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From the archives: the sobering tale of Mike Read's vinyl record auction

Mark Ellen / 08 February 2010

Are your old vinyl records worth what you think they are? They certainly weren't for former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read. Find the fascinating, sobering tale of his record auction here in this extract from a past edition of monthly music magazine The Word

Are your old vinyl records worth what you think they are?
Are your old vinyl records worth what you think they are?

Mike Read was declared bankrupt. The 62-year-old, who fronted TV's Saturday Superstore and Pop Quiz while also presenting Radio One's breakfast show in the early 80s, had been declared insolvent the previous year but had been somehow able to find enough cash to settle with Horsham Council in West Sussex. 

This time, however, when he was declared bankrupt by Colchester County Court, it meant the liquidation of his main asset, a collection of 120,000 vinyl records amassed over a period of 40 years.

The day before this huge collection went under the hammer at the Chiswick Auction Rooms, which are actually in Acton, the papers reflected on the significance of the sale and speculated how much it might realise. There was talk of a reserve price of £750,000. Some accounts, in search of a sharper newsline, thought it would be nearer to a million pounds.

Lots of interest

The division of Mike Read's prized collection played to English tastes. Over here we like to see a celebrity fallen on hard times and Read's 20-year descent had been notable for many colourful passages. There have been his six failed stage musicals, his repeated attempts to interest the public in his singing voice and his inevitable appearance in 2004's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

He currently presents a daily programme which goes out between five and seven in the morning on internet radio station Wight FM.

At the same time any high-profile auction of old pop records piques the interest of the thousands of us who like to feel that we could make fortunes if we could only find the right buyer for the pile of vinyl we profess to have "indoors". 

Since vinyl records stopped being manufactured in bulk those singles in the attic have increased in appeal. Could they, like the mangles, anti-macassars and household goods of earlier eras, eventually become valuable enough to justify our having clung on to them?

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The auction begins

The Read collection was laid out in cardboard boxes in a room on the first floor of the auction house. The Sunday before the sale collectors and rubberneckers had gone through these boxes with the practised air of men whose third finger is probably riffling through a deck of LP covers as they sleep. 

Although it was studded with rare acetates and promos, Read's collection was stronger on middling pop hits than cultish items of interest to rock completists.

The cataloguing had evidently been done by a poor speller working in a hurry. For example Lot 469 boasted "ten 1960s, very collectable 45 RPM records, including The Who, the Bosson Toes, Spook Tooth etc" (sic). 

The lot that began the auction at eleven in the morning was a batch of box sets including Public Image's Metal Box. Lot 703, with which the sale finished in the late afternoon, was described as "a small collection of 1970's pop annuals".

By late afternoon there were 30 record dealers - all middle-aged men, many in Barbours redolent of the damp attics in which they pursue their trade - lounging around on old Chesterfields or sitting at reproduction Chippendale tables, their eyes trained in the direction of the sale catalogue as the auctioneer made his way through the lots. 

These were arranged to maximise the price of the items and in a rough approximation of areas of interest.

Lot 537, which was "three 45s including The Sky Liners, John's Children and the Wild Ones", went for £170. Lot 552, "a selection of four 7 inch Beatles and Yoko Ono records from the Apple label" made £70. Read's Rock-Ola 200 stereophonic jukebox complete with records quickened the room as it achieved £2,900. 

The men in Barbours yawned and made their way to the tea van. If there had been excitement in the room it was well-concealed.

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The science of valuing records

In his capacity as the editor of the Rare Record Price Guide, the Bible of the old vinyl industry, Ian Shirley is frequently cornered at parties by people convinced they are sitting on a fortune. Their confidence is usually misplaced, largely because they fail to understand the motivations of the handful of highly specialised people who might actually pay for the contents of their attic. 

He explains: "There are the blue chip companies of the collectors market, the Beatles, Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, Joy Division and the Smiths. People will pay for genuine rarities by them. But what they're really after is mint-condition copies and most people don't have those.

"Then there are the psychedelic or prog obscurities, acts like Mellow Candle, Pussy and Red Dirt, and they probably don't have those either. These are records that they might only have pressed a few hundred of and were deleted almost immediately. 

"Red Dirt, for instance, were a band from Yorkshire who put out one record for Fontana in 1970. We value it at £650 but if a mint copy came up right now on Ebay people would pay twice that. Ebay has sent the market into hyperdrive because you're now bidding against people all over the world. The dealers are having trouble because many people are choosing to sell their records themselves."

Price is not influenced by popularity or success

This may explain why the traditional image of the second-hand record dealer as someone who offers pennies for records that are actually worth a fortune may be undergoing a transformation. 

Such was the experience of Word columnist Andrew Collins when he decided to part with all his vinyl three years ago. "I sold them to a dealer who came down to Surrey from the north of England, meticulously went through the entire collection, which must have been well over 1,000 records, and divided them into two piles: ones he could sell and ones he couldn't. I'd say about a fifth were in the former section. It's amazing how few of them were worth anything to him. He later sent me an extra cheque because he'd discovered a rare Radiohead EP that he'd missed the first time around. I was actually moved by his honesty."

The highest price paid for one record in the period I was observing the Mike Read auction was when the bidding turned to a copy of Real Crazy Apartment by Winston's Fumbs, which achieved £370. This was a 45 made by a group that Jimmy Winston, Ian McLagan's forerunner in the Small Faces, briefly fronted in 1967. This record is said to have achieved some celebrity in the so-called "freak beat" scene.

Once you delve into the world of record collecting you find that startling prices are achieved by acts you have never heard of, many of them performing in genres you barely knew existed. The Winston's Fumbs record is regarded as a prime example of freak beat. This hectic variety of British psychedelia (think The Move's I Can Hear The Grass Grow and thousands of less-distinguished singles made in the late 60s) was first isolated by journalist and reissue consultant Phil Smee and then anthologised in a series of compilations on his Bam Caruso label.

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"In 1967 they might put out 200 copies of a record. If it wasn't selling they would immediately delete it," Smee says to explain how something as obscure as this should be so keenly sought. "Things became rare very quickly. It doesn't mean they're any good. 

People who collect the Apple label, the ones they can't get hold of are appalling records.The ones you're paying the most for are terrible. I've heard the Red Dirt album. It's just no good at all. It goes for silly money because it's stupidly rare. On the other hand nothing that went to number one is ever going to be rare."

Here's where most of us make a mistake in assessing the potential value of what we might be sitting on. It's not the celebrated records that interest the collectors market. It's the flops, the misfires, the doomed solo projects, the singles on the label that went bankrupt still owing the pressing plant; these are the records that interest the men dividing Mike Read's raiment between them in that Acton auction house.

Here's the challenge faced by the average record fan looking to make money out of his hobby. If there is any value in your record collection it's more likely to lie in the record you're about to send to the Oxfam shop than in the celebrated classic that you preserve in a plastic sleeve. Here there is no success like failure. In the face of a market as capricious and specific in its demands as this the average rock fan's instincts are no use at all.

Becoming a cult fascination

In areas like freak beat the pitiless ecology of the music business is inverted as previously unregarded performers get their day in the sun. I had never heard of the Mike Stuart Span until Phil Smee told me about them. Their short, hectic career perfectly encapsulates the sixties rock journey. The were formed in Brighton in 1964 and made a handful of singles for Columbia, none of which sold. In 1967 they cut the single Children Of Tomorrow, widely regarded as the Blue Monday of freak beat, for an obscure imprint called Jewel, an offshoot of a ska label. This was the song that was subsequently anthologised on Chocolate Soup For Diabetics Volume 2 in 1981.

In 1969 the still hitless group had changed their name to Leviathan and made an album for Elektra which was never released. They broke up in autumn of that year and eventually drifted into regular jobs. Their guitarist ran a building firm. Their singer Stuart Hobday became a radio producer. Drummer Gary Murphy worked in the electronics industry. 

Their reputation had grown so much in the years after their break-up that on November 24th 2009 a copy of Children Of Tomorrow changed hands on Ebay for £703. Now living in retirement in the New Forest, Murphy, the former psychedelic sticksman, reflected on the curious sensation of finding yourself part of a cult sensation after all this time.

"I can't take it in. I don't understand it. We did our best. Why are we so popular now? For some reason we've got cult status whereas other records that came out on that label aren't. I've got a version of every record we did in a glass frame in my office at home. I've even got a promo copy. I'm looking at them now. All the band still keep in touch. Any day now I'll be getting Christmas cards from the rest of them. We're all in our sixties and beyond now. Our original trumpeter from when we were a six-piece died just recently but I managed to make contact with him in time. Thanks to Phil Smee we've managed to get hold of the tapes of the album we made as Leviathan which has been sitting in the Elektra vault for forty years and we might put that out. What do we think? Well, obviously, it would have been so nice to have had that success back then."

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Mike Read's record failure

The auction of Mike Read's collection did not realise the predicted million pounds. The representative of the liquidator did not deny the estimate in one paper that it was nearer to £100,000. 

Many lots were withdrawn from sale and at the time of writing, the plan was to put them on the market via the internet. 

Read's creditors may be kept at bay for the moment but it was hardly enough money to secure his retirement. The prospect that the vinyl market might ever become like the market for art or wine, a hedge against inflation and a happy hunting ground for speculators, seemed to recede, though it is widely thought that if John Peel's collection ever came on to the market things might be different.

Any collection with a celebrity provenance which contains a lot of carefully preserved items that were only available to those in the trade has the market smacking its lips. But even there the smart money would only be after a particular sort of record. 

A difficult market to read

For the dabbler the collectors' market seems too difficult to read. Ian Shirley predicts that "the record collectors market will continue and it will be like vintage guitars. People who love these things will continue to buy but they won't be things they'll play. They'll lock them away like some piece of art."

The worldwide stock of vinyl shrinks and the golden age of the hit single grows more distant but scarcity alone is no more likely to make the bulk of them valuable than it did with 78s, which lie unregarded on the floor at the Acton auction room. A tiny handful are valuable. The majority remain unloved and unsought. It seems unlikely that they will ever fetch sums of money to justify the cost of strengthening floors and building extensions to house them in large numbers.

Rather than a pecuniary end in itself the collecting of records is best regarded as a logical extension of loving them. Looking to the future, Ian Shirley notes there has never been a market for rare cassettes and doesn't believe there will ever be one for CDs. "It's all about romance," he says. "And romance and CDs don't go together."

By David Hepworth

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