Music Article

Everything, Plus the Bathroom Sink

Celebrity collectibles -- Kurt Cobain's guitar, Elvis' library card, and John Lennon's sink are what fans want at rock & roll auctions

If simply owning your favorite band's album isn't enough, and you're too shy to ask for autographs, consider the market for rock & roll memorabilia.

At the recent four-day ''Forty Years of Rock & Roll'' auction in New York, it was possible to discover the young Elvis Presley's literary tastes (The Art of Effective Speaking) through his library card (which went for $650), lounge in rock-star style wearing Ron Wood's robe ($200), or relive the heady nihilism of punk's early days in Sid Vicious' shirt ($650).

There was a bizarre side to all this: What use could anyone have for Elvis' sound deadeners for skeet shooting ($150)? But for many of the more than 800 fans who bid on these and other lots — such as a Kurt Cobain guitar (complete with his bloodstains) that was smashed, thrown off stage and autographed for the fan who caught it ($17,000) — it is a way to feel close to their idols.

According to Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's Auction House, which hosted the event, what makes an item auction-worthy is its ''looks, craft, rarity, and condition.'' But before looking for hidden fortunes in the attic, remember that auctions are unpredictable. While a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst and six Beatles albums fetched the top prices of $50,000 and $28,000, respectively, highly publicized collectibles, including a 1957 Bel Aire Coupe customized for Ringo Starr, went unsold. And a sink from John Lennon's Dakota apartment sold for only $450 — considerably less than its $3,000 estimate.

Talk-show host Conan O'Brien, taping the auction, caught the memorabilia bug and bought a neon-orange towel used by Elvis at Graceland ($150). ''I'm starting a collection of celebrity towels,'' said O'Brien. ''I'm also very interested in finding Gene Rayburn's washcloth.''

Originally posted Feb 03, 1995 Published in issue #260 Feb 03, 1995 Order article reprints