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Why Is This Beat-Up Guitar Worth $6 Million?

on the morning of May 15, 2019, more than a dozen cops arrived at a home in the placid suburb of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Armed with a search warrant, they ordered a member of the household to sit down and denied her access to her cellphone. Similar searches took place at other properties in Woodstock, New York, and Brooklyn. When it was over, according to court documents, the police left with cellphones, USB drives, iPads, 1,300 pages of “physical documents,” four Apple MacBooks, and files filled with banking records.

They also departed with the booty at the top of their list. Guns? No. Drugs? Nope. Something even more contraband and sought after, complete with the smell of colitas: handwritten lyrics to the Eagles’ 1976 album, Hotel California, all on legal pads and numbering 84 pages. Believing they were stolen, one of the creators wanted them back.

Nearly as long as pop has existed, fans and hoarders have paid for souvenirs that put them closer to their heroes. At what was likely the first rock auction, in 1970, a Who fan bought one of John Entwistle’s T-shirts for $25, and others bid on one of Carlos Santana’s switchblades, a tux worn by Leonard Cohen, two Grateful Dead stash bags, and rose petals that Mick Jagger had tossed offstage at a New York show in 1969. At one of the many music memorabilia auctions that take place several times a year, it’s still possible to plop down three or four figures and walk away with Christmas cards signed by Genesis or a pair of Freddie Mercury’s black leather stage shorts.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, 11/18/93.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

But in the past two decades, buyers with unfathomable amounts of money to burn have dramatically transformed that landscape. Would you pay $6 million for the guitar Kurt Cobain played on MTV Unplugged? How about $2.85 million for John Lennon’s Help! guitar? Or $1.8 million for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket? Not likely, but people have. “There’s definitely a recognition that these pieces are as important to a certain collecting community as a Picasso is to other collectors — things that are extraordinary pieces of art,” says David Goodman, CEO of Julien’s Auctions, one of the leading (and, according to sources, most reputable) entertainment auction houses. “These are things you want to live with, talk about and love, because you’re so emotionally connected to them.” 

If you scour the listings for those auctions, you probably won’t see much connected to the Eagles. Maybe a signed promo photo or poster, but nothing akin to the hand-scrawled lyrics of songs by the Beatles, Prince, or Bruce Springsteen that have been making the rounds. As Eagles singer, drummer, and songwriter Don Henley would eventually testify in court, such early sketches are, in his mind, “private and personal and not supposed to be seen by the public or anyone else.”

That paucity has only ramped up demand for hardcore Eagles memorabilia, especially when it comes to a song like “Hotel California.” “I don’t think there’s a planet in the solar system where 13 original pages that show the evolution of one of the greatest-selling songs of all time doesn’t put them on a list of the bestselling things I’ve ever seen,” says Laura Woolley, head of consignments and appraisals for Julien’s. Although he hadn’t seen the lyric pads up close, music autograph expert Steve Cyrkin estimates that sheets containing drafts of lyrics like “You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave” could have brought  in “millions of dollars.” 

Thanks in part to the 2019 bust, most of the pages with early drafts of Eagles songs never made it to market. But the raid — and the arrests of three men that would follow — set the stage for one of the most high-profile music-memorabilia trials in years, if ever. It also pulled back the curtain on the lucrative, contentious, and often murky world of music collectibles. As one source in the community says, “There are auction houses and dealers obsessed with authenticity. There are places that are less concerned about authenticity. And there are places that seem willing to sell anything that somebody gives them a story behind that may seem preposterous to others.” It’s also a barometer of wealth disparity and a window into human nature’s need for approval. Any collector’s assemblage of his or her goods, says Shirley Mueller, M.D., author of Inside the Head of a Collector, “reflects us. We want other people to think of it as highly as we do. And if they don’t, it’s a blow to the collector’s personality.”

And maybe it’s just another indication of the world in which we live. Why wouldn’t the guitar played by Eddie Van Halen in the “Hot for Teacher” video fetch nearly $4 million? It doesn’t make much sense — but what does?

“DON, CAN THIS BE REAL?” a lawyer working for the Eagles emailed Henley in March 2012. 

“Yes, those are my worksheets,” Henley promptly emailed back. “Stolen.”

