Making money after the music dies: Lesley Gerard finds dead idols are top of the pops in the memorabilia business

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A girl who swapped her sweater for a classmate's notepad in 1956 is set to make a fortune from the deal. The teenage student who fancied her new yellow pullover was John Lennon, the cerebral Beatle. Now the notebook, containing cruel caricatures of Lennon's teachers, is on sale - at a London memorabilia store for pounds 140,000. Deified dead rock stars are big business.

Vinyl Experience lies in a quiet Victorian back-street. Insulated from the traffic roar of Tottenham Court Road, a Soho emporium catering exclusively to fans' voracious acquisitional desires. From Elvis' underpants to original song lyrics by the guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, if it once belonged to a star the shop wants it.

The store is distinguishable from the Spanish tapas bars and cosy Thai and Korean restaurant in Hanway Street by its striking shopsign - a giant woman in fishnet stockings and pink underwear.

In his shambolic office at the top of the four-storey building, owner Mark Hayward, 34, is one of memorabilias movers and shakers. Surrounded by cardboard boxes, waste paper, cigarettes stubbed out in half empty Coke cans, old magazines and ageing album covers, he is negotiating another deal.

A smashed-up electric guitar, destroyed on stage by Kurt Cobain, deceased King of Grunge and Nirvana's much-mourned front-man, has just come on to the market. 'It should fetch pounds 5,000. It looks great, held together with bits of sticky tape. Of course it doesn't work. If you tried to plug it in you would explode, says Hayward excitedly. If Cobain hadn't died he would not be interested.

Since Cobain committed suicide in April the price his memorabilia can command has soared. Hayward believes that in 10 years demand will rival that of Hendrix - a perennial bestseller, who died aged 28 in 1970 after inhaling his own vomit.

'Here, look,' he says, stepping over cardboard boxes, hunting for a hidden treasure. 'Can you imagine Hendrix actually wrote THESE words and drew on THIS. With reverence he hands over a framed sheet of note paper from the Hyde Park Towers Hotel, circa 1967, with a blue ink self-portrait by the Sixties icon. On the back are half of the words to 'Love or Confusion. Asking price for something Hendrix probably intended for the dustbin - pounds 12,000.

Beatles memorabilia, especially anything to do with Lennon, who was shot dead on 8 December 1980 by schizophrenic fan Mark Chapman, has a high market value.

Six years ago Lennon's sweater-girl, now a successful businesswoman, decided to part with two of his sketches, putting them up for auction. Hayward bought them for pounds 8,000 each and resold them within days for pounds 16,000 apiece to a Swedish buyer. This time she is using Vinyl Experience as the broker for the notebook sale.

The woman, who does not want to be named, told Independent London: 'John and I were really good friends. We sat next to each other in art class and I admired his work. He was not a Beatle then, but I knew he was talented. I asked him for some drawings and he said I could have the notebook provided I gave him my sweater.' Now, 38 years later, she is offering the book for sale with some reluctance. 'It means a great deal to me, but I have had to keep it in a bank vault. The ideal solution would be if a museum or gallery bought it for public display.'

Even old doors and wash-basins from the late Beatle's former home are a lucrative investment. When Hayward had a tip-off that an Arab sheikh had bought and was refurbishing Lennon's former mansion, Tittenhurst Park, he rushed to Berkshire in the hope of salvaging recording materials.

He was too late. 'The builders told me 'Oh it's a pity you were not here last week, we put all the rubbish from the recording studio in the swimming pool and burned it'. I was horrified, who knows what was lost. Instead of recording equipment, he came away with 14 doors, for pounds 25 each, which he sold for pounds 400 each to buyers from the States, Japan and Europe. A wash-basin is on sale for pounds 1,000.

Morbid fascination with dead musicians and ageing living rockers is an odd business idea. Hayward discovered almost by accident that it is highly profitable. In 1980, he was a bank clerk earning pounds 46 a week and thinking there must better careers. To make a extra money he took his old records to Camden Market, selling all the Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones in his collection. 'The next week I went down to a second-hand record shop in Soho, bought more at 25p each and sold every album for pounds 1. One weekend I made pounds 80. I thought, time to give up the day job.'

Now he travels across the world. One recent purchase was a 1957 Chicago Herald Tribune newpaper featuring an Elvis Presley interview. Hayward paid the owner of the junk shop in down-town Chicago dollars 100 (pounds 70). 'He thought it was a fortune. Hayward then sold it on for dollars 2,000. He shrugs off suggestions that deals like this are a rip-off, insisting: 'I am a businessman. Why should I feel guilty? Mark-ups in major supermarkets are higher than mine.'

The record and memorabilia shop alone at Vinyl Experience has an annual turnover of more than pounds 1m.

Collectors' motives vary. Some see it purely as an investment. Others want wacky decorations or rock and roll artefacts to decorate homes and business premises. Some seek out rare magazines, records and CDs with the same obsession that some philatelists collect stamps. Then there are hard-core fans, desperate to acquire something - anything - linked to an idol.

Hayward, back from New York with Woodstock 1994 condoms which proclaim 'Love and Peace' on flower-power packaging, says: 'In this business you have to be able to spot a fake, be it a signature, an album cover or a counterfeit gold disc.'

He checks historical details rigorously, but occasionally makes a mistake. 'There was a Bowie album cover . . . I didn't notice until someone pointed out the words on the binder were the wrong way up.'

In the shop, a tour group of Americans are scouring shelves for Beatle-bargains. They have half an hour before leaving for a Fab Four convention in Liverpool. They consider themselves serious collectors, but postal clerks from New Jersey cannot afford pounds 140,000 notepads, much as they might desire them.

'Hey this place is expensive,' grumbles Rick Brown from Connecticut, opting instead for a pounds 7 fanzine with a young Paul McCartney beaming from the cover.

Vinyl Experience's top ten memorabilia sales 1993-94

1. George Harrison's Aston Martin 'James Bond' car: pounds 32,000.

2. Drawing by John Lennon 1956: pounds 16,000.

3. Harrison's Mercedes 4-door coupe: pounds 10,000.

4. Original document of Lennon's court appearance on possession of cannabis resin, 1969: pounds 4,000.

5. pounds 30 cheque payable to Eric Easton for Rolling Stones' first performance at Richmond jazz festival: pounds 3,500.

6. Set of Beatles' signatures with photograph of them signing the paper, framed and glazed: pounds 2,200.

7. Rolling Stones' pinball machine that plays 'Satisfaction': pounds 2,000.

8. Sheet of hand-written Jimi Hendrix lyrics: pounds 2,000.

9. Madonna's gold lame top from the film Whose That Girl and photo of her wearing same top: pounds 2,500.

10. Lennon's round bathtub: pounds 1,200.

(Photograph omitted)

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