Anarchy in the auction house: the Sex Pistols ephemera that’s pogoing, going, gone | Sex Pistols

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Anarchy in the auction house: the Sex Pistols ephemera that’s pogoing, going, gone | Sex Pistols

ohOn the morning of the day the Queen dies, art collectors Paul Stolper and Andrew Wilson happen to be staring at a photograph of her face. This is a piece of card, smaller than a vinyl LP, that artist Jamie Reid produced for a concert by the Sex Pistols. He took the classic portrait of Cecil Beaton, fitted it with a safety pin through her lip, printed it on a union flag, and later punched it for possible use as bunting on the band’s infamous Jubilee boat trip on 7 June 1977, although it was never used. This is the piece that sowed the world’s most extraordinary collection of visual iconography associated with punk rock’s most important band. Today it fills a room in the west London storage facility of Sotheby’s, before it goes up for auction next month.

It started in 1990. Stolper and Wilson visited Christie’s auction house to see a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Stolper is now a successful art dealer and Wilson was until recently a senior curator at Tate Britain, but back then they were young men on tight budgets and the Caulfield was wildly unattainable. However, before they left empty-handed, they half-heartedly checked out a sale of rock and pop memorabilia, and the bunting card caught their attention.

“We thought, wow, we can afford it, it speaks to us in terms of visual language, and it’s steeped in 20th-century cultural history,” recalls Stolper. “We understood early on what we wanted to raise and how to do it. We were at the right moment to build a very important collection, and that rarely happens. You couldn’t put this collection together now.”

Most of the items in the Stolper Wilson collection only cost tens or hundreds of pounds to acquire. In the 1990s, expensive desirable artefacts such as signed records and guitars did not interest them, while the things they done care – posters, flyers, letters – did not excite punk collectors. In fact, there is no music in the collection at all. “Sex Pistols was unlike any other band, any other situation, because from the beginning it was about art as life was lived,” says Wilson. “Yes, it was music, but it was also about a way of being in the world.”

The two friends visited auction houses and memorabilia dealers while scouring record store walls for Blu-Tacked old flyers. Once word got out, characters from the group’s inner circle began to emerge with items to sell. “I would come home with scraps of paper and my wife would say, ‘What did you buy?’” Stolper recalls with a laugh. “And I’d say, ‘That’s really important. This is the first Pistols press release!’”

Comic look … Artwork from the Stolper-Wilson Collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

Although Stolper and Wilson could never be mistaken for aging punks, they were fans at the time. Wilson, who was 14 in 1976, remembers buying God Save the Queen the week of its release. Stolper, who was 11, lived in Sloane Square, not far from the boutique Sex, owned by the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren. “I walked up and down the Kings Road and saw all the punks. I was so young that I didn’t understand the politics of it, but I got the culture because I was just there.”

By 1996 the collection was large enough to merit an exhibition, entitled “I Groaned With Pain” … Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, in the Eagle Gallery, above a pub in Clerkwenwell. Stolper and Wilson chose clean white frames on blank walls to indicate that it was about art, not rock. Visitors included several of the young British artists, who were often compared to punks at the time, but less so now. “Every contemporary artist I know came to that show,” Stolper says. “Everyone our age was fully aware of the visuals.” Damien Hirst even named a quartet of medicine cabinets after Sex Pistols songs.

McLaren also came and was overwhelmed by this monument to his youthful endeavours. He moved on so quickly after the Sex Pistols ended in Explosive Hearts in 1978 that he never thought about putting together this period of his life. “It was a very ephemeral culture,” says Wilson. “These things were not as valued at the time as they are now.”

A handwritten note by Malcolm McLaren.
Words of truth… A note by Malcolm McLaren. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

The collectors sat down with him for a long conversation. “We weren’t interested in asking what Sid was really like?” Stolper says. “We wanted to ask, where did it come from? We ended the interview with a great question: ‘So, Malcolm, did you think this was art?’ There was a long silence, then he said: ‘In a way it was bigger as art.”

