The vintage rock T-shirts worth a fortune

If you started going to gigs before the turn of the century, it's likely most of the T-shirts you proudly accumulated and lovingly wore have long since fallen apart or been consigned to the charity bin.

Now, decades later, music lovers of a certain vintage are looking for a nostalgia trip and have the means to pay top dollar for quality memorabilia. Their needs are being met by others who are dusting off teenage treasures still lurking at the back of the wardrobe.

Price-tags for well-preserved T-shirts can be surprisingly steep, and the keenness of the market reveals it pays to know the power of provenance.

Prized possessions

Sydney-based artist Glenn 'Glenno' Smith scraped money together by working shifts at McDonald's to see his first concerts. "Like everyone else, I'm trying to reclaim and remind myself of those years now," he says.

Smith has produced artwork for bands such as Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Megadeth, The Darkness, Black Sabbath and George Thorogood, and knows better than most about the appeal of a great T-shirt.

"A good band T-shirt needs to be iconic, with as few colours possible, so the band never pays too much for production costs and makes money from them, which is what they are all about. Preferably they come with dates on them to give them a historic sense."

A band T-shirt designed by a member of the band imparts another layer of appeal. Smith's favourite tee is anything designed by Ray Ahn, the bassist from Sydney punk outfit The Hard-Ons. He's currently looking for a long sleeve T-shirt the band released in 1988, with a flaming eyeball printed up the side. 

In the beginning

Sven Wouters, owner of specialist Sydney music store Pacific Records, points to the hallowed legends of the 1960s and '70s as providing inspiration for new generations of music lovers.

"Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and a lot of the classic rock artists are the most collectable out there," he says. "They always find a new generation of followers; the kids get into them."


Henry Oliver, co-author of The Art of the Band T-Shirt (Simon & Schuster, 2007) says the most valuable item in the book was an Elvis Presley T-shirt from 1956 released by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It depicted Elvis surrounded by the song titles Heartbreak Hotel, Don't Be Cruel, Hound Dogand I Want You, I Need You. In 2001 the item was valued at approximately $US700 ($900).

"Our research concluded that it was the first band T-shirt, made well before the modern merchandise boom that started a little later with the Beatles," he says. 

While there isn't a comprehensive value list for rock T-shirts, there are several things to consider before purchasing a tee. These include the date of release, its relationship to the arch of a band's career, or whether it came from a historic tour. Also driving up the price is whether the band is still together, is the creative imprint of a famous illustrator or designer; numbers produced; and if the tee was handmade.

Local legends

AC/DC is Australia's biggest and most collectable band and nearly a decade ago Wouters came across a rare stash of crew T-shirts owned by a roadie who had worked with AC/DC in Australia and Europe for several years. Wouters says the simply-designed tees, in bright red with yellow lettering, were by far the most valuable of the items offered to him by the industry insider.

"He had two shirts that went back to the late '70s or early '80s that were only made for the road crew, so they weren't for general sale," recalls Wouters. "They're even more collectable than original tour shirts because it's unlikely they would have made more than 100 of them."

Also key was that the shirts were from early in AC/DC's career, when their ambition and creativity were at their peak. At the time Wouters sold the tees for $500 each, but today they would fetch between $1000 to $1500 each.

Metallic taste

Wouters agrees shirts by The Hard-Ons are always in demand, but also mentions Radio Birdman, one of Australia's first punk bands, as being particularly popular. Collectors from the US, Europe and Japan love any T-shirts from Australian tours of international bands.

Hardcore punk band Massappeal's tees by artist Ben Brown are another favourite that may bear fruit in the local collecting scene. Heavy metal lovers are more dedicated than most fan bases when it comes to the chase for an elusive T-shirt. "Sub-cultures and sub-genres are breeding grounds for value," says Oliver. "A band may have sold 20 or 50 T-shirts on tour and now [that T-shirt] is hugely popular after their audience broadened [online]."

Australia's Mortal Sin, considered the first local band to play purely thrash metal, are recommended by Wouters as another group with collecting appeal.

The matter of look-alikes

The grunge luminaries always do well on the vintage market, but aim for the early days of a band's career before the talent made it big and started selling thousands of the same tee. There are large numbers of contemporary reprints to watch out for.

Esteban Rios y Torres of online vintage dealer Desert Moss in Sante Fe, New Mexico, says the best way to avoid copies or 'retro style' band tees is to look for the content make-up on the label. "Use an online label resource (such as Vintage Fashion Guild) and search for a date somewhere on the tee," he says.

"Before the 90's most vintage band T-shirts were made up of a cotton and polyester blend, whereas new T-shirts are almost exclusively cotton," he explains. And vintage T-shirts use a single overlock stitching style versus a double needle on the hem and sleeves.

"The best advice I have is to use your smartphone, do research and be vigilant."

Whatever your music taste, if you have a special band T-shirt from back in the day, think carefully about how you preserve it. Yes, that will certainly mean hand-washing.

Oliver says original band tees should be given due respect. "If you're not wearing them or not taking care of them you should sell them to someone who will," he says. "T-shirts should be worn, but if you are going to consider them a collectable, you should at least treat them as such. It's a waste for them to get mouldy in a garage."

Do you own a band tee you are particularly fond of, or is there one you once owned that you'd love to find again?

Thanks to Wyco Vintage for the supply of selected images.