Beatles for Sale With John Lennon Drawings at Sotheby’s, Marking Half-Century of Beatlemania

The Smart Beatle's whimsical drawings and witty prose go under the hammer on June 4.

The Beatles arrival in New York in 1964

This year has already witnessed a number of Beatles-related events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania hitting in the US, when the Fab Four stepped off a plane at JFK airport to throngs of screaming, hysterical fans, gave an epic live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and proceeded to take the country by storm. Currently the New York Public Library is hosting “Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!” (through May 10), an expansive show including concert footage, recordings, photographs, lyric sheets, and other memorabilia that explore the band’s enduring impact on American music and culture.

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is shining a spotlight on a much lesser known aspect of John Lennon’s oeuvre with a traveling exhibition and New York auction this June, “John Lennon: You Might Well Arsk,” featuring original drawings and manuscripts made in 1964–65  by the so-called “Smart Beatle.” They were produced by Lennon for what would become two critically acclaimed books, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965), which show the musician’s whimsical, wickedly humorous side through nonsensical verses, puns, and comic drawings.

John Lennon Untitled illustration of a boy with six birds (estimate: US$12,000–15,000)

John Lennon, Untitled illustration of a boy with six birds (estimate: $12,000–15,000).
Photo: Estate of the late John Lennon

One untitled illustration of a boy with six birds was reused 30 years after it was created, as the cover for the Beatles’ release “Free as a Bird.” Written by Lennon in 1977, the song was released, with contributions from Paul, George, and Ringo, 15 years after Lennon’s death. The original drawing is expected to bring between $12,000–$15,000.

The works are being offered for sale by Tom Maschler, who, as the literary director of publishing house Jonathan Cape in the 1960s, was responsible for bringing both books to fruition, in part by encouraging Lennon to write and produce drawings after having been captivated by his sketches in 1962. The auction, the largest private collection of Lennon’s work to ever come to market, consists of 89 lots that range in price from $500 to $70,000. The works were given to Maschler by Lennon.

Says Maschler: “I knew he had the most extraordinary talent and imagination—in addition to his many other gifts that had made him world famous—though I feared that being a Beatle might result in his not being taken seriously as a writer and artist. I was wrong.”

John Lennon, Untitled illustration of a four-eyed guitar player is estimated at US$15,000–25,000 Photo: Estate of the late John Lennon

John Lennon, Untitled illustration of a four-eyed guitar player is estimated at $15,000–25,000.
Photo: Estate of the late John Lennon

Lennon was an avid writer from his early schooldays, remarking after the publication of In His Own Write, “I started all this writing long before I was a pop artist, or even a Beatle, or before I had a guitar… The guitars came second.” He also trained as an artist at the Liverpool School of Art.

Among the lots on offer on offer are two typescripts amended by Lennon himself: “Liddypool,” which offers a satirical guide to Liverpool, the city of his birth, including a host of local references to historical monuments, local clubs, and coffee bars (estimate $12,000-15,000); and “Sad Michael,” which includes the first printed mention of “A Hard Day’s Night,” and is estimated at $5,000 to $7,000.

“The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield,” a nine-page manuscript, is a parody of Sherlock Holmes (estimate: $50,000-$70,000), while “The Fat Budgie” is the original, autographed manuscript of one of Lennon’s best-loved nonsense poems (estimate: $25,000-35,000).

Sotheby’s expects that the works will appeal to a range of collecting groups, be it manuscript collectors, Beatles memorabilia collectors, or avid Beatles fans. “This is very accomplished writing that was favorably reviewed at the time the books were released,” says Dr. Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s books specialist. Another attractive aspect is “the artistry of the drawings. He was an accomplished draughtsman, and these are funny, very charming drawings,” Heaton says.

So far, Sotheby’s has exhibited the drawings at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and this past weekend at its London saleroom on New Bond Street. The lots will be on view in New York May 28-June 3, immediately prior to Sotheby’s auction on June 4.

Adds Heaton: “He was creating these works amid the absolute hysteria of Beatlemania, when it was at its height. They provide insight into his mind and creative energies, especially when you think of them being done just as the Beatles were heading off to America for the first time. He was writing these in hotel rooms with crowds of screaming teenagers outside.”

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