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.

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