As many in the Eagles camp were shocked to learn that day, pages with preliminary versions of “Hotel California” were suddenly for sale on an auction site. As reflected in trial testimony, everyone realized the source was Ed Sanders — perhaps the least likely person anyone would have considered as a key figure in one of rock memorabilia’s strangest yarns. (Sanders, who was never charged or called to testify in the trial, did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)

A writer, poet, and member of the anarchist rock band the Fugs, Sanders embodied the East Coast counterculture as much as the Eagles represented West Coast self-indulgence. Relocating to L.A. to research a book on Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders, Sanders, as Henley recounted in the trial, met future Eagles founder Glenn Frey. The two became friends, and Sanders hid out at Frey’s apartment to dodge Manson family members he thought might be hunting him. Sanders had Frey and others stay awake throughout the nights in shifts, with a pistol, in case Mansonites entered through the windows — a scenario that Henley later admitted was “a little wild.”  

Years later, Frey approached Sanders to write an authorized biography of the Eagles, and in 1979, as presented in the trial, the author signed a contract with the band, with the stipulation that they would supply him with “all material relating to the subject matter” and connect him with sources. Sanders interviewed band members and even toured with them, eventually submitting the first part of what would end up being an 831-page manuscript, This American Band: The Story of the Eagles. Henley and some in the group, according to testimony, thought parts of the draft were (in Henley’s word) “cartoonish” and littered with dated Beat lingo. (Frey, who cowrote those songs with Henley, died in 2016.) That take prompted Henley to make a decision that likely came to haunt him: He agreed to share lyric drafts with Sanders to shed light on the Eagles’ creative process. The band, crew, and management also supplied enough documents, tapes, and paperwork (plus a mysterious pill) to fill eight boxes.

Ultimately, the manuscript became the ultimate Eagles rarity: It languished and never found a publisher, in part because the band was uneasy over the book’s unfiltered details of their 1980 breakup. The research material remained with Sanders at his home in Woodstock. More than 20 years later, in 2005, rare-books dealer Glenn Horowitz (who has placed the archives of Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, and others) and his associate John McWhinnie reached out to Sanders after reading an article that mentioned his vast collection of writings and underground mimeographed zines. Visiting Sanders’ home, Horowitz and McWhinnie found multiple boxes of archives stashed in barns — with, Horowitz recalls, “deer wandering around in the backyard and rabbits coming up to the door.”

The cartons of Eagles book research constituted only a small part of the nearly 200 boxes of Sanders material, but, as laid out by the prosecution, Horowitz and McWhinnie bought several pads with lyric drafts for $50,000. Then things truly began weirding out. In 2012, McWhinnie died in a snorkeling accident, and, as the trial showed, Horowitz, eager to clear out his colleague’s inventory, sold the Eagles pages to Ed Kosinski, owner of the Jersey-based music-memorabilia business Gotta Have Rock and Roll, and whose house was raided in 2019, and to Craig Inciardi, then a curator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (In that role, Inciardi used to share office space with Rolling Stone.)

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

When Henley was alerted in 2012 that pages from the “Hotel California” pads were for sale on Kosinski’s site, he eventually purchased them for $8,500, later testifying that it was “the most practical and expedient way to get past the matter.” Then lyrics for “Life in the Fast Lane,” another Hotel California track, popped up on Sotheby’s, followed by more sheets documenting “Hotel California” being shopped to Sotheby’s and Christie’s by Kosinski and Inciardi. By then, Henley had had enough. “I already had been extorted once,” he testified about the idea of buying more lyric pads, “and I was not going to do it again.” Inciardi and Kosinski (whose identities were, at that point, unknown to Henley) offered to keep selling what turned out to be nearly 100 total pages and split the profits with Henley — or have him buy them all for $90,000, according to testimony. At that point, Henley filed the first of two police reports in L.A. “I believe a crime of theft had occurred on my property,” Henley testified. Eventually, Henley’s team turned to the Manhattan DA, whose office met with Horowitz, then conducted the raids on the homes of Sanders, Inciardi, and Kosinski.

