Before Auction, Lennon Has Brush With FBI

John Lennon has been dead for 30 years, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation is still on the case.

John Lennon
Tom Hanley | Redferns | Getty Images
John Lennon

On Wednesday morning a small pop-culture memorabilia shop in Midtown opened an 836-lot auction timed to what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday, which is Saturday. The prized item was a set of Lennon’s fingerprints made in 1976 as part of his application for citizenship. Minimum bid: $100,000.

But after an hourlong standoff involving cellphone calls, faxes and meetings with an agent in a parked car outside the East 57th Street storefront, the F.B.I. served the shop—called Gotta Have It!—with a subpoena and seized the fingerprint card, which was made at a New York police station on May 8, 1976, and bears a signature and the name John Winston Ono Lennon.

Given Lennon’s history with the F.B.I.—he was under surveillance in the early 1970s for his antiwar activism—the events were strange enough to make Peter Siegel, an owner of the store, wonder what the fuss was about. Since last Thursday, he said, the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and the United States attorney in Manhattan had asked about the card.

Alternative Investing - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
Alternative Investing - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

“I’ve been doing this 20 years and have never had this much government interest in something,” Mr. Siegel said. “Here he is, one of our greatest musicians ever, and they just don’t stop investigating this guy.”

Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote the book “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files,” also noted that 1976 was a bit late in the F.B.I.’s Lennon timeline.

“As far as I know, the F.B.I. interest in Lennon was in the J. Edgar Hoover era,” Professor Wiener said on Wednesday, “and his successors fairly quickly closed the books on the investigation.” Hoover died in 1972.

Yet despite the display of federal investigative force, the interest in Lennon’s fingerprint card may turn out to be prosaic, perhaps having to do with ownership of government property. On Wednesday an F.B.I. spokesman, James Margolin, said there was an “investigation into how that item came to be up for auction.”

The card, Siegel said, was being sold for a private collector, whom he identified only as a former concert promoter who had bought the card at a Beatles convention about two decades ago.

It is not the first time a Lennon fingerprint card has been offered at auction. In 1991 Sotheby’s sold a similar item for $4,125, without incident.

Leon Wildes, Lennon’s immigration lawyer in the 1970s, offered a theory about the document’s provenance.

During the summer of 1976, Mr. Wildes said on Wednesday, he had some of Lennon’s paperwork with him, including a fingerprint form, while making a television appearance. “When I returned to where I was, from New York, it turned out it was missing,” he said. “I was very upset. We called about it, and nobody seemed to know where it was.”

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, an F.B.I. agent appeared outside Gotta Have It!, parked in a blue Ford. Siegel said the agent lacked a proper subpoena. After a flurry of phone calls between the store owners and their lawyer, and many visits to the agent in the Ford, the store owners received a subpoena by fax that satisfied their lawyer, and turned over the document.

“If it was anybody else’s fingerprint card,” Siegel said, “I wouldn’t hear from anybody.”