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Baby, You Can Drive My Car but It'll Cost You: John Lennon's Rolls Really Rocks a Sotheby's Auction

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Outside, the car sat on the sidewalk, an object of curiosity for passersby, who stopped to gawk at its swirly red, white, blue and yellow floral patterns. Inside, it was the object of intense bidding at the Manhattan showrooms of Sotheby’s, the famous auction house. When the gavel finally banged down, Canadian businessman Jim Pattison, 55, forked over—fasten your seat belts—$2,299,000. His prize: John Len-non’s own touring car, the psychedelic 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom V that the Beatle and Yoko Ono owned from 1966 until 1977, when they gave it to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design, the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. The museum auctioned it off to raise funds, but no one expected the Phantom to fetch anywhere near as much as it did. “This shows that rock ‘n’ roll has transcended modern musical history,” said Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe, who attended the sale with Ringo Starr’s ex-wife, Maureen. “It’s suddenly become legitimate. It’s historical. If the car is an example, I think people in America would rather be famous than rich.”

Yeah, but you’ve also got to be a little rich to bid at Sotheby’s, which is more famous for its multimillion-dollar works of art than its used cars. Also sold at this special rock ‘n’ roll auction were the gold record from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ($13,200); a John Lennon drawing ($25,850); a journal by the late original Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe ($2,200); and such non-Beatles memorabilia as Elton John’s duffel bag ($1,210); a double-neck 12-string guitar ($6,050) that belonged to Pete Townshend of The Who; an assortment of Wurlitzer jukeboxes; Duran Duran memorabilia, including a 1984 poster ($440); a Bo Diddley portrait ($412) and 250 other collectibles. “I often think people buy a portion of their life back at a rock ‘n’ roll sale,” says Michael “Mish” Tworkowski, 24, a Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers, who is in the strange position of being rock ‘n’ roll expert in the tradition-minded auction house, after having interned in the art nouveau and art deco departments. “They might see the gold record for She Loves You and think, ‘Wow, I fell in love with my wife at that time.’ ” But sentiment is not the only motive. Rolls buyer Pattison, chairman of Canada’s Expo 86 and owner of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, plans to exhibit and tour the car.

Rock collecting may just be hitting its stride. David Redden, 36, a Sotheby’s senior vice-president, insists, “Rock ‘n’ roll is great fun, but one really wants to be remembered for selling wonderful works of art.” But young Tworkowski, Redden’s assistant and an expert in rock arcana, thinks the rock ‘n’ roll auction is here to stay. “People ask me how much a particular porcelain vase would go for,” he says, “and I think, ‘Well, if you asked me about John Lennon’s socks, I could do better.’ ”