The Grateful Dead are having a warehouse sale and nearly everything must go. Available for auction at Sotheby’s on October 7-14 are three decades of sound gear, merchandise, and ephemera that might also double as a starter kit for a Grateful Dead museum, should a heady multi-millionaire decide to grab it all. Taken as a whole, the collection neatly illustrates the California band’s enduring impact on American culture, ready to seed intersecting museum wings dedicated to fashion, high-fidelity audio, high-end instruments, industrial design, and cutting-edge drug technology.
“We’re looking at the whole story of the Grateful Dead from the late ‘60s through 1995,” says Richard Austin, Sotheby’s Global Head of Books and Manuscripts, who’s been assembling the collection for the past few years and gave me a preview at the auction house’s offices. It’s not the first Dead auction. But, with decommissioned items from the Dead’s warehouse in northern California, a slew of Bob Weir’s guitars, and collections belonging to sound engineer Dan Healy and late trusted crew chief Laurence “Ram Rod” Shurtliff, it’s almost certainly the most comprehensive.
Included are the pants from Jerry Garcia’s Nudie suit, Pigpen’s Fillmore West football jersey, Ram Rod’s neon-painted coveralls from the Merry Prankster days; though announced as part of the sale, the slightly-less-revered white disco outfits worn by Phil Lesh and Brent Mydland on the cover of 1980’s Go To Heaven were pulled just before the auction went live. Vintage clothing collectors might drool, too, over Dan Healy’s t-shirts, roughly half of a stash unearthed several years ago, including a rare psychedelic 1968 effort by Hells Angel and poster artist Allan “Gut” Turk, and shirts documenting infamous Dead shows from the Watkins Glen Summer Jam to Cornell ’77. (Some of Healy’s shirts will be available via a separate Buy Now sale.)
Since the Grateful Dead name was retired in 1995 following Jerry Garcia’s death, collectors’ markets have opened for a wide range of Grateful Dead artifacts, from fan-made bootleg t-shirts to the band’s instruments. In 2017, one of Jerry Garcia’s custom guitars sold at a benefit auction for $1.9 million dollars, more than double what it went for in a contentious 2002 auction. While Deadheads are infamous for collecting tapes of the band’s performances going back to the ‘60s, they are also the keepers of a half-century of folklore and data, with stories to attach to nearly any physical artifact the band produced or touched.
“The great thing about all this stuff is that there is a patina to it that’s from touring and use,” says Austin. “We cleaned up a lot of the stuff, but some of it we left more or less as is. The fact that something is scarred or has dings on it, that’s just part of the story.”