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It was little more than a hurried afterthought to fill a blank page. But the illustrated message of fanzine Sideburns No 1 in January 1977 — “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third . . . now form a band” — encapsulated the do-it-yourself ethos of the UK punk era.
For Toby Mott, a leading collector of punk ephemera, it is one of the most important documents in the world. “It changed history,” he says simply.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ debut single “Anarchy in the UK” and the birth of British punk, a scrappy, nihilistic youth movement. It was loud, aggressive, anti-establishment and — whether its protagonists realised it or not — it prized self-reliance and entrepreneurial spirit. Why worry about education, training or talent? Punk gave young people permission to create music, art, journalism and film — straight away.
For many growing up in an era of economic decline, this was a revelation. “They didn’t have to take the choice laid out for them. They could invent their way out of a shitty situation,” says Joseph Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, the luxury lingerie retailer, in which he sold a majority stake in 2007 to private equity firm 3i for £60m. Corré is the son of Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols and punk’s impresario-in-chief, and Vivienne Westwood, the fashion designer whose creations dressed the movement.
In 1976, bands such as the Sex Pistols caused outrage, but today they are regarded with affection. This year, the British Library in London featured an original copy of Sideburns No 1’s chord instructions in its exhibition “Punk 1976-78”.
The appeal of punk ephemera is growing among wealthy collectors, particularly from the UK, the US and Japan. According to Andrew Roth, a New York-based dealer who works with Mott, a complete run of the British punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue in perfect condition is worth up to $40,000.
The revival of interest is partly down to a generational cycle. Many buyers who cherish the movement are in their fifties and sixties and, unlike their teenage punk selves, now have money.
“Punk epitomised rebellion and DIY,” says Mott, whose collection has been valued at about £1m. “That is very appealing to hedge fund managers.”
Design was a key part of punk — and it went far beyond the record sleeves of the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks. “It’s different because it has an aesthetic. The visual stuff — fanzines, posters, fashion — are distinct from the music,” Mott says. “That was revolutionary.”
A large collection has yet to reach auction, says Gabriel Heaton, an expert in books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s. He cites autographed “working” lyrics by the Sex Pistols — words to songs written on scraps of paper as part of the songwriting process — as among the most sought-after relics. Those with provenance could fetch tens of thousands of pounds.
Other valuable commodities include original artwork by Jamie Reid, the Sex Pistols’ graphic designer; clothing by Seditionaries, Westwood and McLaren’s boutique on King’s Road in Chelsea, west London; and printed ephemera from punk’s early years.
Serious collectors face hurdles. The early punk movement was small-scale and, by popular culture’s standards, little was produced. “Material from ’76 is very rare,” says Heaton. “It tends to come up in small quantities.”
Reports of fakes have undermined confidence in the collectors’ market. Most notably, in 2008 artist Damien Hirst claimed he was duped into paying £80,000 to a dealer for Seditionaries clothing which McLaren later told him was fake.
But the biggest challenge may come on November 26. In an act worthy of punk at its most antagonistic and audacious, Corré says he will burn his collection of artefacts at an invitation-only event. He is outraged by Punk London, a series of events to mark the 40th anniversary that includes the British Library exhibition and is supported by the National Lottery and Mayor of London, among others. He is also angry at what he calls the “Antiques Roadshow approach” to collecting.
“You couldn’t get more conformist if you tried,” Corré says. “[Burning is] the only thing left to do with it. People can only see the value in something if they can identify with the meaning — and meaning has been completely lost. That’s why punk still has some power, and why I’ve got to burn it all.”
Corré says his collection is worth about £5m. It includes rare records, posters, stickers, badges, newspaper cuttings and clothing.
Corré’s act, which may push up prices for other collections, may not be the only disruption. While today’s wealthy collectors remember the movement fondly, tomorrow’s may not value it in the same way. Does punk memorabilia have no future?
Heaton thinks it could stand the test of time. “The way punks used different elements of media, we are so used to that now. That innovation is the key to this kind of material having longer-term value,” he says.
Mott points out another reason to carry on collecting: in the internet age the physical evidence of punk is even more precious. “Most information today is electronic. But punk’s residue — the fashion, the vinyl — marks it as one of the last movements where they left stuff behind,” he says.
In future, he adds, “we may enter a world where there is no history and there is no now”.