Memorabilia rocks entepreneur's bottom line

George Harrison called his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass. But that doesn't appear to be true for autographs and other collectibles from The Beatles and other rock music legends.

Last week, Christie's in London attracted the second-highest price yet for a piece of pop memorabilia — and nearly four times more than expected — when it auctioned the drumhead featured on the cover of The Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for 541,250 British pounds, or $1.1 million.

That trailed the 600,000 pounds, now equal to $1.2 million, paid in 2005 for John Lennon's handwritten lyrics to All You Need Is Love.

It's just the latest of many signs that rock music artifacts have become the fastest-growing major segment of the memorabilia business.

"Last year was our biggest year by far, and this year we're up another 20%" in revenue, says American Royal Arts CEO Jerry Gladstone, an entrepreneur in collectibles who shifted the focus of his 21-year-old firm a few years ago from animated-movie cells to pop. "People can't afford gas and this and that, and we are up 20%."

Gotta Have It Collectibles also is upbeat about the online auction it will hold in early August.

Its pop prizes include Lennon's talisman necklace, which he wore in the nude photo with Yoko Ono on their 1968 Two Virgins album. It could go for as much as $500,000.

A jumpsuit called the Peacock that Elvis Presley wore in concert could go for $300,000, a record price for an Elvis collectible.

Nostalgia's in the air this summer as concert venues rock to vintage performers including Journey, The Eagles, The Police, Donna Summer, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller Band, Rush, Kansas, Peter Frampton, George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic, Bon Jovi and Tom Petty. It should get another boost next year with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock.

One reason is that lots of Baby Boomers can afford to indulge themselves. Many are in the prime of their careers, or no longer have to shoulder college tuition bills now that their kids have grown.

Many people also feel more certain that rock 'n' roll really is here to stay, making collectibles potentially savvy investments.

In Europe, "They could care less about American sports (memorabilia)," says Gotta Have It CEO Pete Siegel. "But with rock 'n' roll, they're huge buyers. Plus, the dollar is weak, so they're able to buy at a big discount in the States."

But there's a sour note in the business as sellers bicker over techniques to assure buyers that they're getting authentic signatures — not clever forgeries.

Gladstone took it to court last year. A customer agreed in 2006 to pay his Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm $14,900 for a copy of The Beatles' Revolver album that an expert in forensic document analysis who works with Gladstone certified as having been signed by Lennon, Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

Before the deal was complete, though, the customer asked an auction house to examine a scan of the album. It forwarded the scan to Frank Caiazzo, whose firm, The Beatles Autographs, sells and authenticates Fab Four signatures.

His verdict: The autographs were forgeries. The customer canceled the order, and Gladstone sued Caiazzo in a Florida Circuit Court for unfair trade practices and slander.

"I said to myself, either I'm going to get out of The Beatles business, or I'm going to have to go after this guy," Gladstone says. "If I don't protect my integrity, what do I have? Nothing."

He also says that there's a conflict when someone both sells and authenticates autographs.

Not true, says Caiazzo. He authenticates for competitors and auction houses, including Christie's. He says they call on him because he specializes in four signatures, while forensics experts often deal with lots of stars in entertainment, sports and politics.

What's more, he says, "Signed album covers are the rarest of the rare." Fans typically "had autograph books, napkins, scraps of paper and programs. They rarely had an album on hand to sign."

Siegel, for his part, says, "I've known Frank for a long time, and I trust his ability very much."

The court case has been delayed by a dispute over whether it belongs in Florida or New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Gladstone says he tries to ensure his collectibles are authentic by scoring them directly from stars and others close to them.

He says that he has deals with the estates of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and in April he cut one with Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin. Now, he says, he's working on agreements with Tom Petty and Billy Joel.

Gladstone's customers, 70% of whom are men, consistently buy Beatles autographs. He says that his copy of Sgt. Pepper's signed by all four of The Beatles on the front — which collectors prefer — is worth $25,000. His latest catalog also is chock-full of albums autographed on the front by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.

But Siegel expects as much as $75,000 for his copy of Please Please Me — The Beatles' first album, released in the U.K. in 1963 — and signed by the Fab Four and their manager, Brian Epstein.

Is there any market for memorabilia from female stars, such as Joni Mitchell, who's also a painter?

"Joni Mitchell's great, but she gives her paintings away," Gladstone says. "She won't sell out."