectors are still true fans and motivated by the exclusivity of the item.
JvG: The museums used to buy in the very beginning, but once they established themselves, they have for the largest part relied on donations. The HRC has many deals directly with musicians who will provide them constantly with new material. By the way, most of the products you’ll see these days are reproductions.
The Hall of Fame is almost exclusively donations, which are mostly on temporary loan. They rotate their pieces fairly quickly and at some point, most of it will be returned to the consigner.
If your question is whether places like these generate a positive effect on collecting as a whole, I’d say the answer is yes. Everyone who likes music has visited at least once a Hard Rock Café, and you can’t help but be excited about the cool stuff that’s hanging on the walls. As a true collector, you naturally would love to have a piece just like that, whether it’s a signed guitar, a vintage concert poster or a record award. And that’s where the auctioneers and memorabilia sellers come into play. I’m all in support of places like the Rock Hall and the Hard Rock Cafes because, in the end, it’s good for the hobby, thus it’s good for business.
JvG: I don’t think it’s mature, but it is certainly maturing. Ever since the ’70s, people — mostly dedicated fans — have been putting together price guides which, if anything, are often helpful sources to knowing what is out there. You can find books these days dedicated solely to guitars, vinyl, T-shirts, posters, etc. On top of that, there are great band- or artist-related price guides for The Beatles, Kiss, Madonna, Rolling Stones and so on. Also, with the continued accessibility of the Internet, you’ll start to find more and more decent Web sites dedicated to pricing and inventory.
So I believe the hobby is getting better. That said, I believe this hobby is still too young to have established a reliable and consistent platform for pricing. I still see too many extremes in pricing to be able to say that a certain poster or shirt or autograph is worth “X” and “X” only. The best you have these days are ranges. But on the upside, the ranges have become more defined and more reliable, which is the result of collectors and Web sites comparing sales data.
What doesn’t make it any easier is the fact that new discoveries are being made on an almost daily basis, and many will have an effect (up or down) on what was established previously.
But, in a way, that’s the beauty of collecting music memorabilia. Unlike cars, coins or stamps, where you pretty much know what’s there, music memorabilia is much more diverse.
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t an exact science. We collect mostly because of our passion, and when you translate passion into value, the number in the end will be different for most of us. To me, that’s also the beauty of collecting music memorabilia. One collector will pay $50 for a certain poster, whereas the next collector will pay $500.
I find absolute pricing to be a bit of a dangerous undertaking, and I personally would like to see us concentrate more on ranges instead. Once we have widely established and accepted ranges, it’s up to the collector to decide whether on not to follow those guidelines. It certainly will make the whole negotiating part a little easier and, better yet, will provide a great aid in assessing the true value of a collectible.
Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music appraiser (www.MusicAppraisals.com), writer, collector, and fan.