Author and screenwriter Tracey Jackson, Horowitz’s wife, feels that the late McWhinnie was more connected to the Eagles pads than her husband. “John was into rock and roll and the Beats,” she says. “Glenn’s into the Beats, like Ginsberg, but he didn’t care about the Eagles. It didn’t mean anything to him. That’s why this whole thing was so surprising and absurd.  Glenn doesn’t listen to music.”

The scenario wouldn’t be the first time Kosinski had run into legal issues. He’d sold plenty of undisputed items — like Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions guitar for $1,320,000 — but in 2017, Madonna tried to block him in court from auctioning off 22 items of hers, including a corset, underwear, hairbrush, and a breakup letter from Tupac Shakur, claiming she had “never sold, gifted, or otherwise transferred title” to any of the items. (Due to a statute of limitations, her case was dismissed.)

As Kosinski, Horowitz, and Inciardi would soon learn, though, the Eagles case would have far more severe implications. Together or separately, they were charged with various counts of conspiracy, criminal possession of stolen property, and “hindering prosecution” for supposedly changing stories on the ownership of the pads (all three pleaded not guilty to all charges). Since the charges would be in criminal and not civil court, which was also unusual, each faced time in prison. For reasons that remain unexplained by the DA’s office and unknown to the co-defendants’ attorneys, Sanders was not charged.

Horowitz — who, ironically, says he sold a few rare books to Henley in the Nineties — admits in an interview with Rolling Stone that he wasn’t fully aware of how extreme the situation was until the morning of their arraignment in July 2022. He, Kosinski, and Inciardi met at a Starbucks near the Manhattan criminal court building and walked over to the courthouse, where they were handcuffed, fingerprinted, and had their mug shots taken. “Then it began to dawn on me,” Horowitz recalls, “that they were not messing around.”

ALTHOUGH A FEW MILLION-DOLLAR music items were snapped up earlier this century, four sales in 2015 made the heads of collectors spin like a vintage turntable: a drumhead Ringo Starr played on The Ed Sullivan Show was sold for just more than $2 million, an entire Starr drum kit for $2.1 million, a Lennon early-Sixties guitar for $2.4 million, and the handwritten lyrics to Don McLean’s boomer epic “American Pie” for $1.2 million. “That’s when it started popping off,” says Woolley of Julien’s. “And it’s been going ever since.”

Even Peter Freedman, owner of the Australian microphone company Røde, admits things have gotten, in his word, “insane,” and he should know. As the case against Kosinski, Inciardi, and Horowitz was being built by the Manhattan DA’s office, Freedman took a seat at a late-2020 auction by Julien’s. He especially had both eyes on a Martin acoustic guitar Kurt Cobain played on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. In a sign of how random the collectibles world can be, the guitar was once in the custody of Frances Bean Cobain, but her ex-husband wound up with it as part of her divorce settlement. (Before he died, Cobain gave a pair of patched jeans to his roommate in an L.A. rehab center, and those would end up at auction, too.) 

Freedman needed to have that axe for several reasons. Nirvana’s music had helped get him through difficult times in the Nineties, and he thought the publicity he’d receive would allow him to draw attention to a pet issue — the difficulties musicians were facing during lockdown. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to buy this,’ ” he recalls. “I thought it could go for $2 million. And you’re sitting there and all of a sudden it’s up to $6 million,” the figure Freedman ultimately paid for the guitar.

Two years later, Julien’s offered the Fender Mustang that Cobain holds in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Eleven billionaires bid, a list that was whittled down to three — one of whom was so afraid of telling his wife how much he might be spending that he hid in his bathroom during the auction. What could have gone for a few hundred grand went for $4.5 million to Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner and a music collector who already owned guitars of Lennon, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Dylan.

Kurt Cobain’s electric guitar from the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Courtesy of Julien’s Auctions

Irsay scoffs at what Freedman paid: “That doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It was not worth that, but it was to him.” He views his own purchase, only $1.5 million less, as reasonable: “That being Kurt’s main guitar, and the electric guitar that survived the stage and survived many a jump — versus a one-night show — I felt [the electric guitar] was worth more.” In what amounts to a one-percenter collector face off, Freedman disagrees: “It was not a one-off guitar that Kurt bought and put away.”

