This man wants to sell you a tiny piece of rock history
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Last summer, trucks carrying three jam-packed 40ft containers rolled up at the doorstep of Klaus Moeller’s offices in Las Vegas. He had been waiting for this shipment ever since he had bought a vast photo archive, sight-unseen, at a US bankruptcy auction a year earlier. Now was his chance to finally admire what he had spent his money – several million dollars – on.
Though Moeller, chief executive of Globe Entertainment & Media, had been buying, selling and curating rare photos of celebrities for decades, nothing could have prepared him for what was inside: rows and rows of old filing cabinets bulging with an estimated eight million images – mostly vintage photographic slides – of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and thousands of other rock bands and musicians.
Moeller and his partner, Trey Watson, had purchased the entire slide archives of the Retna and London Features International photo agencies from a company that went bankrupt. “It’s never-ending,” Moeller says of the extensive archive. “A file will just say ‘Beatles’ and there will be 200 sheets of slides, each with 20 or 30 Beatles images. Every day we’re finding the craziest stuff.”
Finds so far include a photoshoot of an aspiring British band called The Konrads, featuring a tuxedoed, red-haired, 16-year-old named David Jones on saxophone – his career prospects improved after changing his last name to Bowie – and a boozy backstage photo of the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones. They found several stunning portraits of a young Mick Jagger. Another image captures the members of Led Zeppelin lined up on the tarmac for their Tokyo tour, looking roguish and jetlagged (or worse) alongside a kimono-wearing stewardess. But what to do with all of this?
Moeller became involved in the fine-art photography business more than 20 years ago when he bought the Celebrity Vault Gallery in Beverly Hills. The gallery sold classic shots of Frank Sinatra to Simon Cowell, photos of James Dean to Arnold Schwarzenegger and pictures of Jimi Hendrix to André 3000. More recently, he has switched focus to acquiring archives – something that can cost millions upfront but when ownership includes the rights to the images, promises a healthy profit margin once the photos begin to sell.
Their first acquisition, in 2007, was the archive of American photographer Frank Worth with its 5,000 vintage negatives of stars including Monroe, Dean, Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. The company then bought the archives from the Globe Photos agency, a news photo service that pre-dated the picture library behemoth, Getty. They then acquired a library of rare vintage negatives from the RKO film studio.
The rock archive is different. Besides the sheer volume, it is made up almost entirely of slides, many of which include handwritten annotations. Most offer basic information – the name of the musicians and photographer, the price for publishing the picture – but others are more esoteric. Someone wrote “Men as Women” next to an image of Freddie Mercury wearing a wig.
Instead of diminishing their value, the scribbles – probably written by busy clerks at the photo agencies – elevate the slides into little artefacts of the rock era, believes Moeller. So he has taken the unusual decision to sell some of the original 2in by 2in slides as individual collectables, each housed in an acrylic frame. Fans “would be purchasing the actual vintage slide with all the markings,” he says. “This isn’t an edition of 100 or 200.” It’s also a handy workaround, as Moeller owns the actual slides – while the photographers retain any rights to the images if they are reproduced.
“People who collect images seem to prefer the physical print over a tiny slide,” says Catherine Williamson, director of the Fine Books and Manuscripts and Entertainment Memorabilia divisions at Bonhams in Los Angeles, but she agrees that collectors may find something appealing about the handwritten notes: “A slide that has writing on it, that’s a different thing. It’s like a timestamp.”
Moeller says his team works to find the photographers so they can also create signed limited editions – as was the case with Jill Gibson, who took iconic photos of Jimi Hendrix at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, where he set his Fender Stratocaster on fire. They are also producing oversized fine art prints of some of the slides themselves – 24in by 24in or 40in by 40in, complete with markings – that the company plans to show in Los Angeles, London and Tokyo.
The first sales of the slides will begin next month with an auction of 1,000 through Animoca Japan. Moeller also plans to sell six of the oversized prints at the Chuo Auction House in Tokyo, followed by another sale in Hong Kong. He hopes the original slides will fetch anywhere from $50 to $10,000, depending on subject and rarity. In a recent charity auction, two slides fetched $2,000 apiece.
The slides may be a little piece of rock history, but they might just make some noise.