Death and nostalgia are proving to be a money-making opportunity for music memorabilia collectors and big auction houses who are hawking everything from Michael Jackson's iconic white glitter glove to old ticket stubs from rock's legendary Woodstock festival.
Indeed, the sudden and tragic death of the King of Pop along with news shows commemorating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock have triggered a surge in the number of music fans frantically scouring the internet and auction houses for anything and everything related to these events.
And for some sellers, it's been a windfall.
An auction lot of 21 Michael Jackson items, ranging from vintage posters to a shirt, sold for $205,000 during a Las Vegas event the day after his death. The same items fetched only $15,000 in a private sale about six years earlier, says Darren Julien, president and founder of Julien's Auctions, who hosted the event. Among the items was a heavily-beaded shirt the pop artist wore during his Victory tour. "We had estimated it would get $2,000 to $3,000, but we sold it for $54,000," he says.
Another auction is currently in the works that will include the trademark sequined glove that Jackson first wore during Motown 25th anniversary show, where he first performed his famed moonwalk dance. "That piece is the Holy Grail," says Julien, who expects the item to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Interest and demand in music memorabilia is steadily growing despite the economic downturn.
"Rock and roll collectors with a passion for memorabilia can turn the hobby into a nest egg," says Leila Dunbar, a former director of collectibles at Sotheby's Auction house, who now heads up her own appraisal firm.
Even Wall Street is moving into the sector.
"We have Wall Street clientele who are looking at rock n roll memorabilia as a way to diversify their portfolios," Julien says.
Savvy music collectors, who began snapping up rockers' guitars, autographed albums, books and other items in the '60s, '70s and '80s are seeing the biggest gains as many were able to buy items at bargain-basement prices before the internet and sites such as eBay moved memorabilia collection into the mainstream. Baby boomers are driving the growth.
"I hear the same story over and over they had bands when they were growing up but gave up their dreams of being rock stars themselves to get a job and make money, and now that they have it, they're kind of recapturing their youth through the instruments and articles of their icons,"says Laura Woolley, an entertainment memorabilia appraiser at the Collector's Lab.
For this reason, it's items associated with bands such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Cher, and the Rolling Stones that have seen the biggest increase in value, Woolley said.
In 2000, the piano on which John Lennon composed "Imagine" sold for 1.5 million pounds, far surpassing the 20,000 pounds it fetched 25 years earlier, noted Neil Roberts, head of culture at Christie's Auction House in London.
Sometimes it's the quirky items that grab the most attention.
A group of nine prescription pill bottles owned by Elvis sold for between $3,000 and $7,500 apiece during a June auction. "It's a little macabre that people are interested in bottles of pills that were responsible for his death," said Woolley. Observers expect a similar feeding frenzy will likely surround Jackson's medication bottles.
In 2000, Maestro Auctions sold a jar of Elvis' hair from his barber for $115,000, recalled Dunbar.
Then there was the sweat-stained T-shirt sold by Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash in 2008. "It was a Clash T-shirt with sweaty armpits they were so stained that if you looked at it, you would think it's disgusting," said Woolley. But the stains also meant Strummer likely wore it onstage, and it came with a handwritten note that read "This shirt was mine and worn by me this is a f**n great shirt! Signed Joe Strummer." The final sale price: $12,500.
Beyond sweat, inspiration sells too. When legendary rocker Axl Rose told the world that his epic Guns N' Roses music video "November Rain" was inspired by a short story he read by a little-known writer named Del James in 1995, sales of the book,"The Language of Fear," took off. When the book went out of print two years later, it became a rock collector's must-have, with copies of the $5.50 book fetching between $150 and $400 on eBay for years. Last year, the publisher decided to re-release the book with a new cover, but the first edition still remains a highly-sought-after collector's item.
So if you're sitting on a treasure chest of music memorabilia, when's the best time to sell?
Big anniversaries, such as Woodstock's, will often pump up prices. However, death is the most powerful aphrodisiac as it tends to bring out emotional buying by diehard fans, which can mean a windfall for sellers.
During the June Michael Jackson auction, a signed Jackson 5 album was expected to bring in $400 to $600, but wound up getting more than $27,000. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that was an emotional purchase," says Woolley.
When an estate sale was held following Johnny Cash's death, it grossed $4 million. "If those pieces appeared now at auction, I think it would be difficult to sell them for exactly the same price," says Roberts. "The whole euphoria of an estate sale [often makes] people get carried away."
However, if a flood of similar items, such as a doll or poster, show up on ebay at the same time you're readying to sell, it's best to wait. "You never want to put a piece of memorabilia on the market when there are five more just like it," says Woolley. "If it were mine, I'd hold onto it."