Bidding for Yoko

Gillon Aitken

I have a record of a cheque written by me on 22 December 1981. The cheque is in the sum of £780.50, and the payee is Sotheby’s, Belgravia: the counterfoil in my chequebook bears the designation ‘Lennon – Tie’. The £780.50 breaks down as follows: tie – £700; 10 per cent buyer’s commission to Sotheby’s – £70; 15 per cent VAT on that commission – £10.50. Seven hundred pounds for a tie? Yes, that is what I paid. The tie was short and thin and black, and it had a bluish, greasy sheen which proclaimed its service. It carried no designer signature or label. It did come, however, with a ‘certification’: this short, thin, black tie had a provenance. It had been worn by John Lennon at a London concert in the 1960s. The letter of ‘certification’, signed by the impresario concerned and by Lennon himself, confirmed the association between tie and wearer.

I also have a record of a cheque I wrote on 27 January 1982. This is for £38.24; the payee in this case H.M. Customs and Excise. I will come back to this later.

I never met John Lennon. Within weeks of his cruel death, I did meet his widow, Yoko Ono. We had a mutual friend. Deezia, an Englishwoman living in New York. Yoko had come to draw comfort from Deezia’s good sense and spiritualistic gifts, which were imprecise but invariably compassionate.

Perhaps by some enchantment of Deezia’s crystal ball. I was summoned to New York to discuss the possibility of Yoko’s writing a book honouring her late husband and their life together. By the time of the first anniversary of John’s murder, with the purpose of advancing these discussions, I had made five trips to New York. At first, I had been received (‘Take your shoes off, please ... ’) in Yoko’s gloomy ground-floor office apartment in the gloomy Dakota Building; later, we were to have our conversations in her charming all-white drawing-room – in one of several apartments she maintained on higher floors of the Dakota – frequently lunching off an exclusive and unlimited diet of caviar of the finest quality. Unhappily, from my point of view, the literary project enjoyed no such preferment. There was a giddy moment, in the course of my penultimate meeting with her, when it seemed Yoko would sign her name to a colossal (indeed, world-record-breaking) book deal: but the contractual documents, achieved after exhaustive negotiations between the New York publishers and myself, appeared to bore her.

I saw Yoko for the last time, at her house on Long Island, on the morning following the first anniversary of John’s death. She and a friend, Sam, had invited me to spend the evening with them, together with her very young son and his Irish nanny, and to stay the night. It was a surprisingly cheerful occasion – lots of caviar and laughter. The book contract was not mentioned; I had no doubt that the project had been entirely extinguished from her consideration.

The next morning, I thanked her for her hospitality, and we said goodbye. I was driven into New York in one of several ‘security limousines’ on hand for her use at that dangerous anniversary time. A day or two later I flew back to London. I did not expect Yoko and I would be in further touch.

Around 8 p.m. on Monday 21 December – a little over a week afterward – the telephone rang in my house in London. It was Sam, Yoko’s friend.

‘Gillon’? Look, Yoko and I need your help. You‘ll be doing us a big favour. There’s a sale of Beatles’ stuff – pop stuff, memorabilia – it’s the first of its kind. We can’t get hold of the guy in London who usually bids for Yoko, and we’ve got to have someone at the sale, someone to bid. It’s important, and it’s tomorrow ... ’

‘Sure, I’ll help,’ I said. ‘Tell me where the sale is, and when it starts.’

‘Hold on a minute.’

Yoko came on the line, ‘Hi, Gillon, I’ve got the catalogue here: Sotheby’s, Belgravia. The sale starts at 11 a.m. There’s never been a sale like it. Lots of John’s things are there – and there are some I’ve got to have, I must get them.’

I listened carefully as she began to describe these essentials: two or three bundles of records, some sheet music, a tie, a ‘performance suit’, a drawing by John, something else. She spoke as if I would possess as vivid a sense of the identity of these artefacts as she did.

‘Yoko,’ I interrupted. ‘You must give me the lot numbers of what you want me to bid for. And the printed estimates.’

It took some time to identify the seven items of Yoko’s particular interest; some items were more particular than others.

