Dig through your dusty vinyl collection and check out those autograph books. If you ever screamed yourself stupid at a Beatles concert, or bought the tacky mementoes of their 1960s glory days, you might be sitting on a treasure trove of Fab Four memorabilia.
Never mind the Rolling Stones, the Beatles dominate the rock 'n' roll memorabilia arena, among the fastest-growing sectors of the collectibles market and an interesting investment for shrewd collectors. Be it an autograph on a slip of paper or a rare signed LP, John Lennon's coat or a 1960s plastic guitar, no other band trinketry generates near a similar level of demand or price, says Niki Roberts, entertainment specialist at the London auction house Bonhams.
"Beatles memorabilia prices just continue to go higher and higher," she says. Most buyers were 1960s swingers: many are now empty-nesters with money again to spend on revisiting their lost youth. But there is also interest from a younger generation, fuelled by milestones such as the long-awaited release on 17 November of the "naked" Let It Be album, reproduced "wall of sound" orchestrations and choirs added by the producer, Phil Spector.
The prices achieved depend not only on what has been signed but also on which of the Fab Four put their names to it. "John Lennon commands the highest price," Ms Roberts says. "The pecking order used to be John, Paul, George, Ringo, but since George died he has moved up into second place." You could expect to pay £600 to £800 for John's autograph on a paper, £400 to £500 for George's and £250 to £300 for Paul's, with Ringo's at £150 to £200. "It's a lot cheaper to be a fan of Ringo," Ms Roberts says.
But the biggest autograph deals involve a complete set of Beatles signatures on a single item. A paper with four signatures collected on the same occasion fetches upwards of £2,000. Ms Roberts: "It represents a brief moment when they stopped and acted together."
Stephen Maycock, rock 'n' roll specialist at Sotheby's auction house, says the price is influenced by the item signed. A photograph or rare record with a complete set of autographs could be worth 10 times as much as the autographs on paper alone. "Last summer ,a signed copy of the Sergeant Pepper album made almost £40,000," he says.
Some LPs are even rarer. "I've seen only one White Album with all four signatures, and I've never come across an Abbey Road or Let It Be LP in that state," Mr Maycock says.
Singles, too, may have immense rarity value. In 1962, 250 demo singles of the Beatles' first record, "Love Me Do", were released with the mis-spelling "McArtney" and distributed to the band, the press and radio disc jockeys. The Radio Luxembourg library copy, signed by Paul, was sold by Bonhams for more than £13,500, a record for a single.
Particular editions can also make a difference. Ms Roberts says an unsigned Please Please Me mono LP with a gold Parlophone label is worth £250 plus, and the stereo recording more than £1,000; yellow and black label versions are worth only £50 (mono) and £75 (stereo). But the opportunities certainly do not stop at records.
A magical mystery tour of branded merchandise was produced during the 1960s, particularly during 1963-64 and with the film Yellow Submarine in 1968. Mr Maycock says: "They are worth anything from a few quid to thousands." The huge list includes talc tins, powder compacts, lilos, combs, badges, watches and rings. The value lies partly in the condition of the item and its packaging, which must be intact. Ms Roberts says there are tights with the faces of the Fab Four down the sides. "Unworn and in the original packing, they could be £60, but not if you'd worn them," she says.
And 1960s plastic guitar brooches came in sets of five on a card, four with each Beatle's face and the fifth showing the whole group. A full set with cardboard mount would be worth £100 to £150. But, Ms Roberts warns: "Many fakes were produced during the 1970s and they are worthless."
The price is also shaped by rarity. Mr Maycock picks out a Beatles record-player, with a picture of the band on the lid, made in limited numbers in the US and worth £5,000-plus in its original box. The most expensive Beatles item in auction was Lennon's custom-painted, psychedelic Rolls-Royce. "A fantastic period piece from the summer of love," Mr Maycock says. It fetched $2.3m (£1.4m) 18 years ago. A leather coat, worn by Lennon in his early years with the Quarry Men, went for £5,000 at Bonhams a couple of years ago.
Bonhams holds three entertainment sales a year, always with a Beatles section. The next, on Tuesday, includes a pair of quartz crystals from Lennon's home and a picture of him with them. They are expected to make £5,000 to £6,000. Another oddity is the jeweller's model for the sacrificial ring which belonged to Ringo in the film Help! "It has a guide price of £600 to £800," Ms Roberts says. "It's set quite low because the model didn't come into contact with Ringo."
HOW TO START YOUR OWN COLLECTION
* Collectibles such as these are for enthusiasts: if you just want to make money, there are more straightforward ways. But there are no signs of prices falling.
* Fans with cash to spare should check out the major auction house entertainments sales: Bonhams (three a year, next sale 18 November) Sotheby's (two a year, next sale spring, 2004
Christie's, next sale, 18 November, New York.
* Unsigned recordings can be picked up for £30 to £50 in good condition from specialist record collector outlets such as www.musicstack.comReuse content