Even those who have worked in the music collectibles market for decades were taken aback by recent auctions like those. “I thought, ‘Wow, we’re in a whole new realm here,’” says Frank Caiazzo, a 30-year autograph expert. “People with substantial wealth are coming into the market, and all you need is another billionaire to want something and it’s going to drive up the prices.”

The prices have only grown more out of wack since, and for that, we can blame, as with many other aspects of life, the pandemic. “People were stuck in their houses and started buying, and the prices went up,” says Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction. Roger Epperson, a collector who also runs one of the go-to music-autograph authentication companies in the country, was still in the selling business at the time, and saw an increase in smaller-scale collectible items, too. In his mind, buyers were using their government-issued Covid relief checks. “You might as well just mail those to me,” he says.

The sporadic sketchiness of the music-collectibles world — where an 8-by-10 promo photo supposedly autographed by the Beatles may have been cobbled together from different signings — isn’t news.

Janie Hendrix, who oversees her late brother’s estate and business, says she’s been dealing with fraudulent merchandise for years. “There are a lot of stores that have popped up where they have quote unquote signed memorabilia or lyrics or clothing or instruments, and there’s no real way of telling [if they’re real],” she told RS in 2022. “Unfortunately, back in the day, no one kept track of the serial numbers of the guitars Jimi had. So if you pick up a ’66 or ’67 Strat and they say it’s Jimi’s or they claim Jimi gave it them, you have to hope someone does their homework. They’ll ask me if I can verity and on occasion, we can. But most of the time, I don’t know for sure. The way we respond is, ‘Buyer beware.’”

But the current gold rush has also led to heightened scrutiny of what’s legit, what isn’t, and who owned what at what time (what’s known as “provenance” in the auction business). “It’s gotten worse, because people see more of an opportunity to make a quick dollar,” says Irsay. “You just can’t assume anything that anyone says without thoroughly checking it out.” In scrutinizing allegedly real Led Zeppelin-signed items, Epperson has learned to peer at the “L” in John Paul Jones’ name; if it’s wrong, it’s bogus. “Nirvana is the hardest because they only signed their first names, and they printed,” he says.

Those judgments can also be litigious: More than a decade ago, a memorabilia dealer sued an authenticator for declaring his Beatles goods were fake, which led to a countersuit. Epperson has pissed off more than a few sellers, and claims he racked up $300,000 in legal fees in one year alone after dealers sued him. 

On a recent day in Epperson’s Houston office, one of the leading auction houses had just sent him two Queen albums allegedly autographed by the band. He gives them the authentication thumbs-down. “They’re both fake,” he says. “They’re both in the same pens. Same shape to the signatures. You can tell the same person did it.” He sighs. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to keep up with. The forgers are getting so good, and they are so abundant.”

FOR THE EAGLES LYRICS TRIAL, all dark, deserted highways led to a drab New York City courtroom. On the witness stand, wearing a dark suit and tie, Henley was handed manila envelopes and asked to identify what lay inside. One by one, he rattled off the names of the songs on the pages, including “After the Thrill Is Gone” and tunes from The Long Run. Henley, flanked by three tree-trunk-proportioned security guards as he entered the room, tried his best to not lose his composure, especially when Sanders’ name came up. “I don’t recall offering to send him lyric pads,” he snapped. “It does not matter if I had driven them across the country in the U-Haul truck and handed them over at his front door. He had no right to keep them or sell them.”

Over two weeks, The People of the State of New York v. Glenn Horowitz, Craig Inciardi, and Edward Kosinski spilled its share of L.A. rock tea. In a taped phone call with Sanders, Eagles manager Irving Azoff was heard calling the band’s leader “God Henley,” and Henley admitted that he was “devastated” when Frey called him in 1980 to say the band was done.

But the hearings also amplified the all-important issue of provenance. Last year, Tom Petty’s estate declared that items of Petty’s clothing put up by RR Auction were “clearly stolen,” which was news to the auction house; Livingston says the company (which also has a good rep, sources say) was approached by a “longtime client” who had bought the clothing from an unnamed third party. The matter was resolved “cordially,” says RR lawyer Mark Zaid, and RR was able to sell some Petty objects (his boots for $2,276).

