Top 10 Most Expensive Vinyl Pressings Ever Sold
How much is too much for a damn record?
Recently, I was checking out the Discogs Marketplace for a particular record, Frank Ocean’s Blonde. This album was released in 2016 and a limited number of vinyl pressings were produced for the Black Friday 24-hour sale of the same year. The record was originally priced at $45, now the cheapest one available on Discogs is $350, and the most expensive is listed for $1200. And these records aren’t even in mint condition, almost all of them mention outer sleeve damage (even the ones still shrink wrapped), and one even admits to an audible fault on one of the tracks. That price increase is a great return on investment (I bet this guy is kicking himself now)! On principle, I am against this sort of jacking up of prices, mainly because it leaves a gap in the market for the sale of pirated copies and unofficial release, which I don’t agree with, but also because I just don’t want to pay this much for a record that is two years old! It’s hard to imagine that the age group that froths for Frank are spending this much money on a single record, but I guess if people are willing to pay that much for the album, then that’s just what it’s worth now.
After seeing this hefty price tag on a record like this, I was curious to see what the most expensive record on the Discogs Marketplace is. At the time I looked, it happens to be a copy of The Fabulous Steel Guitar Artistry Of ‘Little’ Roy Wiggins available to a lucky buyer for no less than $1.1 million USD. The next most expensive copy of this album is going for around $9. I was shocked to say the least. This doesn’t seem to be a particularly rare record, and this copy isn’t listed as a first pressing, or with any other distinguishing features to afford it the lofty price tag. I contacted the seller and they actually corrected the price, it is now down to $15, but it seems like a strange mistake to make. I noticed this seller is selling his entire collection, and I wonder if the high price tag on this record is a clever way to get noticed by buyers. It certainly worked for me, as I immediately started looking at what else he had available and for what prices. Quite an interesting tactic that artists themselves may even employ.
Should we all be investing in vinyl?
So, if vinyl records can go up so much in price, do they make a good investment? Well not exactly. Obviously there are risks associated with “investing” in vinyl. What if the artist decides to do another run? In a lot of cases, that can drive the price of the original release down, as it now becomes readily available to meet the demand. But in some instances, it can also drive the price up! Especially if the reissue sells out fast. Then again, your initial investment isn’t that much, so if you pick the right albums, you can probably make a little money. Maybe not enough to consider early retirement, but perhaps enough for a decent side hustle with some patience.
But then there are certain ethical considerations. Buying records specifically to sell later at an inflated price, to keep them sealed so that they hold their value better and to never enjoy them for the purposes that they were intended by the artist, is not really in the true spirit of the music. You essentially become a scalper. The artists never see a dime of this increase, and as I mentioned, it leaves the market open for pirates and counterfeiters.
I guess the question is why record labels and artists don’t release more copies to prevent piracy themselves? As we’ve seen above, it may well be a clever tactic, as it adds a certain elitist and somewhat frenzied appeal to their product, something that I think Frank knows how to do all to well, as most of his merch is later sold for hundreds of dollars after his limited releases. Although recently it seems he has put this clout to good use! I wonder how much this will be selling for on eBay in the coming months.
This did get me thinking about what records are truly valuable, and always will be, and what are the most expensive vinyl records ever sold? So I compiled a list* and did some research on each one. There are some incredibly interesting stories here! It’s a bit of a long read, so if you find yourself getting bored, just skip to the end!
*This list is available on Wikipedia, I have selected only the ones that have actually sold, not ones with only an estimated value, and included some details about the records and the sales.
The Top Ten Records with the Biggest Price Tags Ever
10. Frank Wilson – Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
£25,742 (approx. $33,000)
Frank Wilson was a songwriter and producer who worked with Berry Gordy Jr’s label Motown for many years, and worked with some of the biggest names of the time. In the 60’s, he composed a track for Marvin Gaye, but ended up recording it himself in 1965 when the Motown star passed away.
Legend has it that only 250 demo copies were ever pressed, but the majority of them were destroyed, except for at least 2. There are several theories about why these records were wiped out; one claims that Gordy didn’t like the track and had them destroyed, another that he wasn’t thrilled about one of his best producers launching a singing career and disposed of them, and the last that Frank Wilson himself opted to be a producer and not performer and had the demos trashed himself. Whatever the truth, a few survived. Gordy is believed to be in possession of one of them, another sold at auction in May 2009 for £25,742 ($33,000).
9. Tommy Johnson – Alcohol and Jake Blues
In 2013, an Oregon-based record collector purchased his second copy of this very rare 78-rpm blues record by Tommy Johnson for over $37,000. The buyer explained that this copy was in far better condition than his previous copy, and since the master tapes of this recording are no longer in existence, it makes a good quality copy invaluable.
