Going once.

Going twice.

Julien’s Auctions is SOLD on Nashville.

Nothing has been finalized, but the California-based auction house is planning to open a Music City office in 2024, after generating closing bids estimated at nearly $9.5 million for music memorabilia during a week at the Hard Rock Café in November.

The week included Music Health Alliance’s (MHA) fourth annual Lyrics for a Cause benefit auction, with Julien’s playing middleman on Nov. 14 for the sale of 57 autographed guitars and documents featuring song lyrics. To cite three examples: A guitar featuring Keith Urban’s signature alongside the words from “Blue Ain’t Your Color” netted $7,800; a “Girl Crush” guitar autographed by The Love Junkies — songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna — brought another $1,950; and a “wait in the truck” guitar inked by HARDY and Lainey Wilson earned $4,445.

Julien’s followed Nov. 15-17 with its Played, Worn, & Torn Rock ‘N’ Roll: Iconic Guitars and Memorabilia Auction. Among more than 1,000 sales, an Eric Clapton guitar went for $1.3 million, a pair of Kurt Cobain’s jeans scored $476,000, and a signed Elvis Presley karate certificate pulled in $5,850. That auction also included a smattering of country items: a stage-worn Dolly Parton cape, $10,160; a Hee Haw contract signed by Johnny Cash and June Carter, $2,222.50; and Jerry Lee Lewis’ cowboy boots, $1,625.

Julien’s founder/president Darren Julien and founder/executive director Martin Nolan anticipated Nashville would have a significant regional draw for in-person bidding, on top of its online activity, and it played out even better than expected.

“People came from Missouri, Georgia, Alabama and Illinois just to see [the auction],” Nolan observes. “There’s definitely a huge interest here.”

Julien’s is already planning another Nashville-based auction in May, but it’s also scouting locations for an office, believing the market is underserved for celebrity sales. The company plans initially to staff with just one or two people who would utilize strong local connections to bring sale items to the public. The employees wouldn’t be expected to know how to price prospective memorabilia at the start; Julien’s has 30-plus employees in Gardena, Calif., and some of them can offer that expertise as the new Nashville team gets its bearings and Julien’s, if its plan works, ingratiates itself in the market.

A “Girl Crush” guitar autographed by The Love Junkies — songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna — recently brought in $1,950.

“It’s a contemporary recording community across all different genres of music,” says Nolan. “Obviously, it has a very rich musical heritage, and that sort of fits squarely into our growth plans.”

Julien’s is celebrating its 20th anniversary, having entered the auction market shortly after the largest celebrity memorabilia houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, paid over $550 million apiece to settle a price-fixing case. Julien’s aggressively pursued the potential of online bidding, allowing buyers from around the globe to compete with in-person customers. The technology was comparatively primitive at the time — a seven-second delay in digital bids affected the proceedings, and Nolan remembers his Blackberry ran out of juice in the inaugural sale during that pre-smartphone era.

The company also put a premium, Nolan maintains, on more personalized service with high-profile clients who come with their own set of expectations.

Cher wants her design one way, Barbra Streisand wants it another way, and Don McLean has another idea and Janet Jackson has another idea, and Ringo Starr,” says Nolan. “The big auction houses don’t have the resources to sit down with a celebrity and hold hands and walk them through the process and make it seamless for them.”

The stars deserve that kind of treatment, Nolan suggests.

“They’ve been hugely successful marketing geniuses in their own right,” he says. “There’s a fan base worldwide that wants to own something representing their life and career.”

Julien’s has made believers of MHA through its work on the agency’s Heal the Music fundraising auctions.

“In the last four years, Julien’s Auctions has not only elevated Music Health Alliance’s Lyrics for a Cause benefit auction to unprecedented heights through their global audience, they also seamlessly fused historical accuracy, integrity, and respect into the fabric of our mission to #HealTheMusic,” says MHA auction producer Colleen Hoagland. “Julien’s commitment to the minute details coupled with a passion for our cause has turned fundraising into an art form.”

Establishing a stronger foothold in Nashville’s music community — particularly in country — would expand on Julien’s existing cultural connections. The company regularly holds auctions focused on pop music, TV and movies, sports and art. 

Upcoming auctions include 1,000-plus lots of memorabilia from the collection of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill Dec. 7-9 in Dallas; a Robots, Wizards, Heroes & Aliens event Dec. 14-15 in Hollywood featuring items associated with such franchises as Breaking Bad, Harry Potter and Batman; and a Dec. 16-17 sale of materials from The Big Lebowski.

Julien’s does get its fair share of pushback. When the company approached Parton about selling off some of her personal artifacts, she initially rebuffed the offer, reportedly telling them, “I’m not dead yet.” But there are other reasons for celebs to part with their history, Nolan insists, such as raising money for charity, downsizing and connecting with members of the fan base. 

Beyond the headline-making million-dollar guitars, auctions often include smaller-priced items that are obtainable for fans of more modest means. As an example, photos, signed letters and several awards all went for less than $500 at a 2022 Kenny Rogers auction.

In its way, Nashville’s best-known export — country music — is a perfect fit for Julien’s.

“We’re all nostalgic,” says Nolan. “We’re all buying into something [from] our youth or a life stage when we got married, or first kid, or we were graduating college — whatever it is, it harks back to that time. We want to own the toys from that era. And that’s what we’re selling.”

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Marc Schneider
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