From anarchy to capitalism in only 30 years

It was meant to be ephemeral and revolutionary. But punk is still here and it's expensive, says Gwyn Jones
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The Independent Online

unk, once the ultimate anti-establishment, revolutionary, anarchic movement, has become respectable. Records, posters, clothing and other memorabilia are all being sold in the big auction houses, with collectors paying hundreds of pounds for a ripped T-shirt.

Britain's punk era lasted about three years, a brief but explosive period in music and fashion history. The band most synonymous with the time is the Sex Pistols, and Ian Shirley, editor of the Rare Record Price Guide, says the Pistols are now hotter than ever.

"Their early stuff is becoming blue chip at the moment - there are huge prices being reached for a lot of their material," Shirley says. "The 'God Save the Queen' record sold for £12,000 on eBay recently, but then that has been going up in price for years."

This undercurrent of collectability is also coming to the fore in the poster market. "Punk has never really been out of popularity," explains Adrian Cowdry, Bonhams' poster specialist. "It's just that it's now matured and because punk is now looked on favourably as changing the face of music, the posters and other memorabilia are gaining a bigger following."

One of the best-known collectors' items is the "Never Mind the Bollocks' poster which can sell for from £300 to £1,500. A rarer work is "the American Express poster". This one, from 1979, was entitled "Young Flesh Required, the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and featured a card that looked like an Amex card. American Express was not amused and the posters were banned. Examples can now fetch up to £2,000.

"'Never Mind the Bollocks' was always sought after because of the swear word," says Cowdry. "But five years ago you'd be looking at about half the price they are now - they're a good investment because so few were printed.

"Punk was all over and done with so quickly, and when the Pistols did have a tour, most of the posters were pasted up and ruined, so it's hard to get good-quality items. It's music collectors who are buying them, as well as punk collectors, because people realise it was an era that can't be repeated. It was raw and something that people are now looking back on after all the boy bands. It sums up people going against the grain and I think the market will get bigger."

Christie's also sells punk items in its entertainment memorabilia sales, but Sarah Hodgson, its specialist, says she too finds it difficult to get good material with the market concentrating on the Sex Pistols. "It's quite a niche market, but the age group that was around then now has some money and so prices have risen."

Punk was intertwined with fashion, partly because of the relationship between the man seen as its creator and one of Britain's foremost fashion designers of the 20th century. The manager of the Sex Pistols was Malcolm McLaren, whose partner was Vivienne Westwood. Together they owned a shop on the King's Road that was originally called Sex and then Seditionaries. When the Sex Pistols started wearing their clothing, a fashion trend was born.

Christie's recently sold a mohair string jumper from Seditionaries for £800. "They used to be £300-£400 about five years or so ago," says Patricia Frost, Christie's director of costume and textiles. "It's a part of fashion history. There's a fair number of former punks buying, but also museums and institutions are as well."

One problem is that, like the posters and even the records, there's simply not many of the original vintage items around in good condition, because people liked wearing them. Exhibitions on Westwood and punk have made the clothes even more popular, and buyers of modern Westwood like to collect her earlier work, so the market is expanding.

Punk has come a long way since the BBC banned Johnny Rotten's rendition of "God Save the Queen", and the punks of the 1970s have mellowed. Even Vivienne Westwood has gone on record as saying she didn't enjoy the era, while Rotten (now Lydon), although as individualistic as ever, today campaigns on environmental issues.

Ironically, though, what was in part an anti-capitalist movement is now seen by some collectors as offering investment potential. The irony doesn't stop there. With museums around the world exhibiting the clothing and posters, punk's destructive nature, ripped clothing and youthful culture are gaining a longevity of which its followers could never have dreamed.


Bonhams: 020 7393 3900 (next entertainment sale 22 November)

Christie's: 020 7930 6074 (next entertainment sale 21 November)

The Rare Record Price Guide 2006 (£26, Record Collector and Omnibus Press), from bookshops or call 0870 737 8080

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