‘Now listen, Gillon,’ she said eventually. ‘That first bundle of records – Lot 31 [£100-£150] – I’d like to have them, and push the price up to get them, but don’t worry too much if you miss. The same goes for the second bundle – Lot 45 [£200-£250] – but try hard for that. Get the “performance suit” ... Lot 60– [£600-£750] – you must get the suit – I’ve got to have the “performance suit” ... Lot 65 – another bundle of records [£200-£250] – we should have them, push to get them, keep the bidding going. Next, John’s pen-and-ink “medallion” self-portrait – Lot 80 [£100-£150] – it’s like a medal, with John in the middle, sitting naked on the floor, with a birthday message to a friend running round the edge; it’s very small, on India paper. It was a sort of birthday card John drew for a friend. We must have it, we must have it back. You must get it at any cost, at any cost ... And you must get the tie – Lot 98 [£250-£350] – any cost ... ’

‘And the seventh lot?’ I asked.

‘Lot 106 – another bundle of records and some sheet music [£300-£400].’

‘Any cost?’

‘No, no, just push up the price. Don’t worry too much.’

I was already extremely worried. Any cost for the medallion and the tie, perhaps for the suit as well? What did ‘any cost’ mean? What did ‘push the price up’ mean?

‘No, Yoko, I shan’t worry. I think I understand. Push up the price on the records and the music, but don’t go over the top. Go over the top, if necessary, for the suit, the medallion and the tie. You say “any cost”. Do you mean that literally? Is there any point at which I should drop out?’

‘No, No, don’t drop out. There are no upper limits for these items. They must he obtained.’

‘Yes, Yoko.’

I lived at the time in South Eaton Place – ten minutes’ walk from Sotheby’s, Belgravia. The sale started at 11 a.m. The first lot to concern me was Lot 31. I would set out at 11 a.m sharp: that would give me plenty of time.

It was a wretched morning – very cold, blustery rain. I arrived, soaked, at 11.15 a.m. A considerable crowd had gathered on the pavement outside the entrance to the building. My heart sank. I imagined that I had arrived too late, that I would he barred from entering. I pushed my way into the foyer, announcing in embarrassed sotto voce that I was a ‘bidder’ and had to take my place. I obtained a catalogue and struggled to the doors of the main saleroom. The room was packed – no sitting or standing room.

‘Standing room upstairs – telephone bidding,’ I was informed by a harassed official. I had not reckoned on telephone bidding.

The upstairs saleroom was like a village hall: rows of uncomfortable wooden chairs, a large area of standing room behind them. It was very crowded. It manoeuvred myself, heedless of objections, to a position behind the last row of chairs. Now, at least I was visible. At a desk on a platform sat a young lady with a telephone permanently at her ear. From the main saleroom below was transmitted the conduct of the auction. Evidently, the auctioneer announced the lots and took bids from below; the telephonist took the bids from above – and the bids were conveyed, competitively, to each other.

There was an atmosphere of urgency and confusion in the room. To this day, I remain uncertain of the precise sequence of events that followed.

‘Lot 38 – an important ... ’ I was too stunned to absorb the details of the auctioneer’s preamble which came crackling across the loudspeaker. I had missed Lot 31, indeed missed it badly. I looked at my watch: it was 11.35 a.m. Things must have been going at quite a pace – 38 lots in 35 minutes. I’d have to have my wits about me. What was Lot 31, anyway? A bundle of records – but what did that matter? I’d missed it. What was Lot 45, my second obligation?

‘Lot 45 – an important collection of Mr John Lennon’s early recordings, details in the catalogue ... Shall we start at £300? Who’ll start the bidding at £300?’

What did he mean – start at £300? The upper limit the estimate was £250.

‘Thank you, sir. £300 – and £325 from upstairs – and £350 – and £375 – and £400 from upstairs and £425 – and £450 from upstairs – and £475 – and £500 – and £550 from upstairs ... ’

Not from me it wasn’t. Stay out of this one, I thought – it’s getting out of hand. ‘Try hard for that’ were Yoko’s instructions for Lot 45. The final price was £650. I hadn’t raised a finger or an eyebrow. I suppressed a wave of shame. What did it matter? Upper estimate – £250; sale price – £650. Wasn’t that trying hard? I thought so. In the pace of the auction, it was easy to believe that I had pushed things along.

Next, Lot 60 – the ‘performance’ suit. Right, the first item that had to be ‘obtained at any cost’. Upper estimate – £750. Forget that – some fool’s going to pay at least double ...

