Charlie Watts (1941-2021), the English musician best known for being the drummer of the Rolling Stones, was a man of wide-ranging tastes and a passionate, lifelong collector — of books, vintage cars, jazz records and so on. Recently, auction house Christie’s announced Charlie Watts: Gentleman, Collector, Rolling Stone – Literature and Jazz, a two-part auction featuring the best of his personal collection; noteworthy are rare and first-edition books as well as an extensive set of jazz records and memorabilia.
The flagship auction will be held on September 28 at Christie’s London headquarters alongside an online sale that will be on between September 15 and 29, with 500-plus lots going under the hammer. The estimated bids range from £800 to £300,000.
“The influence of jazz on Charlie Watts’ work with the Rolling Stones is huge. To him the jazz legends — and that’s obviously a very American list — were formative influences, almost,” says Benedict Winter, Specialist, Private & Iconic Collections at Christie’s, during an online interview. “Among the jazz-related items up for auction, you’ll see some works by Irving Berlin. The Great American Songbook turns up in more than one album Watts did with his own band, the Charlie Watts Quintet. To Watts, that was the kind of music he loved personally; the Rolling Stones were obviously very popular and the making of his career but his heart always belonged to jazz.”
Jazz and whodunnits
The books that make up the literary part of the auction are an intriguing mixture. It’s led by a signed copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is expected to draw some of the biggest bids. Fittingly so, for this was the novel that symbolises the Jazz Age.
Watts was also very fond of detective fiction; the collection is full of classic British whodunnits and some American titles in the genre as well — such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. “I think what precisely these detective books meant for Charlie is very difficult to answer without asking him! But generally speaking, Charlie was a storyteller first and you can see that sensibility reflected in everything he did,” says Mark Wiltshire, Specialist, Books & Manuscripts at Christie’s. “So, we can say that with the works of detective fiction that are a part of this auction, he was trying to figure out how the story unfolded, who committed the murder and why and how and so on.”
Other notable lots include a printed score of the opera Porgy and Bess signed by composer George Gershwin, a pair of Down Beat awards from 1952 presented to American saxophonist Charlie Parker, and rare acetate jazz recordings.
The best of everything
The two specialists from Christie’s also note that Watts, much before his musical career began in earnest, was trained as a graphic artist. He went on to design the Rolling Stone’s most famous records and album covers, even making little comic strips for the sleeves. The rest of the band was appreciative of this because it allowed them a unified creative vision down to the last detail.
Watts was also a cricket fan, often accompanying his bandmate Mick Jagger to Test matches at Lord’s and elsewhere. The two of them shared an interest in vintage cars, too — Watts apparently never drove a single car from his collection because he viewed them as aesthetic rather than utilitarian objects.
“Charlie Watts was in many ways the ultimate English gentleman, as his bandmates noted in their tribute to him,” says Winter. “He was a man of refined tastes. He wanted the best of everything and I think that philosophy is reflected in this collection.”
Christie’s has a pre-sale exhibition planned in London from September 20-27. Highlights from the collection will also tour Los Angeles from July 25-29 and New York from September 5-8.
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.