There are certain items of music memorabilia that seem to reach almost totemic status. In 2000, George Michael, Robbie Williams and Liam and Noel Gallagher all competed in a bidding war for the piano on which John Lennon composed ‘Imagine’, which eventually sold to George Michael for almost £1.4m. Michael Jackson’s red leather jacket from the Thriller video went for over £1m at auction in 2011 whilst the cardigan Kurt Cobain wore in Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged performance fetched £93,000 in 2015. The memorabilia trade can sometimes seem more akin to dealing in relics, with teeth, locks of hair and the most banal of doodled notes fervently pursued by collectors and super-fans.
This commercial appetite for even the most obscure souvenirs from the careers of legendary musicians has, however, spawned a lucrative market for fakes and forgeries. These come in all shapes and sizes; some, created by cynical amateurs, are fairly easy to spot; others, painstakingly faked by individuals with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both music history and the memorabilia industry, can pose more of a challenge to authentication. Often accompanied by elaborately fabricated provenances, it can take both inventive research, specialist industry contacts and an instinct for authenticity to sniff out a fake.
In 2014 Peter Harrington acquired an ‘Original Bob Dylan artwork’ from Special Auction Services, an auction house which specialises in music memorabilia. As any Dylan fan or memorabilia collector will know, a previously unknown artwork by Dylan is a hugely exciting prospect, and we were enthusiastic to learn more about our purchase. The piece, titled ‘New York Slate’, was accompanied by a three-page manuscript provenance which purported that it was an earlier rejected artwork by Dylan intended for use as the album cover of The Band’s Music from Big Pink. It was apparently produced during the period in which Dylan was holed up in the eponymous house in Woodstock, NY, recovering from a motorcycle accident and recording songs with The Band in the basement. The story went that The Band opted for the brighter, more abstract acrylic painting which became the famous album cover, over this sombre pastel offering, but that this piece was eventually reproduced in the programme for the Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1976, filmed by Martin Scorsese for the documentary of the same name. On the reverse, the artwork bears the signatures of two of the members of The Band (Levon Helm and Rick Danko) in silver pen, The Band’s one-time road manager Joseph Forno Jr, and Bob Dylan’s own inked signature dated ‘68’. The item description in the auction house catalogue specifically mentioned that this piece had been retained by Levon Helm and had survived a fire at his house in Woodstock in the early 90s before being sold to the present owner.
In the course of researching this item for our own cataloguing purposes, our attention was caught by several features of the piece and its provenance that caused suspicion. “With items such as this, you have to look for the facts that can be categorically proved or disproved” says Glenn Mitchell of Peter Harrington, who worked on researching this piece. We began by trying to track down the Last Waltz programme mentioned in the item’s description, which would at the very least have authenticated the connection between this artwork and The Band. Glenn reached out to contact Jeff Gold, an LA-based former Executive Vice President/General Manager of Warner Bros. and owner of fine music collectibles business Recordmecca. Jeff is also recognised as the leading expert in Bob Dylan rarities, recently appraising Dylan’s archive with colleague Laura Woolley, in advance of the its sale to the University of Tulsa. He told us that he was not aware of any such programme having existed and voiced his doubts as to the piece’s legitimacy. He offered to put us in touch with Joseph Forno Jr, The Band’s former road manager, with whom he had previously corresponded, and who would be able to tell us if he remembered this artwork or had signed his name to it.
Joe Forno was enormously helpful. While he did not act as The Band’s manager until 1985, he knew all the members in 1968, during the period of Dylan’s residence in Big Pink. His father was also an important member of the Woodstock community, a well-known local businessman and Justice of the Peace, who “got to know the members of The Band very well and did a lot to keep them out of trouble”. With regards to the artwork, he responded:
First, I’ve never heard that Bob Dylan created an alternative painting for the Band’s first cover. It is entirely possible he did, but I’ve never heard that. From 1986 thru 1994, including the time of the fire that destroyed Levon’s home and studio, I spent more time with Levon than anyone. I was also there the night of the fire in 1991 and rarely left his side for the next year until he moved into the “barn” that I was in charge of rebuilding with contractor Paul Shultis Jr. Nothing survived the fire except for the people in the house, Levon and Sandy Helm, his Dad Jasper Diamond and Carolyn Szelest, wife of the late piano player Stan Szelest. Levon had nothing but his bathrobe and a pair of cowboy boots. I was at the house every day after the fire. No painting survived the fire. I never saw the painting. There was a concrete vault that was water damaged and contained recorded tapes from the RCO era. They were removed to a vault I owned and cataloged and later returned to Levon’s new studio. No paintings or art was in the vault, and that would have been the only place anything could have survived.
Joe also provided us with samples of Levon Helm’s signature, which did not match that on the reverse of the piece, and told us that his own alleged autograph thereon was “not even close to my normal signature”.
Jeff Gold was also able to pass on other important contacts to us, who were able to help corroborate the mounting evidence that this artwork was an elaborate fake. Cheryl Pawelski, co-producer of The Band’s boxset, all of their reissues, and a foremost expert on their output, confirmed that there had never been a program for The Last Waltz. We also consulted Roger Epperson, one of the foremost Rock autograph experts, who considered both the Levon Helm and Rick Danko signatures to be fakes. On top of this, the style, materials and size of this piece don’t seem concordant with other Dylan artworks from the time, which are predominantly large acrylic paintings on canvas.
Having discovered the item’s inauthenticity, we contacted Special Auction Services, detailing our findings. Auction houses, however, often contain clauses in their terms and conditions which protect them against errors or negligence in their cataloguing, and we were duly informed by Special Auction services that, with regards to their catalogues, “All descriptions, whether printed or oral, are statements of opinion not fact”. In short, they refused to take responsibility for auctioning a fake.
This cautionary tale shows how far forgers will go to defraud dealers and avid collectors, and how they can sometimes exploit an auction house’s less-than-rigorous approach to research. Fortunately, we were able to discover the spurious nature of this artwork, subjecting it to the same level of scrutiny as we do all the items we acquire, which is why we are able to assure customers of the legitimacy of everything we sell. The advantage of buying from a reputable dealer is not only in the application of skill and experience we apply when in research and cataloguing, but also in that fact that we guarantee a full refund if there is any reason for dissatisfaction with an item. Unfortunately, not all auction houses exercise the same diligence and care in cataloguing, nor do they offer any protection to their customers if an error has been made on their part, which is why it is important to be vigilant about who you are dealing with in the rare book, artwork or memorabilia trade.
This article was first published on the blog of Peter Harrington Rare Books by Rachel Chanter, and is published here with permission of the author.