When the price is not right: Why is a $50m record collection unable to sell for even a fraction of its value?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Sometimes unique items aren't worth what we think, discovers Phil Boucher

It's the summer of 1951 and 12-year-old Paul Mawhinney is walking out of the National Record Mart on 5th Avenue, Pittsburgh, clutching a 79 cent copy of "Jezebel" by Frankie Laine. It is his first record – a purchase that very few of us ever forget.

Fast forward 60 years and Mawhinney is still proud of his "Jezebel". But it has gained a few friends: around two million singles and one million albums to be more precise, plus an array of posters, books and other music memorabilia in a vinyl heap that's widely regarded as the largest record collection in the world. An appraisal from Andersen Consulting in 1999 estimated it to be worth $50.5m (£31.2m).

But here's the rub: Mawhinney turns 72 in September and is legally blind. While he continues to catalogue his vast collection on a daily basis, it is proving increasingly difficult (he still has 750,000 records to add to his database). So he's looking for a buyer. Any buyer. In fact, Mawhinney's been looking to offload his collection for the best part of 12 years. "I have shown it to potential owners many times, but the minute they see the size of my collection, they say 'I'd love to have it, but how the hell could I take on all this work?'" he explains.

The nearest Mawhinney has come to selling his records was in 1999, when the online music store CD Now offered to buy the entire collection for $28.5m (£17.6m). Sadly, CD Now went bankrupt 12 days before the deal was completed and Mawhinney has since been looking to sell for the cut-price figure of $3m (£1.85m).

Yet, until recently, he has had no interest. The reason, quite simply, is that Mawhinney has fallen foul of the age-old problem of supply and demand, which dictates that an item is worth only what another will pay for it.

"If that is zero, then it is zero; and if it's an awful lot, then it's an awful lot, and it has no direct reflection on an item's usefulness or its use to society or its value in the future or anything else," explains Dr Rupert Gatti from the University of Cambridge.

In Mawhinney's case, this is exacerbated by the fact that, according to the US Library of Congress, 83 per cent of his collection is unique. While this represents a huge historical and artistic reservoir, it means that just 17 per cent of his records have ever been listened to – he openly admits, "most people don't even know they exist".

So regardless of the fact that Mawhinney owns such rarities as a one-off Beatles tour poster, a Beach Boys single released under the name of The Survivors, and a little-known disc called "The Bugler Theme" made for Theodore Roosevelt, the brutal fact is that there is virtually no commercial demand for the bulk of his collection. Which, by extrapolation, renders the vast majority of his collection financially worthless. Or does it?

"You have to take it on a commodity by commodity basis, as there isn't a hard and fast rule," explains Stephanie Connell, head of collectors' sales at auction house Bonhams."Often, rarity defines the value, but it also has to be considered to have a degree of importance.

"We see people who have large record collections. Some records within those collections may be valuable but in the majority of cases records aren't hugely valuable; most are worth under £20. But you might find that you have a record that is worth £3,000 – it all depends on the rarity and the fact there are numerous collectors.

"The Who is a good case in point: they released some records when they were known as The High Numbers, which are far more valuable than, say, a copy of The Who Live At Leeds, because they are much, much rarer."

Yet this is only part of the conundrum. In July, baseball superstar Derek Jeter made his 3,000th hit (ie, making it safely to first base). Jeter reached the landmark by thwacking a home run to left field into the stands of Yankee Stadium, New York.

According to financial experts, Jeter's ball was worth up to $250,000 (£150,000) to collectors, yet Christian Lopez, who caught it, simply handed it back in return for some signed memorabilia and Yankee match tickets worth an estimated $70,000 (£43,000). So does this mean that Lopez threw away $180,000 (£110,000)? Well, not exactly. For one thing, Bloomberg later reported that the ball may have been worth between only $75,000 (£46,000) and $100,000 (£61,000) as Jeter is the 28th player to achieve the feat, which – though rare and achieved by legends such as Hank Aaron and Ty Cobbs – has also been accomplished by lesser lights, and it's by no means unique. Then there is the matter that, to attain $250,000 at an auction, the room would have to be crammed full of Yankees' fans with money to burn and an obsession with Derek Jeter. As the chances of that are slim, the reality is that Lopez did pretty well out of the deal.

As Freakonomics' editor Matthew Phillips wrote at the time: "Considering Lopez and his girlfriend paid only $65 a piece for the seats to Saturday's game, walking out with $70,000 worth of Yankees swag strikes me as doing just fine." (Incidentally, when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris's home runs in a season record in 1998, the ball for his record-breaking 70th run sold for $3m. Thanks to a subsequent steroids scandal and Barry Bonds breaking the record in 2001, it's now estimated to be worth $150k.)

"In cricket, if a ball was hit on Bradman's final century, then it is pretty special. But if it is Joe Blog average then it is not," explains Gatti.

The object itself is pretty immaterial – it is its provenance that lifts it to a different financial level.

But even this cannot ensure an item has value. In 2007, an auction of Michael Jackson memorabilia was held at the Hard Rock Café, Las Vegas. Whereas this would once have drawn hordes of screaming fans, journalist Jacques Peretti encountered a near-empty room that he described as "like a car boot sale" where "mounds of Jackson junk – smelly old stage outfits, gold discs, creepy dolls and toys, intimate notes from Jackson on serviettes – were embarrassingly withdrawn due to lack of interest."

The reason was that Jackson had been charged with child molestation by a California court. While he had been acquitted, it had besmirched the provenance of his belongings, rendering his memorabilia worthless – at least until he died in June 2009. In contrast, Jackson's jacket from the "Thriller" video was sold this June, two years after his death, for $1.8m.

Amazingly at the 2007 auction, Peretti plucked out the legal documents to Jackson's fair ground-themed Neverland ranch.

"It is not purely a question of scarcity or age but how much someone desires something," explains British collector Robert Opie, whose collection is housed in the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London's Notting Hill. "You can have the only copy of a certain object in existence, but if nobody thinks it's worth anything then it won't go for anything."

In an amazing turnabout, Paul Mawhinney may finally be able to sell his collection. He has recently been contacted by two buyers wanting to take on his collection. By the end of August he hopes to have wrapped up the deal and finally handed over his records "lock, stock and barrel".

Yet, fittingly, even now, after 60 years of collecting, he remains clueless about how much his lifelong obsession is actually worth."I have no idea how much they will offer. I just gave them my asking price of $3m," he explains. "To be honest, I just want enough to take care of my family. I just figured out what it would take to look after all my children and that was $3m. It didn't have anything to do with the records.

"I will be 72 in September, so I wouldn't know what to do with $50m anyway!"

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal