John Lennon may have had a chequered history with the FBI, but 30 years after his death one might have thought the agency would have lost interest. Two days ago a small Manhattan memorabilia shop was raided by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents who seized a set of the singer's fingerprints which were due up for auction.
The signed fingerprint card, made at a police station on 8 May 1976, when Lennon was applying for citizenship, was part of a Gotta Have It! auction of 850 lots including Lennon and McCartney's earliest known signatures and a handwritten set list including Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' original bass player. But the fingerprints, for which a minimum bid of $100,000 had been set, were to have been the highlight of the sale, which will mark what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday.
"We now have 849 lots," the shop's owner, Peter Siegel, said last night. "The whole thing is weird, very odd." Mr Siegel explained that the card was being sold on behalf of a private collector, a former concert promoter who had bought it at a Beatles convention about two decades ago.
"He bought it legally. We spoke to him yesterday. He will try and get it back but I don't think he will have much luck," the shop owner said, adding: "The way it all transpired it would seem it was a matter of national security. They were very nice and we were cordial but it was a shock."
Just before lunch on Wednesday an FBI agent parked outside the shop on East 57th Street, New York, in a blue Ford, but it turned out that he lacked a proper subpoena. After a series of telephone calls, a proper subpoena was eventually served and the card seized.
Lennon was under FBI surveillance in the early 1970s for anti-war activism, but that ended with the J Edgar Hoover era in 1972.
One previously confidential 1972 document on the FBI site, from an investigation into intelligence that Lennon had contributed $75,000 to a group planning to disrupt the Republican National Convention, reads: "Source advised that Lennon appears to be radically orientated, however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics."
As the card seized on Wednesday dates from four years later, there was speculation that the FBI simply wanted to know how government property had fallen into private ownership.
James Margolin, a spokesman for the agency, said yesterday that the FBI was investigating how the item "came to be up for auction".
According to The New York Times, Leon Wildes, Lennon's immigration lawyer in the 1970s, offered a theory about the document's provenance.
He said that during the summer of 1976, he happened to have some of Lennon's paperwork with him, including a fingerprint form, while he was making a television appearance. "When I returned from New York, it turned out it was missing," he said. "I was very upset. We called about it, and nobody seemed to know where it was."
Mr Siegel said that in 20 years of selling pop memorabilia he had never experienced anything like this kind of investigation, adding: "Here he is, one of our greatest musicians ever, and they just don't stop investigating this guy. If it was anybody else's fingerprint card, I wouldn't hear from anybody."
Mr Siegel pointed out that this was not the first time a Lennon fingerprint card had been sold. In 1991 Sotheby's auctioned a similar one for $4,125 without any fuss.
Other items in the auction include a Polaroid photograph of Sean Lennon, annotated by his father, the original Diana Dors waxwork bust used for the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover and Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", written in black ballpoint on a sheet of letterheaded paper from Apple Corps Limited, 3 Savile Row.Reuse content