Grateful Dead memorabilia keeps on truckin’

Grateful Dead

A poster for the band’s ‘Aoxomoxoa’ Avalon Ballroom January 1969 concerts, designed by artist Rick Griffin, realized $13,000 + the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Stephenson’s Auction. Photo courtesy of Stephenson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The word “iconic” is readily bandied about and in most cases doesn’t live up to the hype. In the case of the Grateful Dead, however, the band has certainly achieved iconic status in music history. Forming in the mid-1960s in the drug-sex fueled music scene that was San Francisco, the band tapped into the psychedelic counterculture that was booming at the time.

Back in this era, radio had the power to make or break a recording artist’s career, but this band was not a radio star. Instead, it grew its fanbase through live performances that often featured lengthy instrumental riffs and a new sound unlike what other bands were creating. They were affectionately known as The Dead by their fans, who were dubbed Deadheads. The Dead attracted a large cult following by infusing various genres from folk to reggae into its revolutionary sound. The band became one of the most prolific and lucrative music groups, touring for most of its 30 years, mostly with its original members, and selling some 35 million albums worldwide.

For music fans, they are one of the leading bands that collectors seek out, and topping the list of Dead collectables, obviously, are concert posters.

Grateful Dead

This band-signed publicity 8-by-10-inch photograph made $1,947 + the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“For the Grateful Dead, posters are king,” said Alex Winter, president of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, in York, Pennsylvania. Given the band’s extensive career, he said there are many concert posters on the market. “There are those that are more rare and desirable. There are plenty that are more affordable but equally visual, just not as rare or expensive.”

Among the most valuable of its concert posters are those made for important shows, such as the ones organized by promoter Chet Holmes and his company, Family Dog, that organized events in San Francisco in the 1960s. An original first printing of a 1966 poster advertising concerts on Sept. 16-17 that year at the Avalon Ballroom achieved $15,8412 + the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in November 2019. Designed by renowned illustrators Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, the poster had minor tape pulls, pinpricks and a bend in one corner. Despite these condition issues the poster performed well because of who designed it. The poster was also signed in pencil by Mouse, who added his signature “running mouse” doodle at lower right.

Grateful Dead

This first printing of a poster promoting fall 1966 concerts at the Avalon Ballroom achieved $15,842 + the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Mouse and Kelley utilized a 19th century illustration by Edward Joseph Sullivan from an Arabian poetry publication, The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam, that they discovered at the San Francisco Public Library,” according to the auction catalog. “This image is easily the most recognizable of the Family Dog series and has risen to the level of icon in the canon of American popular culture … ”

Grateful Dead

Rick Griffin’s Grateful Dead ‘Reckoning’ album preliminary art (picture), 1981, and the printed poster sold for $4,750 at Heritage Auctions in March 2013. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Besides their music, the Grateful Dead was well known for the imaginative art that decorated their posters and albums such as the signature skeleton and roses motif on the aforementioned Avalon poster. Among the celebrated artists creating these designs was the group known as the Big Five, who designed most of the best San Francisco psychedelic posters in the 1960s. They were Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson.

“Concert posters of all types are hot. This poster [Skeleton and Roses] is, in my opinion, the definitive Grateful Dead poster. High-grade first prints have gone for big money. Unfortunately, we have not had one of those yet,” Winter said. This image became so popular that it was later used as an album cover.

Grateful Dead

A payroll check following the band’s trio of shows in December 1966 at The Fillmore, signed by Jerry Garcia and the band’s manager, went for $2,400 + the buyer’s premium in June 2017 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Even Grateful Dead posters sans psychedelic imagery have done well. A poster advertising a run of shows in the summer of 1967 in Toronto and presented by well-known San Francisco music promoter Bill Graham featured one photograph each of the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, who shared billing. The two photos are surrounded by a simple border of maple leaves. A first printing example fetched $19,000 + the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in July 2018.

Anything signed by members of the band, especially from its early/classic lineup, does very well. Albums, as well as guitars and band-owned/used items, are particularly strong to the extent that even road-worn cases for amps and speakers have fetched several thousand dollars each.

Grateful Dead

This Phil Lesh stage-played Ken Smith bass six-string guitar, circa 1991, brought $85,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Julien’s Auctions

Among guitars that have performed well at auction is a Phil Lesh stage-played Ken Smith bass six-string guitar, circa 1991, that brought $85,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2020. A copy of the Grateful Dead’s first record contract with Warner Brothers Records, dated December 1966, made $40,000 + the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Both items sold at Julien’s Auctions.

Given the strong following for the band over three decades until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and even into the 2000s when the band held various reunion tours, collectors and music fans are driven to preserve the band’s legacy by collecting its memorabilia. What a long strange trip it’s been – and continues to be.

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