The king of rock and roll still reigns in 1994.
Elvis Presley memorabilia is setting price records. Rare personal items are appreciating the fastest, but vintage mass-produced pieces are also popular.
In the big-buck category, Presley's 1969 Mercedes-Benz limousine sold for $321,500 at a recent Butterfield & Butterfield auction conducted in Las Vegas. A pair of his sunglasses brought $26,450 and a rhinestone jumpsuit $68,500.
At that auction, John Corbett, who plays disc jockey Chris Stevens on the CBS television show "Northern Exposure," spent $41,400 for Presley's American Express card and $68,500 for his birth certificate. About $2.4 million in Elvis memorabilia was sold to well-heeled bidders such as Hard Rock Cafe International. Important personal items may be beyond reach of average fans, but there are other choices.
"We also sold Elvis Presley lipstick in 'Hound Dog Orange' for $325 and 'Love Me Tender Pink' for $250, both made in the 1950s by Elvis Presley Enterprises and featuring his engraved signature," said Katherine Gates, director of the collectibles and entertainment memorabilia department of San Francisco-based Butterfield & Butterfield.
There have been price gains in some less expensive examples. Unautographed early stage performance photos of Elvis, which Gates had estimated would bring $10 to $20 apiece, sold at the auction for $100 to $400.
"In the 17 years since Elvis Presley died, value of his memorabilia has more than doubled and there's never really been a period in which the bottom has really fallen out of the market," said Jerry Osborne (P.O. Box 255, Port Townsend, Wash. 98368), author of The Official Price Guide to Elvis Presley Records and Memorabilia" to be released this fall by House of Collectibles in New York.
The primary Elvis collectible is still his records, Osborne noted. Copies of vinyl LP records that originally cost $4.99 now sell for $150 to $200 in mint condition or still sealed. More recently, the limited edition 1992 Collector's Gold compact disc album was also issued in a small number of vinyl records. These originally cost $30 and now bring $300.
Virtually every nonrecorded item, junk or not, that was produced before Presley died is prized and valuable, even if it's just a balloon or illustrated T-shirt. For example, a 1956 autograph book manufactured by Elvis Presley Enterprises, primary licenser of such products, has increased in value from $350 to $600 in the past four years, while a 1957 Topps bubble gum card of Presley rose from $30 to $35. Menus from the Nevada Hotel in Las Vegas that portray Presley's 1969 performances there zoomed from $100 to $600 in the past four years.
The year in which an item was made is crucial to its value.
"Any memorabilia related to Elvis before he died on Aug. 16, 1977, will bring a much higher dollar value than anything made after his death," advised Robert Alaniz, owner of the Soundz Good Records mail order business, P.O. Box 172, Tinley Park, Ill. 60477. He's also organizer of the "Elvis for Everyone Convention '94" for fans and collectors, which runs Aug. 11-15 at the Ramada Inn, Southwest Airport, Memphis, Tenn. Admission is $1.50, with a five-day pass at $5.
While Alaniz said he could easily name 10 people who would pay $1,000 for a mint copy of Presley's first album, he doesn't believe inflated values touted by many collectors for assorted Elvis plates, decanters and whiskey bottles really hold up.
Plenty of pure junk commemorating Presley has been churned out. Buy such recent offbeat items just for fun, not as collectibles. Only a tiny portion of pieces made since Presley's death will ever become valuable. Items that say "Graceland" on them are basically just souvenirs. However, vintage Presley memorabilia is a different story.
"I've never had an Elvis item that I was unable to sell, and one special example I sold for $1,800 two years ago was a pistol permit that had his photograph, fingerprint and signature on it, and it would now be worth $2,800," said Roslyn Herman, a New York-based dealer in celebrity collectibles. "While Elvis was generous and gave away a lot of stuff, only a relatively small number of things have actually been sold and that has driven up prices."
Film posters are also popular, with those for "Jailhouse Rock" now worth $2,000. There are also concert ticket stubs, autographs, record promotional items from RCA Victor and fan publications. Most collectors start because they love Presley's music.
"My wife and I are fans of Elvis who saw him in concert three times, and everything we've collected could bring double or triple the money we invested in it," explained collector Roy Bridges, a 42-year-old engineer from Savannah, Ga. "My wife has been offered $500 for a scarf Elvis threw out in a concert, but she won't sell."