‘Lot 60 – suit worn by Mr John Lennon, with signed certification ... Important piece of apparel ... £1000 – and £1100 – and £1200 – and £1300 – and £1400 – and £1500 – and £1600 from upstairs – and £1700 ... ’

Not more than 15 seconds had passed. I waved frantically at the telephonist, who conveyed my bid. ‘And £1800 from upstairs,’ the auctioneer intoned, but carried swiftly on. ‘And £1900 ... ’ The telephonist solicited my further interest. I nodded. ‘And £2000 from upstairs – and £2300 ... ’ Big jump, I thought. I’ll have one more go. I nodded again. ‘And £2500 from upstairs – and £2800 ... ’

I froze – and the price froze at £2800. Beaten by a whisker, I thought, but a large whisker: I had not appreciated that between £2000 and £3000 there were only three allowable bids – £2300, £2500 and £2800. At what level would the number of allowable bids become two, become one? I had no idea.

I was dazed by my cowardice. Arguably, I had greater authority than anyone else in the building to ‘obtain at any cost’ – yet my nerve had cracked. Lot 65 – ‘another bundle of records [£200-£250]’ – came and went. I scarcely took any notice. I was content to believe that it had fetched way above the upper estimate, and that Yoko would be pleased by that, and would even think that I had shrewdly pushed up the price.

‘Lot 80 – pen-and-ink drawing, medallion form on India paper, self-portrait by Mr John Lennon, nude, birthday greeting to a friend round edge ... £200, am I bid?’

That was more like it. Upper estimate– £150; auctioneer’s starting bid – £200. This was going to be easy – if it was the last thing I did, I was going to make damned sure of getting the medallion. (The little sketch was illustrated in the catalogue. It had an extraordinary, innocent charm. With very few, sure strokes, Lennon had caught his own likeness.The pose was seated, cross-legged upon the ground, the gaze upon the world was one of cheerful bewilderment.)

The bidding was under way. ‘£200 – £225 – £250 – £275 – £300 ... ’ In units of £25, it quickly reached £500; in units of £50, it moved to £750. I sensed hesitation. I nodded to the telephonist. ‘£800 from upstairs – £850 – £900 from upstairs – £950 – £1000 from upstairs ... ’ I found I was calm; the nods came easily; the price mounted, in units of £100, with lightening speed to £2000 ‘from upstairs’. I drew consolation from the fact that mine were the bids for £1000 and £2000 – that gave me, I felt, a certain psychological advantage.

£2300 – £2500 from upstairs – £2800 – £3000 from upstairs – £3300 – £3500 from upstairs – £3800 – £4000 from upstairs ... ’ The quickening price gave the sense that the tempo of the bidding itself had accelerated. My nods were now but tics of the somnambulist ... What must have been clear to others both upstairs and downstairs only now became clear to me: this was a two-horse race.

‘£4500 from upstairs ... ’ My bid.

‘£5000,’ Came the even voice of the auctioneer. My adversary below had eschewed the intermediary bid of £4800. A tic from me to the telephonist. ‘£5500 from upstairs.’ We were into units of £500 now – this was madness, I thought: upper estimate – £150; current price – £5500.

‘£6000, I’m bid,’ said the auctioneer. Correction: current price – £6000. I lurched on. ‘£6500 from upstairs.’

‘£7000.’

‘£7500 from upstairs.’ There was a pause. ‘I’m bid £7500 from upstairs,’ the auctioneer repeated my bid. ‘£7500 from upstairs. The bid is against you, sir. For the last time, a bid of £7500 from the gentleman upstairs ... ’

‘£8000.’

I was stunned. The man from downstairs had gone on – he’d outbid me. The spell broke. I turned my face away from the telephonist. I was through. The auctioneer performer his customary litany of the successful offer and brought the hammer down. I was out. Was there a burst of applause to mark the conclusion of this great struggle, which had realised a multiple of close to 60 when the upper estimate was compared with the final price? If there was, I did not hear it. Did I feel the warmth of sympathy from my fellows in the upstairs saleroom? I did not. I was crushed, sensitive to nothing ...

In a matter of moments, it seemed, Lot 94 was upon us. I had been deaf to its predecessors from Lot 80. Surely Lot 92 had been the tie? I couldn’t have missed the tie. Anxiously, I consulted the catalogue – no, Lot 98 was the tie. Pull yourself together ...

