Collecting: 'That's Alright Mama' - if you sift the real Elvis from the Presley pooper-scoopers

You'll need a suspicious mind as some of the King's memorabilia won't have you jumpin' like a catfish on a pole

Pop into your local music store and, somewhere near the top of the singles chart, you'll find "That's Alright Mama" by a pouting, snake-hipped young singer called Elvis Presley.

Fifty years after the King set the music industry on fire with this taut rockabilly blues jingle, his popularity - and profitability - are undimmed.

A considerable and dedicated worldwide market continues to thrive for Elvis memorabilia, both "real" - clothes and souvenirs from his concerts, films and so on - and "manufactured", newer items made and sold since his death in 1977.

Despite this, it's difficult to get hold of really good Elvis material, says Sarah Hodgeson, head of the Popular Entertainment Department at Christie's auction house. "Items owned or worn by him on stage hardly ever come up now. Three or four years ago, the Presley estate sold Las Vegas suits, credit cards, sunglasses and so on, but that was a one-off. One really well-known stage suit sold for $105,000 (£57,000).

"If it's something that has been photographed a lot and is very recognisable, it can be valuable. We sold one shirt he wore in the 1970s for £19,500, but then it was a well-known item."

Todd Slaughter of the Elvis Fan Club in Britain (founded in 1956) agrees that it's hard to come by real Elvis effects now. "Most of them were stolen from his Graceland home after he died."

Ms Hodgeson says Christie's is sometimes shown "genuine" items accompanied by letters of "authenticity", but the auctioneer always looks on these with scepticism. "Anyone can write a letter," she says, "so we won't take things unless they're easily identifiable from photographs or in some other way."

Many people have been caught out. The comedian Frank Skinner famously travelled to the United States to buy a costly shirt that once belonged to Elvis, only to discover later that it was a fake.

Christie's does not bother with what it calls "ephemera", such as posters or programmes from concerts, unless they are signed by the King himself, in which case they could be worth between £700 and £900.

However, these kinds of products are highly sought-after by many collectors, particularly if they are from Elvis's early days, and can be found on eBay or at collectors' markets. "My advice is to look at eBay but don't buy there," says Mr Slaughter.

Anyone wanting to buy Elvis memorabilia that will hold its value should be selective. "Fans like movies and pictures and things connected to Elvis's life. They're not so interested in other people's interpretations of him. Certain records can be valuable, particularly old shellac 78s, but not vinyl. The vinyl records aren't collectable because millions were sold.

"You might get value out of one of the early HMV albums but only if it's in mint condition with no crease or tear or price label on the sleeve. If you have a 1956 Beanie hat with Elvis's face on it, that could be worth as much as $300. A mint set of bubblegum cards would be valuable too."

Former cameraman Bernie Roughton has so much Elvis memorabilia that it is now housed in its own special extension in his home. "I buy most of my stuff during Elvis Week in Memphis," he says. "It's a 'fan fest' and all the major hotels have items for sale.

"Sometimes, fans will open the doors of their hotel rooms and you can go in and look at what they have to sell. It's just paradise because there is so much that isn't available in the UK."

Many businesses around the world produce "Elvis" items and most are largely worthless, although a few have picked up in recent years.

"An Elvis doll bought 10 years ago would be worth much more now if it's in good condition," says Mr Slaughter. "Or a commemorative statue bought in 1990 for, say, £20 would probably be worth about £60 now."

"I've got a pair of Elvis slippers that I bought in 1978," says Mr Roughton. "If they were in perfect condition and I hadn't worn them, they'd prob- ably be worth £40 to £50."

Mr Slaughter and other fans look askance at many of the objects produced by Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis, particularly tackier items such as a pooper-scooper emblazoned with Elvis's face. "Well, would you want your face on something like that? I think he'd hate a lot of the stuff that's coming out now in his name."

It is hard to know whether the King will continue to reign in the hearts of younger generations, as he has with older ones. The man who defined rock'n' roll culture in the 1950s still inspires an almost religious reverence across the globe nearly 30 years after he died.

It is possible that his cult status will increase and the value of his memorabilia with it. But equally it could just fade away.

"I'm always surprised that Presley doesn't fetch more at auction," says Ms Hodgeson. "The Beatles have always led the market but I think Presley should fetch more because he's such an icon.

"Perhaps it's because the vast majority of Elvis collectors just don't have the money that Beatles collectors have."

Diehard fans will always buy Elvis products, but if you are hoping to make some money out of them later, make sure you buy items in the best condition you can afford, that you are sure of their authenticity, and that you keep them pristine.

As with most collectables, rarity and condition matter most.

DOWN AT THE END OF LONELY STREET...

Prices

Anything from £5 for a new Elvis doll to $100,000 upwards for a rare Vegas suit.

More information

www.elvis.com - the official website for Elvis Presley Enterprises in America, including the collectors' club.

www.elvisnews.com - lots of useful Elvis-related information.

EPFC (Elvis Presley Fan Club), PO Box 4, Leicester LE1 3ZL

Elvis Presley Memorabilia - www.elvispresleymemorabilia.co.uk, or write to Montana, Davids Lane, Benington, Lincolnshire PE22 0BZ

2004 events

7-16 August - Elvis Week, Memphis, US: all kinds of Elvis events, including sales of memorabilia in local hotels.

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