But provenance and transfer of title loomed over the Eagles lyrics trial. Citing an email Sanders wrote to Horowitz that Henley “might conceivably be upset” about the sale, prosecution argued that it “cast significant doubt on whether Sanders actually owned Henley’s lyric notes or had the right to sell them.” A former executive at Christie’s testified that he withdrew an offer for the pads (which he valued at more than $700,000) after he grew concerned over ownership issues. (Darren Julien of Julien’s tells Rolling Stone his company was also approached about the pads, but declined after being told by the Eagles camp the items were “stolen.”) In court, Henley pushed back on any idea that the band had handed over the materials to Sanders for good: “There is no tape or document anywhere where I say, ‘Mr. Sanders, you’re free to keep these items in perpetuity, and you’re free to sell them.’”

Attorneys for Inciardi, Horowitz, and Kosinski argued in court that no police report had been filed for the alleged theft more than 30 years ago, and they had been unaware of any contract between Sanders and the band. Speaking for himself (Kosinski and Inciardi did not respond to requests for comment for this story), Horowitz adds, “The way the contract is written, you can interpret it from multiple perspectives. There’s no trigger for why the material should be returned.” Inciardi’s lawyer, Stacey Richman, tells Rolling Stone, “They bought something from a legitimate bookseller [Horowitz] who had acquired it. They immediately put it up for public auction. If you think there’s something wrong, wouldn’t you try to sell it in a back alley?”

In the end, those ownership issues would never be resolved. In what amounted to an appropriately nutty twist, thousands of pages of previously unseen emails between Henley, Azoff, and their lawyers were handed over to prosecutors and defense lawyers by the Henley team, a week-plus into the trial, after they unexpectedly waived attorney-client privilege. The co-defendants’ lawyers went ballistic. With the judge expressing concern at this turn of events, and unwilling to recall witnesses, the prosecution dropped the case. Henley remained silent after the decision, but Daniel M. Petrocelli, a lawyer for Henley, told Rolling Stone, “As the victim in this case, Mr. Henley has once again been victimized by this unjust outcome. He will pursue all his rights in the civil courts.” (Representatives for Henley, Azoff, and the Manhattan DA’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

The crown worn by Notorious B.I.G. when photographed by Barron Claiborne as the King of New York is displayed during a preview at Sotheby’s for their Inaugural HIP HOP Auction in 2020.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The whole saga has left everyone baffled. “I would have liked to have seen the government’s provenance case,” RR’s Livingston says. “Can someone make a claim on property they’ve abandoned or gifted or sent?” Almost two years after his arrest, Horowitz, in a restaurant next to his midtown Manhattan business, rubs his left hand where he was cuffed. “I still have pains in this wrist,” he says. “It was intense.” 

IN A MANHATTAN SHOWROOM, David Goodman of Julien’s cracks open a black guitar case. To hype the company’s next music auction, he wants to show off one of Prince’s curvy-bodied Cloud guitars, this one yellow, with the Prince glyph inlaid on the fretboard (and once a radio-station giveaway prize).

Prince’s two blue Cloud guitars, which had some wear and tear, had sold for $700,00 and $563,500. Looking over the yellow Cloud with Goodman, Woolley says, “I’d be certainly disappointed if it didn’t at least meet what the other one did.”

Goodman adds, “And this one doesn’t have a broken neck.”

In the months after the Eagles trial was tossed out, the music memorabilia world returned to business. And if you think we’re just talking boomer items, think again. As the Prince guitar shows, a new generation had already begun prepping to lay out sizable cash for mementos of their youth. Those patched Cobain jeans went for $412,750. An anonymous buyer (rumored to be Jay-Z, whose team would not confirm) shelled out nearly $600,000 for a plastic crown the Notorious B.I.G. wore for a photo right before his murder.

Like some sort of raiders of the lost rock, the Hotel California pads, at press time, are said to be under lock and key in the DA’s office. Meanwhile, the rock memorabilia world continues to spin, with artifacts of varying provenance being bought and sold. “In every business, there are bad actors,” Goodman says, gently closing the case with the Prince guitar. “The finance business doesn’t stop because somebody goes to jail for financial fraud. The crypto business didn’t stop because of Sam Bankman-Fried.”  

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