John Lennon’s 1964 Rickenbacker Fetches Over $900,000 at Auction

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PHOTO: Vincent Sandoval | Getty Images

John Lennon’s 1964 “British” Rickenbacker sold for $910,000 at auction over the weekend. Its sale price makes it the sixth most valuable guitar and the fifth most valuable artist-owned guitar ever sold at auction.

The Rose Morris Rickenbacker is the second Lennon-owned guitar to come to auction in recent months. In November, his Gibson J160-E jumbo acoustic-electric sold for a record-breaking $2.4 million, making it the most valuable artist-owned guitar ever sold at auction. 

The winning bid for the Rickenbacker was placed by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, whose guitar collection features numerous valuable artist-owned guitars, including Bob Dylan’ 1964 Fender Stratocaster and Lennon’s “Paperback Writer” Gretsch.

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Irsay also came home with Starr’s first 1963 Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl three-piece drum kit, which he bought for $2.2 million. Starr used the set onstage and in the studio for numerous performances and recordings during the rise of Beatlemania between May 1963 and February 1964.

The guitar and drum set were part of a trove of more than 800 personal items—including musical instruments, rare albums, clothing and jewelry—owned by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and his wife, Barbara Bach, who put it all up for auction at Julien’s in Beverly Hills, California, from December 3 through 5.

All together, Irsay paid more than $3 million for the instruments. They join another piece of Beatles memorabilia in Irsay’s collection: Last month at the same auction that saw Lennon’s Gibson J160-E fetch a record auction price, Irsay paid $2.125 million for Starr’s drum head with the Beatles logo, which was seen during the group’s 1964 performances in the U.S., including on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“I was 11 years old when the Beatles broke up,” he told Rolling Stone, explaining his reason for the purchases. “I was a Lennon fanatic – I mean, I loved Paul too, but Lennon was the guy—and there was always this dream of the Beatles getting back together; there was always this hope.”

Irsay added that, just as the Beatles were separated when they broke up in 1970, so were these instruments after they became part of the group’s musical legacy.

“It took over 4 million dollars and 45 years, but we finally got them back together,” Irsay says. “I know it’s a symbolic thing, but it really means a lot to me.”

BELOW: McCartney and Lennon, with the Rose-Morris Rickenbacker.

According to Andy Babiuk’s Beatles Gear book, Lennon’s model 1996 Rickenbacker was one of six exclusive models that British distributor Rose-Morris commissioned from Rickenbacker in autumn 1964. Some of the guitars, including Lennon’s, featured f holes instead of the standard “slash” style sound holes found on Rickenbackers. All of the guitars were offered only in the Fireglo finish. The series became known as the “British” line of Rickenbackers, as well as “Beatle Backers,” thanks to Lennon’s use of the 1996 model.

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Lennon received the guitar in December 1964 while the Beatles were performing their second annual series of Christmas-themed shows, from December 26 through January 16. The guitar was provided as a replacement after he damaged his black 1964 Rickenbacker 325 during one of the performances. The black 325 had been made specially for him to replace his original road-worn 1958 model 325. The “British” Rickenbacker 1996 was identical to Lennon’s 1964 Rickenbacker 325 except for the f-hole and Fireglo finish.

In addition to the holiday shows, Lennon played the guitar while recording demos in his home studio before gifting it to Starr in 1968 during the making of the Beatles’ White Album. Starr had briefly quit the group during the early sessions for the album when tensions among the group’s members were high. Upon his return, Lennon gave him the guitar in Abbey Road Studio Two as an apology and, according to Starr, because the guitar’s short-scale neck was better suited to his arm length. The guitar had been expected to fetch $600,000 to $800,000 on the block.

Also sold at the Starr-Bach auction was a Gretsch Chet Atkins Tennessean guitar gifted to Starr by Beatles guitarist George Harrison (see second video below), which sold for $175,000. It’s unknown if Harrison ever played the guitar, which may account for its relatively low sale price.

The Julien’s auction was curated by Starr and Bach, and included both musical instruments and personal memorabilia. The items were among those they discovered in their storage units last fall. Many others were found when they decided to sell their country home in England and close down their apartment in Monte Carlo.

The auction included seven of Starr’s personal drum kits, including the 1963 Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl three-piece drum kit purchased by Irsay (shown right). Starr used the set in more than 200 performances between May 1963 and February 1964 and played it on some of the Beatles’ biggest hit recordings, including “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “She Loves You,” “All My Loving” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Paul McCartney also used it on his first solo album, McCartney, in 1970. 

Other items sold at the Julien’s auction included Starr’s very first numbered pressing of the White Album, which sold for $790,000, handily beating the previous auction record set by an Elvis Presley acetate that went for $310,000.

All together, the auction raised nearly $10 million, a portion of which will benefit the Lotus Foundation U.S., a charity founded by Starr and Bach to assist with a wide range of causes around the world, focusing primarily on family and child welfare, women’s issues, addiction recovery and education.