The Hot Bid: Ringo Starr’s chart-topping drum kit

Ringo Starr's chart-topping drum kit

Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drum kit, which he played in his early days with the Beatles. Julien’s Auctions image

What you see: A Ludwig oyster black pearl three-piece drum kit that Ringo Starr played on stage and television with the Beatles in the early 1960s. Estimated at $300,000 to $500,000, it sold at Julien’s for $2.1 million – a world auction record for any drum kit.

The expert: Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions.

So, is Ringo Starr pretty much the whole of the market for stage-played drum kits? Does he dominate the category in the same way that Muhammad Ali dominates boxing collectibles and the way Harry Houdini dominates magic memorabilia? Absolutely. Ringo Starr is the most famous drummer in the world. He’s the Holy Grail when it comes to drummers.

Does it matter that this is a Ludwig brand drum kit? Does it have any inherent value, apart from the Ringo Starr provenance? The real impact on the value and the record sale price is it was Ringo Starr’s. The Beatles helped make Ludwig famous. [The brand] became synonymous with the Beatles and Ringo Starr. There’s no intrinsic value. The value is in Ringo Starr, and that he used it.

Could you talk about how Starr came to choose this kit? Starr had a four-piece Mahogany Duroplastic four-piece Premier kit [that was worn out]. In April 1963, Ringo Starr and Brian Epstein [the Beatles’ manager at the time] went into a store in London called Drum City Limited. He remembers seeing the Ludwig kit in the window and saying to Brian, “Oh, great, look at this kit!” That’s what it was.

I understand the drum head, which shows the Beatles logo, is a later remake. What happened to the original drum head? The kit was borrowed by Paul McCartney for many performances in the 1970s and 1980s. When he returned it to Ringo, it was returned without the drum head. Paul, according to Ringo, has it framed on a wall in his home.

I understand the Ludwig drum kit is not complete Starr kept the snare drum. Do we know why? It’s easier to transport and keep with him. He’s used it for very many other performances. He’s quite attached to it, and couldn’t see himself letting it go. He still has it, and Ringo Starr is still performing.

Wow. He’s almost 80, isn’t he? He looks amazing and has so much energy. He’s an inspiration.

Ludwig made this kit just before it started putting serial numbers on its instruments. Does that matter? Or are there so many photos and films and other things that document Ringo Starr playing this drum kit that it doesn’t matter? It could be a concern, excluding the fact that it comes from Ringo Starr, and the provenance is 100 percent. Ringo helped Ludwig become famous. It skyrocketed them to fame when the Beatles started using this kit. We did a film of Ringo playing the kit and talking about it. If Ringo wasn’t here to talk about it, it could be an issue, but there are so many photos and videos of Ringo playing the kit that there’s no doubt.

Did you play these drums at any point before the 2015 auction? I definitely sat on the seat he sat on and played the hell out of those drums. [Laughs] It was phenomenal to sit there behind such an iconic drum kit and hold drumsticks and play. I got goosebumps. I have the best job in the world.

Was Ringo Starr there when you played? No.

That would be intimidating. Very intimidating. I’m not a musician, but I was drawn to it and to sit there and go, “Wow.” Ringo was fully involved with the project. He and Barbara [Bach, Starr’s wife] came to the gallery many, many times, identifying objects, telling stories. It was really cool.

I got the impression at the time that Starr was more involved than most celebrities choose to be. Is that accurate? In your experience, have any other celebrities of his stature been as involved in their sales? I’d say no. He and Barbara were unique. It was really important for them to get it right – get it all documented and recorded accurately. In a way, it was cathartic for them, letting go. Their level of involvement was truly hands-on.

Where does this drum kit rank in the pantheon of Beatles-played instruments? Were any others used at both the Cavern Club and the Ed Sullivan show, as this one was? Paul McCartney has a Hofner bass guitar that would be really important if it ever came to auction. We sold John Lennon’s 1962 Gibson, which was a record for an acoustic guitar. That was from the early days of the Beatles as well. The drum kit is certainly really important. It’s very historic and extremely well-documented. It was bought by a collector in Indiana.