Interestingly, this somewhat inordinate price tag came about due to a technical glitch on eBay, where the auction was listed. In the first few days of the listing, the seller was contacted by a buyer who wanted to purchase the record for “Buy It Now” price of $4,000. Unfortunately for the buyer – but fortunately for the seller – the offer was unable to be accepted so the listing time ticked on and ended up with 29 bids from 8 bidders, and an extra $33,000 for the seller.
8. Aphex Twin – Caustic Window (test pressing)
It’s hard to believe that number 8 on this list is an album from 1994! Don’t get me wrong, it was a killer year for music, but the majority of records that fetch this sort of price are generally from a certain era, and their value is in part due to their age. But in 2014, this idea definitely started shifting. After a Kickstarter campaign to release this album digitally raised $67,424, this rare test pressing of Aphex Twin’s Caustic Window was sold at an eBay auction for an incredible $46,300!
Although I don’t imagine this numbered got the buyer all hot and bothered, he turned out to be none other than the inventor of Minecraft, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson. The news was broken via his Twitter account in a tweet which read “So I kinda paid a lot for a double LP from the ’90s.” The seller, and head of the Kickstarter campaign to release the digital music, Joyrex, has said “He’s a really cool guy, and didn’t even consider the charity aspect when buying it (but was really happy to hear that half is going to charity) – he’s been an Aphex fan since he was young. My daughter was blown away that the guy who made the game she endlessly plays bought a record off her dad for $46,000.”
As the people who grew up listening to music from the 90’s grow older and richer, I suspect we might see more releases from this decade selling for a high price!
7. The Beatles – Til There Was You (10” acetate)
£77,500 (approx. $100,000)
This incredibly rare pressing was found forgotten in an attic in the UK, owned by a man named Les Maquire. Apparently, Mr Maquire came into possession of the record during his time as keyboardist for Gerry and The Pacemakers. This 10” acetate is of an early demo recording by the Fab Four featuring the songs ”Til There Was You” and b-side “Hello Little Girl” (misspelled on the disc as ‘Hullo Little Girl’), handwritten by Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager.
It is widely said to be the ‘Holy Grail’ for Beatles collectors and is believed to be the first Beatles disc to ever be pressed, and helped to secure them a contract with EMI records. As such, it is touted to be “the record that launched the Beatles.”
It sold in Warrington to an unnamed buyer in March 2016.
6. The Beatles – Yesterday & Today
Get ready for more Beatles, ’cause we ain’t done yet. Next on the list is another of the more rare Beatles items. This compilation record from 1966, was initially released only in North America, and later also in Japan, but never in the UK or Europe. One reason this compilation album is so scarce is due to the artwork of the early pressings. Known as the infamous “butcher” cover, it shows the group clad in white butcher’s coats, and draped in cuts of raw meat and dismembered, cigarette-burned dolls. Although this version was swiftly withdrawn, the very fact that it was produced at all really speaks volumes about the band’s unparalleled status. In 1966, you couldn’t so much as show a toilet seat on an album cover, and it would take ten years before the punk movement began to climb to this provocative height. And yet here we have the Beatles, sitting like mischievous (albeit, somewhat murderous) schoolboys among the carnage. This original cover is still a sought-after item for Beatles collectors, and a mint edition sealed copy became the most expensive one ever sold when it went at auction in February 2013 for $125,000.
5. John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy
It’s not just the scarcity of a particular pressing that can make it so valuable, it can often be the result of some defining feature that makes it a gem to collectors, whether that’s a strange printing error or other notable marking, or of course, a prized signature. None is quite as historic or unbelievable as this. This particular copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, sold for an unbelievable $150,000 in 1999, and maybe sold again for $850,000 in 2010*, and is currently on sale once more for a reported $1.5 million. The story of why this album is so valuable is rather shocking.
This particular copy of the album was signed by John Lennon just hours before his death on December 8th, 1980. And who was the copy signed for? None other than Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered Lennon later that night.
After getting the album signed, he stashed the record in a pot plant outside of the Dakota, home to Lennon and Ono, and waited for them to return home from a recording session. Upon their arrival, Chapman shot Lennon multiple times in the back and killed him. A passerby found the record and handed it in to police as forensic evidence. A year later, the police returned the album to this good Samaritan. Amazingly, the cover and dust jacket still contains Chapman’s forensically enhanced fingerprints. As an avid Beatles fan all of their life, this person hid the album under their bed for 18 years before they sold the album to a private collector in 1999. I wonder if it will hit the number one spot when it sells again in the future.
*The reason this is at number 5 on the list, and not at number 2, where the 2010 price tag should put it, is because I can’t really find a reliable source for this sale.
4. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (signed by all four Beatles)
Original 1967 pressings of Sgt. Pepper will always go for a high price at auction, especially the mono version with the black Parlophone label. One Beatles signature alone can inflate the value of the record radically. A copy signed by all members of the Fab Four? As the old Australian saying goes: Tell him he’s dreamin’. This particular copy was estimated to sell for $30,000 at auction in Dallas in 2013, but stunned everyone when it ended up selling for nearly 10 times the original estimated amount, fetching an astonishing $290,000 and breaking all the records for this 1967 album.
3. Elvis Presley – My Happiness
On January 8th, 2015, what would have been Presley’s 80th birthday, a massive auction was held at his Graceland estate. Here, the first ever recording by Elvis Presley, and the only one of its kind in existence, an acetate disc containing “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”, sold for $300,000 to an “undisclosed buyer”. This buyer was later revealed to be the the legendary Jack White, you might remember him from The Dead Weather, or The Raconteurs, or…The White Stripes maybe? Now if you know anything about Jack White, you probably know that he is an avid collector of vintage gear and vintage vinyl. He loves to do things old school, and his studio and label Third Man Records specializes in both vintage recording techniques and unusual vinyl releases. So it’s pretty fitting that he is the proud owner of one of the world’s most expensive records. What you might not realize, is that he bought this album to make a limited edition facsimile which was released through Third Man Records for Record Store Day in 2015, complete with all the crackles and pops of that acetate disc. It was even released with a plain brown paper bag for a sleeve – because, he said, “that’s what Elvis would have walked out of Sun Records with.” Can this guy get any cooler? I’m looking forward to finding out.
2. The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album)
For years it’s been known that Ringo Starr (you know…that drummer from The Beatles) owned the very first copy of the band’s self-titled double album from 1968. This first run of these records were printed with serial numbers in sequence, and Starr’s copy sports the number ‘0000001’. He sold his copy in 2015 at Julien’s auctions (known as The Auction House To The Stars…cue eye roll) in the U.S. for a whopping $790,000, to a buyer who has remained unnamed.
Starr previously told Rolling Stone “We used to play the vinyl in those days. We didn’t think, ‘We’ll keep it for 50 years and it will be in pristine condition.’ Whoever gets it, it will have my fingerprints on it.” I can only imagine this dramatically increases the price of the item.
Along with this record, Starr also sold his famous Ludwig drum kit, bought by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for a cool $2.2 million.
1. Wu-Tang Clan – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin
At number the number one spot, by far the most expensive record ever sold, is the 2015 album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. This is the one and only copy ever produced, and this one of a kind album comes with a strict contract stipulating that whoever buys the album may not attempt to sell or make money from the record for 100 years. However, the new owner may release the album for free if they so choose. The contract also included an amazing clause added by Wu-Tang, which is probably the best thing anyone has ever had written into a legally binding document:
“The buying party also agrees that at any time during the stipulated 88 year period, the seller may legally plan and attempt to execute one (1) heist or caper to steal back Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. Said heist or caper can only be undertaken by currently active members of the Wu-Tang Clan and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions”
Ok, but whoever bought this album would surely release it for free and be beloved by the world. So why haven’t we heard all the damn songs from this thing already? What kind of a person would buy something like this and just sit on it?
Well, actually we know exactly what kind of person would do that. His name is Martin Shkreli (read: massive ass-hat). He’s the CEO of the controversial (to say the least) Turing Pharmaceuticals. This is the company that bought out an anti-HIV drug and hiked the prices up by more than 5000%.
He paid the asking price of $2 million for this record, which didn’t go down too well with some fans, or members of the band. While all of this really speaks to the deplorable character of this pathetic excuse for a human being, luckily he is getting his comeuppance. Shkreli has been tied up in legal battles for a long time, and In March 2018, Shkreli was ordered by U.S. courts to forfeit $7.38 million worth of assets, and luckily this includes the record. Who knows what will happen to it from here, but at least that piece of human trash doesn’t own it anymore, and that’s enough for me for now.
You can read more about the incredible timeline of his ownership of this record here.
Every record tells a story, and there are some pretty incredible stories among these top ten records. This got me thinking that the best investment in vinyl you can make, is to buy the best collectors edition of your favorite new releases as you can, care for them well (you can read my tips for caring for your vinyl records here), but play them and enjoy them. There’s no telling which albums will end up being valuable in the future, but it might be worth playing the long game! Who knows, in the next 50 years maybe we’ll see some first edition copy of Frank Ocean’s Blonde Black Friday release, signed by all the Odd Future members at some reunion show right before they all die in a fiery plane crash (I honestly hope that doesn’t happen) end up for auction in 2058 for $10,000,000.