Last Updated: August 27, 2020
The word “rare” must trigger the release of chemicals in the collector’s brain which suspend rational thought. It’s only a record, for heaven’s sake, but..but..I must have it!!
Possession of truly rare records comes at a price, in the case of jazz, somewhere between $3,000 and $8,000, though not as high as the very rarest reggae or punk singles. You have to bear in mind, scarcity is not the same as quality. There is often a reason why something is rare – it didn’t sell, because it wasn’t very good. But to the collector, scarcity has a value all of its own, and exclusivity, being one of the few or only people in the world who owns it.
The word rare is also overused in selling records. Records that are not at all rare are often described as rare! to boost auction prices. Early pressings of Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” is often described as rare but there are tens of thousands of copies out there. Among truly rare items are original pressings in near-mint condition, of which perhaps no more than fifty to a hundred copies exist of some titles.
To bring some facts to bear on the subject, I have compiled some data from auction results, to identify the most expensive jazz records at auction, and how often they appear at auction, which are shown in the charts below.
The most frequently mentioned are first pressings of early Blue Note titles of Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Sonny Clark, which come in at the $5,000 mark. Early Transition label is up there with the most expensive. Many of these copies will be located today in Japan, the biggest market in collectible jazz.
At this level, all the details of first-pressing status must be present. As a listener, it is only the vinyl condition that matters to me, but for elite collectors it is the total artefact, especially the cover which must be perfect: no seam-splits, dinged corners, ringwear, or peeling laminate, and most important, no writing on the cover or labels – no previous owners names, which includes unverifiable autographs. Autograph-hunting was common practice in the 60’s , which encouraged many youthful record owners to fake them. Such records are often valued on the assumption that the “autograph” is fake. Some artists commonly autographed records, others rarely. A Charlie Parker autographed Dial is quite something.
High-end records have always been rare and expensive and the province of high-end collectors – they rarely found their way into the collections of those of more modest means. It is very common for children or partners to inherit a loved-ones record collection, search the Internet and become very excited that grandpa had a copy of say, Hank Mobley Blue Note 1568, which turns out on closer inspection to be a Japanese reissue from the 80s. The most desirable titles have been repressed and reissued over many years. The originals in great condition are really very very rare.
In the era of the internet, prices can be established quickly with a little research on auction-tracking sites such as Popsike or for Blue Note, even here at Londonjazzcollector. Bear in mind that auction prices are the result of auctions, where collectors compete to buy a record, which is not necessarily the same as dealer or shop prices. There are many cases where, in a moment of madness, one bidder has got caught out with an inflated bid, and found themselves paying twice the next highest historical price, plus postage tracking insurance and customs charges. Or suffered buyers remorse and failed to complete payment.
These are the top twenty titles:
Source: Jazz Collector Database, analysis by LJC
Some records come up for auction much more frequently than their alleged scarcity would suggest. Mobley 1568 a case in point, which is a frequently traded item. High-end collectable records can be a good investment, though some artists have drifted out of fashion and proved a poor investment. How well a seller describes a record can have a big effect on price – “insanely rare!”
I am reminded of the British TV comedy sketch Only Fools And Horses, when lovable rogue Del-boy returns from a day’s dodgy trading for his tea. His long-suffering wife serves up baked beans on toast. On alert, Del-boy demands:
“Baked beans? Where did you get these?”
“Oh I found a load of tins in the garage“, admits his good lady.
“You dummy! Those are not eating baked beans, they are buying and selling baked beans.
There are investors, traders, and dealers in high-end records, who understand the insatiable desire of a few souls who lust for something almost no-one else has got, something that people in their circle of acquaintances will recognise as insanely rare, writhing in envy.
The high-end collectable jazz universe is very small, maybe only a couple of hundred people in a world population of three trillion. It is much smaller than the high-end rock pop classical reggae singles collector tribes.
Outside of the jazz world, the truly rare and expensive records are associated with rock and pop history. For example, a test pressing of a Beatles recording that was never issued, only one copy exists, owned by Paul McCartney, valued near £1m. Another is the last autograph John Lennon gave on a record cover before being shot dead by Mark Chapman. But my favourite curio I read of was a record from the estate of Jimi Hendrix which Jimi had been playing when he cut his hand on a broken glass, leaving Hendrix blood in the grooves, verified by the DNA match.
A different example of things that are “collectable”. What makes this ticket worth $5,000? What is a piece of “cultural history” worth? At least you can play a record.
This ticket won’t get you a parking place at the Hollywood Bowl today, however they are not making 1965 again, and perhaps there is something to be said for owning a tiny piece of history.
Happy hunting: the world of high-end collectors is fraught with disappointment and anguish over differences in description of condition, rare records that are indeed rare, but over-graded on their condition.