Artifacts from Austin’s music and drinking history went to the highest bidders Saturday in a large-scale auction of Threadgill’s restaurant owner Eddie Wilson’s collection.
An eclectic mix of neon Shiner, Lone Star, Pearl and other beer brand signs, shot and pint glasses, murals from the famed Armadillo World Headquarters, poster art and a baby grand piano were among the 520 items that drew online bidders and a large in-person crowd to Burley Auction Group in New Braunfels.
With Wilson on hand, the nostalgia-laced sale was an effort by Wilson to help fund the relocation of the South Austin Threadgill’s and the opening of a new one in Auckland, New Zealand, where he hopes to one day retire. Such artists as Micael Priest and Jim Franklin were present for the auctioning of some of their work. With Wilson, they offered up humorous and sometimes bittersweet stories about the pieces they created, including Franklin’s poster for the first Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic, which sold for $1,700 plus commission, or a Jerry Jeff Walker mural by Priest that drew groans when it sold for $8,000 in a mistakenly truncated bidding session. The auction house offered to waive the commission, and the proceeds were to go directly to Priest.
“I’m really tickled all this is happening,” Priest told the audience of bidders. “The only thing I ask of you is to tell these stories.”
A Freddie King and Leon Russell mural by Franklin that had been hanging at Threadgill’s until Thursday sold for $29,500.
More than just restaurant and beer hall decor, many of the pieces held deeper resonance, such as the concert posters that helped introduce Willie Nelson “to the longhairs,” Priest said, or a pair of Charlie Dunn’s original marijuana leaf boots, which sold for $7,000.
Wilson told the story of an armadillo-branded leather satchel that was custom-designed to hold record albums with a Velcro compartment to carry weed and an accompanying binder that Wilson took on his travels. They were created by Craig Weller, who went on to be a co-founder of Whole Foods Market. The satchel sold for $2,400 while the binder drew $1,800.
The crowd at the auction appeared to be a mix of Californian music poster hunters, South Austin hippies drawn by warm memories, and a flood of phone and online bidders who helped crash Burley Auction Group’s website before the auction got going around 10:30 a.m.
Robb Burley, owner and auctioneer at Burley Auction Group, said it was the largest crowd he’s seen for an auction, including the 2011 sale of a collection of Roy Rogers memorabilia.
“You’ve got more of a crowd than Roy and Trigger,” Burley told Wilson from the auction stage as the event began. The crowd swelled so large the auctioneer asked for the air conditioning to be checked as the room warmed up.
Some large-ticket items, such as the piano, which was played by Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, sputtered in the auction. That particular piece, which was highlighted by a full page in the auction booklet and was expected to bring at least $50,000, ended up selling for $22,500, despite a live musical demonstration by Asleep at the Wheel’s keyboardist Floyd Domino.
But bids for more modest items — including the beer signs, rare posters and artwork including a nude portrait of singer Janis Joplin, were brisk — with most selling for about $500 and the Joplin portrait alone fetching $4,750.
Wilson seemed a little wistful, which certainly showed in his raucous item descriptions and in his introduction to the auction, which he said was like “going through my sock drawer and unveiling my tombstone.”
Lot number 85, a neon Shiner Texas Special Beer sign over the outline of Texas that drew a $3,500 winning bid, was so unique that Wilson described how it came into his possession: he took it from an abandoned sign shop and ran.
Wilson said, “The only thing I’ve ever stolen in my life is right there.”
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, two mistakes appeared. Janis Joplin never performed at the venue. In a story that Eddie Wilson told at the auction, he said he stole a neon Shiner Texas Special Beer sign from an abandoned sign shop, not a bar as stated in the story.