The life of the music memorabilia collector can be a strange one. There are your more ordinary items, like gig posters or rare records. But from there you can go pretty far down the rabbit hole, through sweat-stained clothing to, say, locks of David Bowie's hair — or, as is up for sale through Guerney's in New York City this weekend, Texas blues legend Johnny Winter's beard clippings.
Guerney's president Arlan Ettinger has seen pretty well everything you can imagine in terms of memorabilia, having run auctions for the likes of the Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Dick Clark and Charlie Parker. Ahead of the auction for Winter, who passed away in 2014, Ettinger spoke to the Dallas Observer about what will be for sale, as well some of the more unusual items that have passed through his auction house's doors.
Dallas Observer: There are some pretty interesting things up for sale in this Johnny Winter auction — like, say, his beard shavings.
Ettinger: Well, look, this is coming directly from his family. I forget the exact numbers of lots, somewhere in the neighborhood of 650. But there are quirky things like his beard and then things that could be considered iconic. ... Although sometimes he appeared on stage bare chested, covered with tattoos, he would often wear bracelets and armlets and exotic belts with big buckles and hats with feathers in them, and we have all that stuff.
You have a pretty sizable collection of his guitars, for instance.
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We have about three dozen of Johnny's guitars, including his beloved Gibson Firebirds. We have his Lazer guitars; we have three of them which are much smaller and not very guitar-like. We have his very first guitar; we have pictures of him holding it when he was about five years old. We have his last guitar which was custom made for him. We have metal resonators — so we have the whole shebang on instruments.
You also have items like his personal notebooks and a collection of gig posters.
He was a collector of posters of that era. So we not only have posters for his performances, some of which go back very, very early — long before he was a name to be reckoned with — but posters he collected from other icon figures like Janis Joplin, certainly Muddy Waters, who was a friend of his and a collaborator.
Johnny was from the Houston area, but was there much that showed up in those items that was connected to Dallas or to Texas blues history in general?
I can't specifically say that something is Dallas related; we didn't go into that great of depth that I would know that. But certainly early posters, and these are very sought-after things because think about it: today you have a big rock concert and tens of thousands of posters are printed to be distributed for such an event. But to a paper collector, you have someone appearing in a local bar and maybe they'll print 50 things to be put in the neighborhood, and if three of those survive that's pretty remarkable.
Has anything in particular caught your eye, as someone who's been through so many sales like this?
Going back to what you said, Johnny had, early in his career, a long beard along with long hair. As an albino, he was certainly distinctive looking. So we have photographs of him actually cutting the beard and a good clump of it in the auction. And as strange as it may sound, it's not the first time hair has ever shown up at auction. In fact, I have a friend who is a serious collector; he has the hair of Abraham Lincoln.
How do you verify a thing like that?
I suppose it's not easy when it comes to Abraham Lincoln, but with Johnny Winter it's a little easier. It comes from his family, we know what color his hair was, and we have photographs of him clipping it.
It seems bizarre that he would bother to preserve something like that in the first place. Do you have any idea why he did?
I don't know, sorry, but it has come from the family. We did the Waylon Jennings auction about two years ago and in that auction there was Willie Nelson's braid. He went to a party one night with Waylon and they made a bet about something, I don't recall [what], and I guess Willie lost and the braid came off — and it was retained by Waylon's family.
Have there been any particularly memorable Texas-related sales that stand out? Stevie Ray Vaughan was a Dallas native, for instance.
We did sell a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar about a year ago. But a Texas treasure, I think, was in that Waylon Jennings auction, which was Buddy Holly's motorcycle. It was given to Waylon after Buddy's untimely death in the airplane crash. I'd like to think Guernsey's was helpful in getting that motorcycle, after it was purchased by a Texas collector who was very grateful and donated it to the Buddy Holly museum in Lubbock.
In all of your years of music auctions, what's the weirdest thing you can think of selling?
[At the Graceland auction] a lot came up that was one of these portable police lights, where if you were driving around in an unmarked police car and you suddenly found yourself in pursuit of somebody, you would throw it up on the roof. Well, Elvis had such a light. The story was that Elvis rarely slept through the night, so, having nothing better to do, he would get out into a car, roam the streets of Memphis and, if he found an unsuspecting motorist, pull the people over. They, not knowing what they did, would say, "Oh gee, what'd we do officer?" And he'd say, "Oh, no, no. I'm not an officer. It's just me, Elvis."
You said these items in the Johnny Winter auction came to you through the family. How does that usually come about?
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It was his widow. A representative of the family reached out to us, a man who played guitar with Johnny for years and years, a Grammy-winning musician who's also played with other groups. It's tough, someone dies and it's a sad situation. ... But in fact just this morning, [the widow] realized that one of the guitars he really did give to her, and so she decided she was going to change her mind and keep that one — and she has that privilege, certainly.
It's an unreserved auction. What does that mean exactly for bidders?
It makes all the difference in the world. Most auctions today are reserved, which means there are preset minimums under which items won't be sold — and that sort of takes the fun out of it. People have limited budgets and say, "I hope I can get something with this amount I have to spent." When you have a reserved auction there's really no chance something's going to sell for below expectations. Here's an unreserved auction and it means there's going to be a lot of surprises.