If Pistol, Danny Boyle’s recent TV series, was the story of a rock band, then this collection is the story of an idea: a collaborative multimedia art project in which Reid and McLaren, who met at Croydon Art School, was at least as significant as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “They all brought their own unique visions and the Sex Pistols were the pot into which everyone threw everything,” says Stolper. Ostensibly created to promote performances and records, many of the images hold up as works of art in their own right. You could see them without having heard a note of the Sex Pistols’ music and know that they represented a radically significant moment in British youth culture. “It’s all in service of something else,” says Wilson, “and figuring out what that something else is is the intriguing part of it.”

'I Hate French Cooking' illustration – an artifact from the Stolper-Wilson Collection.
An artifact from the Stolper-Wilson Collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

The two men circle the room and proudly explain the stories behind their favorite artifacts. The collection re-familiarises familiar images by contextualizing them as the product of high-speed, low-budget experimentation. Two flyers for shows at the 100 Club in 1976, just 10 weeks apart, show how Helen Wellington-Lloyd’s original blockhead logo led to Reid’s ransom-letter collage. Reid’s tattered Lion Brand exercise book charts the project’s final days, with sketched ideas for the cruelly cynical 1980 compilation album Flogging a Dead Horse and scrawled reminders to chase up money owed by McLaren. Pink lyric sheets for Vicious’ first group, the Flowers of Romance, reveal surprisingly sensitive penmanship, each i studded with a flamboyant globe. The large poster for the band’s first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is the copy that Vicious pinned to the wall of his room in New York’s Chelsea Hotel before his death in 1979. It still bears the stains. from when he cleaned his heroin syringes.

Silly Thing: A poster stained with Sid Vicious's blood.
Silly Thing: A poster stained with Sid Vicious’s blood. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

As for McLaren, his determination to place the group in a long tradition of English dissidents and wild boys is vividly expressed in his hand-lettered poster for their last UK concert, on Christmas Day 1977. “This true and dirty story continues THROUGH 200 years of teenage anarchy,” he wrote alongside a George Cruikshank illustration of Dickensian hedgehogs. McLaren and Reid’s shared love of situationism led to a poster for the Belgian tourist industry being turned into an ad for the biting single Holidays in the Sun. “It’s taking something familiar and presenting it in a way that changes your attitude to the world you live in,” says Wilson. “Everything was not necessarily a rejection, but a turnaround.”

Perhaps the funniest item in the collection is the press kit put together by Warner Bros Records for the US release of Never Mind the Bollocks, with its inside-out T-shirt and comic book telling of the band’s story. His corporate mockery of the Sex Pistols’ underdog aesthetic foreshadowed all subsequent ersatz appropriations of punk signifiers, from advertisements to boutique hotel rooms. “The images are constantly rehashed,” says Stolper. “If there is a new young pop star and he is the ‘rebel’, there will be the punk attitude. It rebels by numbers. This is the touchstone of it all.”

Punk queen… Elizabeth II is a recurring image in the collection.
Punk queen… Elizabeth II is a recurring image in the collection. Photo: David Levene/The Guardian

Stolper and Wilson considered their work finished by 2004, having acquired the original lyrics to Holidays in the Sun, No Feelings and Submission. That year they held two more exhibitions, at the Hospital Gallery in Covent Garden and Urbis in Manchester. In the spirit of punk, they felt it was getting too big and commercial, so they never did another one. “The audience at the Eagle was an art audience and the audience at the Hospital was everybody,” says Wilson.

However, they have loaned items to museums around the world. The work of looking after the collection and traveling to oversee the installation is one reason they chose to sell it. After making the difficult decision to break it up, they now talk about it like proud parents watching their children fly the nest. “It has to live a different life now,” says Wilson. “The arc of collection inevitably leads to distribution—this sense of letting it out into the world so other people can have the fun we had.”

This is then their last chance to see the collection in full and reflect on the story it tells about the Sex Pistols, and about their own lives. “When I was a kid, the music seemed very important,” says Wilson. “I find it quite difficult to listen to some of the music now. But this” – he sweeps a hand around the room – “I still find endlessly fascinating and enriching. It’s more than just the music. And it’s more than just the imagery. It is total art.”

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