Baby you can buy my car

From road studs to textbooks, if a Beatle so much as glanced at them, reports Fiona Sturges, they're worth something

THE BEATLES and the Nineties are, it seems, almost as inextricable as the Beatles and the Sixties. The current pre-dilection for all things retro means their style and sound is as desirable today as it was 30 years ago. The release of the "Beatles Anthology" series over the last two years, a compilation of largely unreleased sessions, live recordings and private tapes and videos, has increased their popularity still further, creating a new generation of fans, most of whom were not born in the Sixties. While the Beatles sold more albums in 1996 than in any year in when they were recording, last year's most successful band, Oasis, also enthusiastically acknowledge their debt to their Liverpudlian antecedents with music that is almost indistinguishable from the sound of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Top auction houses are cashing in on the Beatles revival, as are the enterprising roadies, groupies and technicians who had the foresight to pocket what they could during the Sixties. Follow-ing the success of the Sotheby's Rock 'n' Roll and Film Memorabilia sale in London last September, Bonhams is holding the first ever international auction of Beatles memorabilia on 22 March in Tokyo. It will be conducted simultaneously in English and Japanese with a live satellite link between Tokyo and London, and buyers can bid from either end. Cable and satellite viewers will be able to watch the proceedings on L!VE TV and the new Auction Channel. The sale, which features rare Beatles ephemera, souvenirs from members' various solo projects and several obscure objects suited to the more fervent devotee, is set to fetch over pounds 1 million

The death of John Lennon in 1980 initially revitalised Beatles-worship and the economic boom of the Eighties gave idolisers the means to indulge their obsessions. Prices have soared since. In 1983, Lennon's handwritten lyrics of "Imagine" went for a paltry pounds 7,000. Last September, those of "For the Benefit of Mr Kite" (only one-and-a-half verses) made an incredible pounds 66,400, three times the estimated price.

If such figures sound excessive, Ted Owen, Bonhams' rock and pop spe- cialist, views the purchase of Beatles collectables as a solid investment, and certainly doesn't foresee their popularity (or value) dwindling. "There aren't many Beatles lyrics left out there. I know of another eight sets and I don't think we'll see any more of them. There are six sets of Beatles lyrics in the British Museum. In 200 years time they will be on a par with Shakespeare. They are the Bards of the day."

Connoisseurs of obscure Beatles records will be attracted by the collection of acetates to be sold in Tokyo. These are test records made to determine which versions of certain songs were for release and are among the most collectable recordings. The 25 acetates on sale include alternative versions of songs such as "Hard Day's Night" and "Yellow Submarine", as well as others that were never released in any form. All belonged initially to the band's manager, Brian Epstein, and were acquired some time after Brian's death in 1967 from the Epstein family by Gareth Pawlowski, one of the most dedicated collectors of Beatles relics and author of the acclaimed How They Became The Beatles. When Pawlowski died in 1995, his record collection, together with acetates and test pressings, were sold in the US. Most of these have been re-united with Epstein's handwritten notes for the Tokyo sale.

But the memorabilia goes way beyond lyrics and recordings. The barber's shop in Liverpool, immortalised by the song "Penny Lane", to go under the hammer as a shrine to the "Magical Mystery Tour", is estimated to fetch pounds 220,000. Number nine Madryn Street, significant as the birthplace of Ringo Starr, is also up for sale. Sadly, Ringo relics fail to inspire the expenditure of "Midas" McCartney's belongings, whose school maths book, dated May 1955 to March 1956, is tipped to reach a staggering pounds 30,000, more than three times the estimated price of Ringo's homestead. Paul's custom- made, gold-plated Hofner violin bass guitar - of particular interest, since genuine Beatles-owned items rarely come up for sale - is estimated at pounds 100,000 to pounds 150,000. However, the most revered and expensive item is Lennon's gleaming white 1970 Mercedes Benz 600 Pullman Limousine, valued at pounds 500,000.

An abundance of curios for sale seem more set to test the fanaticism of collectors than to be seen as serious objets d'art. A stud from the Abbey Road ped-estrian crossing, seen on the cover of the Abbey Road album, is set to fetch pounds 600. In March 1994, when the road was resurfaced and the famous zebra crossing removed, a quick-thinking passer-by seized upon the studs, with the consent of some baffled workmen, and has made a mint selling them off one by one. This example has been ceremoniously mounted on white Perspex along with photographs of the crossing, before and after its resurfacing.

More perplexing still is the sale of a piece of wood that had been cut from the door of Apple Studios to allow for a letterbox. This is also accompanied by "before and after" photographs. Then there is the copy of E A Maxwell's An Analytical Calculus (a book formerly owned by the Liverpool Institute High School, attended by McCartney), Len-non's art-examination application form, a five-piece liquorice record set, and an Apple crate label. These are the items that only the truly obsessed will be straining to get their hands on.

Proving the authenticity of items has been a hard task. Bonhams has had to deal with some outlandish and spurious claims, politely rejecting offerings of half-eaten toast furtively removed from George Harrison's plate, cigarette ends reported to have been retrieved from behind the seats in John Lennon's limo and numerous forged autographs. Owen admits that it is difficult to be 100 per cent sure in all cases, but Bonhams demands that items are accompanied by some proof of provenance, be it through letters, photographs or stories that can be qualified. "It's not an easy task," he says, "but I think we have a very clean sale in regard to the items that are in it and their origins."

In a desperate attempt to reclaim his pilfered belongings, Paul McCartney has become one of the biggest collectors of Beatles memorabilia. He regularly sends his minions to auctions to buy back pilfered goods. Late last year he took out an injunction banning the widow of Mal Evans, the Beatles' road manager, from selling the handwritten lyrics for "A Little Help From My Friends" and the instrumental notes for "Yesterday", tipped to fetch up to pounds 80,000. McCartney claimed that since the lyrics never belonged to Mal Evans, his wife has no right of ownership, and they were withdrawn from the sale.

Julian Lennon, John's son, is another big buyer. He was the secret bidder who paid pounds 25,000 for the lyrics to Paul McCartney's "Hey Jude", (originally entitled "Hey Jules"). He also bought several postcards addressed to himself from his father. When it comes to the Beatles - as Paul and Julian have discovered - original ownership is not always relevant. All you need is cash.

! 'Beatles for Sale' is at Tokyo Auction House, Minato-ku, Tokyo, on Saturday 22 March, at 6pm; viewing in Tokyo from 15 to 20 March. A live satellite link to Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7 (0171 393 3900) begins at 9am.

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