Ted Owen: Noises Off

Why should a work of art that was manufactured by others be more valuable than handwritten lyrics by two of the masters of pop music?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After an insane, manic, media-filled week, our auction house, the Fame Bureau, sold Jimi Hendrix's Astoria Stratocaster for a record-breaking price of £310,000 on Thursday. It was the guitar Hendrix "sacrificed" on stage in 1967 by covering it in lighter fuel and setting it on fire.

The media interest supports our view that the items we put up for sale are more than just rock memorabilia. They are cultural relics from one of the most important periods of our recent history. We didn't have World War III. We had rock'n'roll. Other items are more than relics. Handwritten lyrics by the likes of the Beatles or Jim Morrison of the Doors are works of art. That is why the British Library displays some of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics just a few feet away from the Magna Carta. They are that important.

So why do they sell for only a few hundred thousand pounds when, in a week or so, Damien Hirst will raise millions for works that have, in my view, little cultural significance and, moreover, were not even made by him? His auction, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, will see more than 200 new works go under the hammer. As with Andy Warhol, who also sells for millions, much of Hirst's work is factory-produced by others.

The market for rock memorabilia didn't really begin until the early 1980s. The early sales were bullish, and soon the auction houses started up their own departments to deal in rock memorabilia. Things really took off in the 1990s, when the British Library took in Hunter Davies's collection of handwritten lyrics for the Beatles, including manuscripts for "Yesterday" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand".

Yet I just don't understand why a collector will spend £10m on a Warhol or a Hirst, yet Jim Morrison's notebook goes for just a few thousand pounds.

Why do I think the artists of the post-war era are more important than those who masquerade as artists today? In the early days of pop music, people thought it wouldn't last. They thought, "We'll enjoy the music, then the band will break up and we'll never hear of them again."

But that's not been the case. Fifteen-year-olds are still listening to, and trying to play, Jimi Hendrix, for example. Likewise, the artists in those days didn't really know the sig

nificance of what they were doing. Whereas now the marketing people have learned how to exploit the music business, so bands can be manufactured and the Simon Cowells of the world can make millions out of them, then the artists were creating significant music that we still listen to. Not only that, many of the artists, such as Bob Dylan or the Stones or the Beatles, made significant music with political, social or cultural influence. It is no exaggeration to say they changed the world, and how we view the world and how we think about things. It was a period of cultural revolution that defines the world we live in today.

That's what real artists do. Often, as with Shakespeare, they are unaware of their significance at the time. Just because they were working 30 or 40 years ago doesn't make them less culturally important than Shakespeare.

Contrast that with the exploitation of the market that today's artists, including fine artists, and their managers, are capable of.

People like Damien Hirst may well be worth their money. If they are, then the musical artists from the period of roughly 1955 to 1975 are worth just as much. Warhol may have had the idea to paint a soup can, but for some reason couldn't be bothered to do it himself.

The handwritten lyrics for "All You Need Is Love" sold for just £750,000. The piano on which John Lennon composed "Imagine" was sold for £1.5m – a record for rock memorabilia. Perhaps it will take a little more time before the significance of the period is fully appreciated.

Ted Owen is the managing director of the Fame Bureau