Ian Dowling is an expert on antiques, memorabilia and collectables. In 2020 the Dubliner fronted a TV show called Irish Pickers. Narrated by Ardal O’Hanlon, it followed Dowling and his best friend Butsy across Ireland as they bought and sold rare collectables.
His background is primarily in supplying vintage pub memorabilia to Irish bars around the world, but his personal passion is rock’n’roll memorabilia. His collection includes signed first-pressing vinyl, stage-worn clothing, record-session ephemera and rare programmes, some of which once belonged to rock royalty. As Dowling looks like a man who might have spent time touring with a rock band, the collection feels particularly fitting.
Dowling’s collection features original programmes from Woodstock in 1969 and the Isle of White Festival in 1970, attended by an estimated 600,000 people.
Authenticity is key. For instance, his collection includes a silk shirt worn by Marc Bolan backstage at the Woburn Music Festival in 1968. With him were Jimi Hendrix and members of Fleetwood Mac. Dowling also has photographs of Bolan wearing the shirt at the festival. He can stand over the purchase because it came with a receipt with Bolan’s signature from a shop on King’s Road in London.
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The stand-out item in Dowling’s collection is an original Time Magazine special from 1967 featuring The Beatles on the front cover, signed by all four members. Autographed vinyl is lucrative in today’s marketplace, and Dowling’s collection includes Tommy by The Who and The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, both bearing the signatures of the full original line-ups.
Dowling has a copy of Never Forever by Kate Bush, signed and dedicated on the inside sleeve to her choreographer Adam Darius, who devised the opening movements of Bush’s memorable dance for her No 1 single Wuthering Heights in 1978. Possibly the rarest signed vinyl in his collection is Axis: Bold as Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. As the band only released three albums and Hendrix died at 27, the number of albums fully signed by the original line-up is limited.
As a rare book dealer, I don’t consider what I buy and sell as investments, but in the wake of Covid a lot of collectables previously available on websites got bought up quickly. Under lockdown, some sought new avenues to dispense with their discretionary income. Online shopping exploded, and people treated themselves. Now auctioneers are viewing music memorabilia differently as a high-grossing category.
In recent years, music memorabilia has taken off in auction rooms. Kurt Cobain’s guitar, used on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session, sold for $6 million at Julien’s Auction in Los Angeles in 2020, making it the most expensive guitar ever sold. The previous record was $3.95 million for a black Stratocaster owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
Such big investments can prove to be very shrewd, as the buyer may potentially lease back their purchase to an exhibition or high-end hotels, particularly in Las Vegas and the Middle East, which can serve as long-term income. Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, commonly known as the Stuffed Shark, set this trend after it sold at Sothebys in 2008 for $8 million.
In another recent sale, Ed Sheeran’s Spinning Man demo, which is a full CD of love songs recorded when the singer was 13, sold at Omega Auctions for £50,000. With buyer’s premium the total was £61,500. Sheeran only made 20 copies of the recording, in 2014, and was determined that nobody hear it. He once stated: “There are probably 20 copies of Spinning Man in existence, and I have 19 of them. I don’t want anyone else to get hold of a copy.” Perhaps Sheeran was the Omega purchaser.
A golden rule of signed copies is that if the signer dies young, this makes then more collectable and expensive. For instance, a John Lennon autograph commands a far greater price than Paul McCartney’s. Some musicians simply don’t like signing, however. Bob Dylan is not one to stop for an enthusiastic autograph hunter, and his signature can command more than $2,000 at auction. It’s the same in politics. The holy grail in modern Irish politics is the autograph of Michael Collins. In the United States it’s John F Kennedy’s.
Dowling is a massive music fan, and his interests inform what he collects. He recently returned from New York having stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, which writers, artists and musicians such as Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison once called home. He shows me a collection of invoices he acquired dated 1967 from recording sessions by The Doors at Sunset Sounds Recorders, in Los Angeles. “One evening session cost the band’s record label $624.75, a small fortune for that time”, he says.
Dowling also collects rare items relating to Ireland and its history. One recent standout find is a four-page letter by Éamon de Valera on his admiration for James Connolly, signed on presidential stamped paper. What made him start collecting and become a dealer? “The Only Fools and Horses Christmas special,” he replies, “where Del Boy finally cracks it and makes millions selling a pocket watch at an auction.”
If I had to go with my instincts, I can see that happening to Dowling some day too.
Will de Búrca works for De Búrca Rare Books