Sometimes, history hides in a garment bag.
On a recent visit to Dallas' Heritage Auctions, the world's third largest auction house, a department coordinator bearing a plain garment bag approached a table already laden with eye-popping pieces of rock 'n' roll memorabilia: one of two confirmed variant pressings of the Rolling Stones' seminal Let It Bleed album; a rare, "first state" edition of the Beatles' infamous "butcher cover" version of Yesterday & Today; a gold album awarded to Led Zeppelin certifying sales of 1 million copies of its 1973 record Houses of the Holy.
From the unremarkable bag, she casually withdrew a vest once worn by guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, removed it from its plastic hanger and carefully laid the surprisingly small article of clothing atop the table. Being able to reach out and touch something better suited for display in, say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is a head-spinning experience.
The brown velvet and gold silk brocade vest, which buttons down the front and is adorned with tiny bits of mirror, was given to Hendrix's then-lawyer, Stevens H. Weiss, backstage at a February 1969 show at London's Royal Albert Hall. The starting bid to own this tangible piece of '60s nostalgia? $5,000.
Hendrix's vest, taken from the late Weiss' collection, along with several hundred other artifacts from the worlds of music and movies will go on the auction block Friday.
Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as the largest collectibles auctioneer in the world, keeps a running total on its website's homepage of how much money -- more than $869 million, as of press time -- it has sold to its network of bidders (more than 764,000) during the last 12 months. The pair of staggering numbers points to just how much the world of memorabilia -- everything from coins to cars -- has grown during the past few years.
Powered in part by the Internet (Heritage offers free appraisals online and opens its auction bidding with a real-time app on its website, ha.com) and also people with disposable income eager to own something as seemingly innocuous as a script or a piece of luggage, the Dallas-based house has become a formidable player in the big money, high-stakes world of auctions, jockeying for dominance with renowned houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's.
For music and entertainment memorabilia consignment director Garry Shrum, an avowed vinyl fan (he says he owns 100,000 LPs), Friday's sale of the items marks the end of a months-long process involving specialized detective work to determine an item's authenticity, a reliance on decades of knowledge and a healthy appreciation for just how cool it is to spend a work day surrounded by curios like Elvis Presley's sunglasses.
"Every week we get something in I haven't seen before," Shrum says. "For all the [trading] shows that I've done, and all the days in the [record] shops, I saw a lot of stuff, so when I see something I've never seen, I'm like, 'Yeah!'"
Although the tall, affable Shrum, who sported a salt-and-pepper ponytail and a Beatles necktie during a recent visit, and the auction house's extensive team of experts have ample experience, they can't always immediately confirm an item's provenance: "We've got so many experts," Shrum says. "We have to be really on our toes."
Indeed, making sure what's for sale is legitimate occasionally involves lots of legwork and research.
"I'll get a phone call, a guy says 'I have this kind of collection,'" Shrum says. "I'll jump on a plane and go take a look at it. We have to research...it's really important to have a paper trail on everything we get in."
For Friday's auction, Shrum singles out the Beatles lots as containing a "lot of key pieces," including some "killer...autograph pieces." Other highlights include a Woody Guthrie original watercolor painting, a rare first pressing of the Beatles' White Album owned by Paul McCartney's ex-girlfriend Jane Asher and the vintage Shure microphone upon which the famous phrase "Elvis has left the building" was first uttered.
And so the bids will fly fast and furious, considerable sums of money will change hands, and after the dust settles, Shrum and his Heritage Auctions colleagues will go back to work, preparing to unearth more unassuming pieces of history -- musical and otherwise -- and put them up for sale.