As has been revealed, I bought that short, thin, black tie with a provenance. I paid £700 for it, twice the upper estimate. Cheap, I thought. I’d been pretty clever. I felt quite good, good enough to skip the obligation I had to Lot 106, which was just ‘another bundle of records and some sheet music’. Who cares?

I registered my name with Sotheby’s accounts’ office and wrote out the cheque for £780.50. I could pick up the tie after the Christmas holidays, when presumably the cheque would have been cleared.

As I walked through the foyer to leave the building, I was stopped by a dark-haired man in a blue mackintosh. ‘Jones, Daily Mail,’ he announced. ‘Are you the fellow upstairs who bought the tie? £700? Why did you do it? Our readers would like to know. Do you mind giving me your name and answering a few questions?’

‘Yes, I do mind. I don’t know why I bought the tie.’

‘But it’s bloody ridiculous ... ’

The blustery rain had turned to a grey, cold snow, but I felt heated, and opened out my overcoat and jacket. At no great pace, my mind a blank, I walked home. It was later than I thought – nearly 2.30 p.m. Where had the time gone? Everything had seemed to go so quickly. The first 38 lots in 35 minutes, I remembered. Perhaps the sale had started earlier than 11 a.m.? I checked the catalogue. It had: 10.30 a.m. Trust Yoko ... Yoko – what was I going to say to her? I had failed her catastrophically. I felt very tired. Think about that later, I told myself, have a sleep first.

Sam came on the line when I called New York that evening. ‘Hey, Gillon, how are you, how did it go, we’re longing to hear ... ’

‘A day of mixed fortunes,’ I started lamely. ‘First of all, the sale began at 10.30 a.m., so I missed the first lot of records, but I pushed up the second lot a bit ... ’ A lie. ‘And I got the tie ... ’

‘But what about the suit, the performance suit? Did you get the suit?’

‘No, I did not get the suit ... ’

‘Why not? How come you missed the performance suit?’

‘Look, Sam,’ I said, ‘I think I had better talk to Yoko.’

‘Sure,’ he said, and I could hear him preparing her for the news. ‘He missed the suit, but he got the tie, and I think he missed the records.’

‘Hello, Gillon.’ It was Yoko. ‘What about the medallion? Did you get the medallion? I know you got the tie, but did you get the medallion?’

‘No, Yoko, I missed the medallion. In truth, when it came to the medallion, I lost my nerve ... ’

‘You lost your nerve? I wanted the medallion back ... ’

‘Yes, I know you did, but I just did not feel up to capping the other guy’s bid. I cracked ... ’

‘What do you mean, you cracked? What did the other guy bid? How much did he pay?’

‘£8000.’

‘What did you say?’ She did not wait for a reply. ‘£8000 for the medallion? Did you say £8000?’

‘Yes, £8000. I realise I should have kept going, but ... ’

‘Jesus, Gillon!’ She interrupted. ‘You’re fantastic, fantastic. You’re a genius. You’re unbelievable. £8000 for the medallion. You got the other guy to pay £8000 for the medallion ... Why,’ she purred, ‘we’ve got hundreds of medallions like that ... ’

What else to say? I recounted the events of the day in detail. It was a long and excited conversation, in which Sam joined with enthusiasm. When it was over, I poured myself a very large glass of whisky.

In due course, I took delivery of the short, thin, black tie with a provenance, and sent it to Yoko, and she paid for it promptly.

Ah, and the cheque I wrote to the favour of H.M. Customs and Excise for £38.24 on 27 January 1982? That was by way of import duty on a package, Christmas-wrapped, I received that morning from Tiffany’s in New York. There was no indication of the sender. ‘No,’ the postman said, ‘you can’t open the package without paying the duty. Cash – £38.24.’ I persuaded him to accept a cheque.

I studied the package. The green customs slip gave a weight (2.5 kgs) and a value ($250). I removed the artful protective coverings. There came into view a crystal box – not a ball – almost cubic in form, some five inches high. What was it for?

Engraved on the underside of the heavy, detachable lid, making them visible through the glass from above, were (remain) these letters:

                                            SEASON OF GLASS

                                                     XMAS 1981

                                                          Y.O.L.

Yoko Ono Lennon, of course certificated (in a way).