I would have thought that Ludwig would have gone for it. There was great interest in it. The winner was Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts. He’s a huge collector. It was important to him.

After the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Starr stopped playing this drum kit. Do we know why he stopped then why he didn’t play those drums for the other Ed Sullivan appearances? We have no idea about that, and I haven’t had a chance to talk to Ringo to verify that. There was obviously a good reason for it. Sound was so important to them. Maybe the new setting – a studio with a live audience – was the thinking behind that.

As you said earlier, Paul McCartney played this drum kit, too. How did that factor into its value? It definitely was a factor. There are photos of Paul McCartney playing it, and Ringo Starr playing it – a double whammy. It definitely impacted the price.

I see in the lot notes that Starr has, or had, five drum kits. Was this the only one of the five consigned to the 2015 auction? The other four were not in the sale, correct. He may have earmarked them for his children.

Do we know why he chose this one for auction? It’s certainly one that’s very historic, and it’s in its entirety, apart from the snare drum and the missing drum head. Maybe it’s because he was away from it when he loaned it to Paul for the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe it was easier to let go. But these instruments are really important. [Musicians] talk about guitars and drum kits like it’s a baby. It’s amazing how they remember these items and become attached to them.

Ringo Starr's chart-topping drum kit

Ringo Starr’s Ludwig drum kit, minus the snare drum that he kept. Julien’s Auctions image

So Starr found it difficult to sell? Yeah, yeah. He played it, he’s associated with it, he stored it and kept it for so long. He loaned it to the Grammy museum, and after that he decided to let it go, but it was definitely hard for him to let go.

How did you come up with the $300,000 to $500,000 estimate? By looking at sales of other Beatles-played instruments? Exactly, other Beatles instruments. We thought $300,000 to $500,000 was appropriate. We hoped it would break a million. We could never dream of breaking two million.

What was your role in the auction of the Ringo Starr drum kit? We had a crowded room. I was on a phone with a client – the underbidder. The winner had a representative in the room, and ultimately, he won out.

What do you recall of the sale of the Ringo Starr drum kit? There was great excitement, great buildup, great hype. There were hundreds of thousands of people watching online. Then it came to the drum kit and there was silence. We got to half a million, which was the record for a drum kit. Then $750,000. Then we broke a million. It moved very quickly between one million and two million. It was electric, it was tense, it was exciting.

So you were surprised by the final price of the Ringo Starr drum kit? We had hoped it could break a million and set a world record. Breaking two million was one of those moments when I know exactly where I was. My client couldn’t go any further, so it went to Jim Irsay.

Was Ringo Starr in the room? He was not there, but he was watching online.

What was his reaction to the sale of the Ringo Starr drum kit? He was very pleasantly surprised. It hadn’t been done before. How do you surprise a Beatle? He’s seen everything and done everything. He was really chuffed at the result.

How long do you think this record will stand? I imagine it’d be another Ringo Starr drum kit maybe the one he played during the 1969 Beatles rooftop concert? It will take a long time to break the record. Possibly, it could be the rooftop drum kit. Because this was the first one [to come to auction directly from Ringo Starr], and he has children he may decide to leave the kits to, who knows when [another] will come on the market? It’s so rare, so unusual, and it’s from Ringo. It’s hard to offer another drum kit that would sell for more than $2.1 million.

Do we know if the drum kit he played during the rooftop concert is still around? I’m not sure, but I think he has all his Beatles kits. It’s very likely [Ringo has it].

Maybe the record will break if this set comes back to auction? It could. Think of the Marilyn Monroe dress in 1999 [which set a record at Christie’s]. Seventeen years later, it sold for $4.8 million. The underbidder kept the paddle [from the 1999 auction] and came back in 2017, determined to get it that time. They waited 17 years.

So we should plan to talk about this drum kit again in … 2032? [Laughs] If you want to schedule for 2032, why not?



Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.