Auctioning the Dead

icons-and-idols-rock-catalogAmong the most interesting  but often overlooked scholarly resources for the study of the Grateful Dead are auction catalogs: there have been several high-profile auctions of Dead-related memorabilia over the years, and their catalogs have reproduced images and ephemera that are immensely interesting for fans—and very helpful to scholars studying the band and its cultural impact.

The first auction of Dead materials to really make a national splash was called “Life on the Golden Road with the Grateful Dead: The Ramrod Shurtliff Collection,” held in 2007. Drawn from the collection of one of the band’s longtime crew members, the auction provided a glimpse of the remarkable range of materials that illustrated the Grateful Dead phenomenon. That auction was followed by “More Skeletons From the Closet,” which featured materials from the estate of longtime crew member “Ram Rod” Shurtliff. Bonhams followed that with “Visions of Garcia” in May 2012, producing a fine 112-page catalog featuring unpublished photographs along with some remarkable illuminated set lists by Garcia, along with some of his drawings, sketches, and other ephemera.

Recently, Julien’s Auctions, a Los Angeles-based company specializing in pop culture memorabilia—chiefly sports, film, and rock music—hosted an auction featuring hundreds of pieces that pertained to the Dead. With a picture of a young Jerry Garcia gracing the cover, the 333-page glossy catalog features items from Garcia band manager and longtime crew member Steve Parish’s collection, but its major contribution documents the art of the Dead and the broader Haight-Ashbury context that incubated the Dead and so many other iconic bands of the sixties. Sketches, drafts, and posters by Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Randy Tuten, and others chart the arc of Grateful Dead imagery and its broader context of the burgeoning psychedelic art emanating from the Haight. Of particular interest are the dozens of printer’s plates for various Family Dog posters, most of which have never been displayed.

Since the high bidders in these auctions tend to be collectors, not cultural heritage institutions, the catalogs end up being the only way for most scholars to know about, or see images of, those materials. And while some collectibles possess little evidentiary value, many do—especially manuscripts and other one-of-a-kind items.

Some of the insights provided by these catalogs  are expected: rare photographs documenting the band’s early days, instruments that help scholars and fans understand the band’s craft. Other glimpses are more precious, such as three books from Pigpen’s library: Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World, and Gregory Corso’s Gasoline. The significance? All three pieces demonstrated the degree to which McKernan was interested in the Beat movement—not just as a reader, but as a practitioner, as his doodles and poem decorating the volumes  suggests.

For scholars, these catalogs can be cited with some assurance, since auction houses go to great lengths to verify provenance and originality—their credibility rests on the authenticity of the materials they sell.

Julien’s joins Bonham’s and Butterfields in documenting some of the fascinating, colorful and compelling artifacts and art that inform the Grateful Dead phenomenon and its dissemination into American culture.


Archive supporter Jesse Jarnow emailed to say that I missed an auction: “Great post about auction catalogues, though missing the Guernsey’s (May 8th!) 2002 auction of Wolf & Tiger with lots of Jerry’s clothes, handwritten notes from his days as a music teacher, etc.. Nice catalogue, too.” Jarnow, a fine journalist and author, wrote a thoughtful account of the auction here. Thanks for pointing it out, Jesse – - and if any reader has a copy of the catalog they would like to donate, the Archive would be most grateful.