Prince is in demand these days. Ever since the iconic musician and actor died unexpectedly at his home in Minnesota on April 21, everything he touched has become priceless. In the week following his death, he sold four million songs and albums. But his memorabilia is an even hotter property — just ask Heritage Auctions, which is headquartered in Dallas.
The auction house is currently holding one of Prince's custom-made, signature Yellow Cloud guitars that he used sometime between 1988 and 1994. The guitar is yellow, small and inscribed with his "Love Symbol" along the fret board. It comes in a surprisingly ordinary case, complete with picks and a whammy bar.
In fact, it's not the first time Heritage has sold this guitar. "We contacted [the previous buyer] and said, ‘If you want to resell this, this is your time,’" says Heritage employee Gerry Shrum. He has been working with Heritage for 12 years and ran a memorabilia shop in San Diego for 30 years before that.
Started in Dallas in 1976, Heritage is the third-largest auction house in the world with offices in locations including Beverly Hills, Chicago, New York City, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. With 40 divisions, they collect and auction a wide range of items, from fine art and jewelry to memorabilia from music and other entertainment. Over the weekend in Dallas, they sold a flag that led troops in Normandy during the D-Day Invasion for $514,000.
One of the first things you might see walking into Heritage's building on Maple is Whitney Houston’s last driver’s license — renewed six months before she died — a dress, earrings and hat worn by the late singer, and a couple of awards she won. These are part of the Whitney Houston Collection that Heritage is auctioning off. Working with the family, they have gathered items from throughout her life and career.
“They had a lot of stuff and thought, gosh, it would be great to share it with all the fans,” says Shrum, who personally worked with the family. He points to an outfit Houston wore 20 years ago. “You can’t get much more personal than that."
Public relations director Noah Fleisher dismisses any notions about collecting and selling dead people’s clothes as being creepy, however. "They love her very much and so do the fans," he says of Houston. "We don’t focus on the dark side of it; there are enough people to do that. We really just want it to be a celebration of her career. She is the most decorated female vocalist of all time.”
The historical relevance of these items up for auction is another important consideration. Nudie Cohn, who created Elvis Presley’s gold lamé suit as well as insane outfits for Gram Parsons, designed Houston’s dress. Mikhail Gorbachev presented one of those awards to Houston.
“We’ve got some of David [Bowie]’s hair,” Shrum says. “I didn’t know that!” Fleisher exclaims. Shrum leaves to get Bowie’s hair.
The starting bid is $2,000. It’s a lock of Bowie’s hair from 1983, pressed against a photo of him. This was used for a lifelike sculpture at Madame Tussauds, a wax museum in London; they had to make sure his hair was exactly the right color. Bowie had wavy blonde hair at the time. (Fleisher concedes that selling hair is a little creepy.)
They recently sold John Lennon’s hair. “John got a haircut because he was doing a movie down in Spain,” Shrum says. “This German barber cut his hair and had the brilliance to save it.” Lennon’s hair went for $35,000.
They never know what is going to come in. Shrum mentions the acquisition of 1,700 “3D jazz photos” that include Billie Holiday. From the 1940s and ’50s, the Nat Singerman Jazz Archive is a mind-blowing collection of unpublished color stereoscopic images. Using the stereo 3D viewer, which seems like a View-Master from the future, these pictures take you to another place.
One photo shows Billie Holiday on a tiny stage in Cleveland in 1952. The clarity of the image is nothing less than startling. It reveals very specific shades of color on a piano or dress jacket, for instance.The pictures are indeed three-dimensional enough to give you a sense of how big the space is and exactly where the camera was positioned in it. You almost expect to see these people move.
“It could have went to the landfill,” Shrum says. Another picture offers a look at jazz pianist Pete Johnson sitting at a piano pushed up against the wall in a tiny room. Again, the clarity is remarkable: The specific shade of brown of his suit, a million scratches on an old piano, and walls that look nothing less than grimy. Another photo offers a view from a table in the Café Society, a legendary Greenwich Village nightclub that showcased African-American talent. It hasn’t been open since 1948.
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But the showpieces right now are Prince's — and there's more than just the guitar. There's an award presented to Prince in the ’80s for selling 1.5 million VHS copies of Purple Rain. Heritage also has an early reel-to-reel Prince demo tape, circa 1976 to 77, with the artist’s handwriting on it. Two of the three tracks included would be re-recorded for Prince’s debut album, For You. Bidding starts at $2,000, but mp3s of the tracks are included along with an empty reel-to-reel box Prince designed himself.
The Prince items will only be in Dallas for a few more days still. They're due to be auctioned on June 25 in Beverly Hills.