A while back, someone sent me a story from Forbes magazine, in which the billionaire owner of the Indianapolis Colts, James Irsay, was crowing about having spent $970,000 back in 2001 to buy Garcia’s “Tiger” guitar at an auction by the instrument’s original luthier, Doug Irwin: “It was a 15-rounder [at auction],” Irsay told the mag, “but I made the determination that I’d rather have Tiger than all the other Jerry stuff in the world...When I got it, it was like he’d literally [just] put it down at Soldier Field [in Chicago, site of the final Dead show in 1995]. I mean there were pot crumblings in [the guitar’s “stash box”]. The strap is sweat-strewn. ...Jerry was, wow, man, what can you say about him? What a guitarist, man, and what a character.”
OK, that’s the absolute upper end of Grateful Dead/Garcia memorabilia (so far). The guy has very deep pockets: Irsay also paid $600,000 for one of George Harrison’s main guitars, and a whopping $2.4 million for the original typed version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. “I think it’s hard to overpay,” the same Forbes article quoted him as saying, “because they’re priceless.” We’re still talking about many millions of dollars less than just about any Monet or Picasso painting would go for, and who’s to say that Tiger or On the Road aren’t as culturally significant, or as “beautiful” in their own way, as an important art work? But that’s rarified air none of us will ever breathe.
A few notches down from that were the quite substantial holdings of Ram Rod (Lawrence Shurtliff), the much-loved Grateful Dead road crew chief who passed away in 2006, and whose motley collection of Deadrabilia was sold through a Bonhams & Butterfields auction in San Francisco in 2007. Quite a few impressive pieces brought high prices—including $300,000 for one of Jerry’s Travis Bean guitars from the mid-’70s, $102,000 for one of Garcia’s later custom Alvarez-Yairi acoustics, and $87,000 for three original paintings by Bob Thomas, including the back cover panel of Live Dead and an alternate version of the front cover painting.
box went for $5,700 at
the Ram Rod auction in 2007.
OK, those were all very cool. But I saw the auction items laid out at B&B a couple of weeks before the event, and a lot of them were in shockingly poor shape—yet still garnered big bucks from eager buyers. Like, $15,600 for a worn Haliburton case “used by Ram Rod to transport important items for the Grateful Dead while on tour, 1970s-1990.” Surely the only reason this fetched such a good price is the buyer believed that this was actually a “stash case” that traveled with the band. No one pays that price for a briefcase that just carries papers. The rose-embroidered and rhinestone-studded guitar strap designed to match Garcia’s magnificent Nudie suit (designed by the famous SoCal C&W suit designer “Nudie” Cohn; Garcia wore it a couple of times onstage in 1973) went for $20,400, despite missing several rhinestones. (Alas, Phil’s entire Nudie suit, which was originally to be part of the Ram Rod auction, was withdrawn at the last minute, over questions regarding its true ownership.) There were all sorts decrepit and empty speaker boxes from the Wall of Sound ($3,600 for one), pieces of nonfunctioning audio equipment, random photographs in not-very-good condition (most of which landed bids in the $600-$900 range), and a bunch of other stuff (including Ram Rod’s own guitars, banjo and mandolin). Ram Rod’s heirs walked away with an impressive $1.1 million.
And for the rest of us, there’s eBay. God, there’s a lot of Grateful Dead stuff up on eBay at all times, and the quality varies tremendously, as you might imagine. Look under “Grateful Dead shirts” and you’ll find around 50 “pages” of 50+ shirts each, ranging from cool custom ones sold by individuals to obviously factory-made, mass-produced shirts being sold by big companies. Under “Grateful Dead CDs” there are hundreds more items, including some I’d never seen before: $35 will buy you a “limited edition” 2-CD set of Jerry Garcia music “housed in silver paper slipcases with Jerry Garcia's artwork on them (both the sleeves and CDs) and including the complete track listing and information as follows (sweet selections to be sure).” This one intrigued me because disc one of the set is a collection of tunes I put together for the limited box edition of the book Jerry Garcia: The Collected Artwork, and I was not aware that “rogue” copies of the music were being peddled elsewhere. Hmmm. Strange. Thanks for the compliment about the “sweet selections,” though.
From time to time some obviously fake Dead merchandise goes up on eBay—usually reproductions of old posters for events that never had posters (and which occasionally have blatant historical inaccuracies on them—a 1966 photo on a 1965 poster, etc.)—and “autographed” photos and posters of dubious origin and questionable veracity. These usually get sniffed out by Dead Heads pretty quickly, and the sellers often get their feet held to the fire long enough that they eventually withdraw the item. But no doubt many bogus items have been sold to unsuspecting Heads this way—just as the sports and movie memorabilia markets have been plagued by counterfeits and forgeries forever.
A mere $15,600!
I often wish that I had a collector’s mentality. For instance, when I was living overseas in Rome, Italy, in the mid-’60s, why didn’t I save the literally hundreds of Marvel and DC comics I carefully shipped over from the U.S. during my summer visits—all those now-valuable X-Men and Spider-Man comics? Through the years, I lost the few cool sports autographs I’d gotten—Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax signed a menu for me at Toots Shor’s restaurant in NYC in about 1962; boxing legend Jack Dempsey talked me up and signed an autograph as he sat getting his shoes shined in the men’s room downstairs at his old Times Square joint in the early ’60s. My thousands of baseball cards bought between 1957 and ’65? Fuggedaboutit! Later on, I almost never held on to the free swag that record companies used to send out with promo copies of albums I got as a rock critic. I once figured out I could have an entire promo wardrobe (including enormous underpants promoting an album by Gentle Giant!). Wish I’d kept the 45s from my youth I used to lug around from move to move, but eventually either lost or tossed.
And it hasn’t been any better with Grateful Dead stuff. Even though I interviewed every member of the band multiple times from the early ’80s on, I never asked for an autograph (I thought it would look tacky and possibly harm my “professional” relationship with the guys, or some such nonsense). When I’ve occasionally gotten multiple copies of GD-related CDs I’ve worked on, I’ve given them to friends or the folks I’ve interviewed for liner notes. Some posters I had were damaged when the roof of my garage blew off in a storm a few years back. Hey, someone on eBay is trying to get $19.95 for Issue Six of The Golden Road. Why, I believe I have a few hundred of those babies sitting around here in boxes! Jeez, by now I could’ve paid for some of my son’s college tuition if I’d been smarter about getting and hoarding and selling stuff. But it just ain’t in me.
I have to admit, the one large signed Garcia litho I own — still in mint condition and safely encased in cardboard in a closet because, frankly, I never liked it enough to actually put it up in my house — keeps calling out to me in the raspy voice of late-period Jerry: “Sell me, man!” Thanks, Jer. I need the encouragement! Today I saw that someone is asking for $4,200 for the same litho on eBay. That’s nearly a quarter’s tuition at UCLA. Hellooo, eBay!
Ever bought or sold Dead memorabilia online? What’s the coolest Dead-related item you own? Anything you wouldn’t part with, even if the price were right?