DALLAS – A five-dollar purchase 40 years ago became a world-record setter on May 1. An advertisement for the 1953 Hank Williams show that never happened sold for $150,000 at Heritage Auctions, setting a world record for the most expensive concert poster ever sold at auction. That stunning record-setter, a bright yellow slice of cardboard featuring the Hillbilly Shakespeare, was found in 1981 in a Canton, Ohio, barn and is one of only three known existing copies.
Williams unseats the Beatles as record-holder for world’s most expensive poster. In April 2020, a poster for the Fab Four’s Aug. 23, 1966, show at Shea Stadium realized $137,500 at Heritage Auctions.
The Williams poster led the Dallas-based auction house’s May 1-2 Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction, which realized more than $1.86 million. Nearly 4,000 bidders worldwide participated in the two-day event, which featured more than 1,350 lots that almost completely sold out and included a staggering number of rock posters, Elvis Presley-owned pieces, Beatles rarities, a prop gun from 1987’s RoboCop, and items from the Trini Lopez estate, among them some of the guitars he designed for Gibson.
“I’m pleasantly surprised but not shocked at all that this magnificent beast set a new world record,” says Pete Howard, Consignment Director in Heritage’s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia category, of the Williams poster. “It’s not often I use a term like ‘Smithsonian piece’ for a concert poster, but this is not only one of those, it’s probably the one. Really, if that museum called me and asked what concert poster they should put on their walls, I’d fly right past Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Beatles and tell them, ‘This one.’”
That’s because Hank Williams never made this Jan. 1, 1953, concert at the Canton Memorial Auditorium in Ohio. He died of a heart attack in the backseat of a car somewhere between Bristol, Tenn., and Oak Hill, W.Va., en route to that Ohio show. Williams was 29 when he died. The concert still took place as scheduled, with his backing band, The Drifting Cowboys, and everyone else on the bill offering in Williams’ absence a heartsick tribute to the man whose songs they performed by way of farewell.
This poster for the concert has acquired its own mythic status, in large part because there are just three known copies. The one offered at Heritage Auctions was the first to reach the auction block. It is also, by far, in the best condition of the three. As a result of its restoration, Ken Burns featured the poster in his documentary Hank Williams: The Hillbilly Shakespeare.
Indeed, its significance cannot be overstated, in large part because so many bootleg versions would appear in the years following Williams’ death as fans scrambled for some keepsake. Its beauty, too, is unparalleled, from the portrait of Williams to its mention of Jambalaya, his most recent hit single at the time, and its reference to Williams as “Mr. Lovesick Blues” and the “Star of MGM Records and Films,” though, as Bill Malone notes in his essential history Country Music U.S.A., Williams’ five-year movie contract “had not resulted in a motion picture before he died.”
Hence this poster’s reputation as one of music’s holy grails, as it’s far scarcer than the Beatles’ Shea Stadium poster sold last year.
Among the myriad articles of clothing available in the sale, one stood out: an Army suit worn by Elvis Presley during his two-year stint in the armed forces, from 1958 to 1960, which fetched $21,250. The photo-matched jumpsuit, which bears the “PRESLEY” name above the right breast pocket, came with a handwritten letter of provenance from Elvis’ first cousin Patsy Presley Gambill.
One of Presley’s friends – and, briefly, one of his neighbors during Elvis and Priscilla’s 1967 Palm Springs honeymoon – was singer Trini Lopez, whose death last year made international headlines. The sale included dozens of items from the Trini Lopez estate, among them a circa-1967 Deluxe Model Gibson Electric guitar, which the Dallas native designed. That guitar, a favorite of Dave Grohl and Noel Gallagher, brought $22,500.
Most of the auction was top-lined by entertainment memorabilia, in fact – save for one extraordinary piece from the 1987 film RoboCop, filmed entirely in Dallas, Heritage’s hometown. A prop pistol used by Peter Weller in director Paul Verhoeven’s film sold Saturday for $14,375, more than 14 times its estimate. As the man said: That’s nice shooting there.
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