Janis Joplin’s 1964 Porsche 356C


Anticipation builds as RM Sotheby’s prepares for Dec. 10 auction

Regardless of your taste in music, Janis Joplin just couldn’t be ignored. The gravel-voiced, psychedelic rocker lived the way she belted out song lyrics: with a carefree flamboyance that epitomized the anti-establishment, flower-power movement of the late 1960s.

Joplin, who was only 27 when she died of a drug overdose on Oct. 4, 1970, loved to sing, party and drive her favorite car (which wasn’t a Mercedes-Benz, by the way, even though she wrote a song about one). Like the woman herself, Joplin’s vehicle of choice was one of a kind: a multi-colored, hand-painted 1964 Porsche 356C cabriolet that will be offered to the public for the first time on Thursday, Dec. 10 at RM Sotheby’s “Driven to Disruption” auction in New York City. The auction house expects bidding on the car to surpass $400,000.

“This is the most unique celebrity car I’ve ever been involved with,” said Ian Kelleher, car specialist and managing director of the company’s West Coast Division. “It’s different from most celebrity cars because it was female owned, and it was owned by such an iconic woman.

“We make a big deal out of Frank Sinatra’s Jag or his Rolls-Royce, but how many other cars did he own? We make a big deal out of Elvis Presley’s cars, and his name is on what seems like 1,000 titles. People identify with Janis Joplin’s car because she drove it often, and she was photographed a lot driving it. People know the car. It was part of who she was. It was an extension of her personality, and I can’t think of a better car that defines that idea.”

Joplin, whose hits include “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” purchased the white Porsche in 1968 and asked friend Dave Richards, a roadie with her band, “Big Brother and the Holding Company,” to give it a flashy paint job. Calling his creation “The History of the Universe,” Richards painted flowers, butterflies, mountains and astrological signs, as well as Janis and the band – even hallucinogenic mushrooms and a bloodied American flag. According to Joplin’s younger brother Michael, Richards used regular house paint to create the artwork.

Joplin drove the iconic Porsche whenever she was in California, and fans would often leave notes under the windshield wiper blades. After Joplin’s death, the car went to her manager, Albert Grossman, who let visiting musicians drive it. The Porsche was eventually returned to the Joplin family in 1973, but by then Michael Joplin said the car was “trashed” and its famous paint job was flaking off. So the family decided to remove the art work. They drove it often for the next 20 years before returning it to its former glory for the 1994 play “Love, Janis.” The paint shop of the Denver Center Theatre Company used hundreds of photographs to recreate the design. Following the play’s run, the Porsche was displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for two decades.

That’s where RM Sotheby’s Kelleher saw it for the first time as a student at nearby Oberlin College.

“It blew my mind. It was the coolest thing – so much history,” he said. “Nineteen years later, I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again basically pushing it out so it could be shipped to (RM’s facility in) Canada to be prepped for the auction.”

But why sell it now? Laura Joplin said the sale will an opportunity to enhance her sister’s legacy in unforeseeable ways.

“As a family, we feel very strongly in protecting, extending and honoring Janis’s legacy,” Laura said. “We must consider which means will provide the most genuine connection between Janis and the hearts and minds of future generations. We love Janis’s Porsche and have worked to share it by exhibiting it. However, we feel Janis’s potential audience is far beyond the number of people who can see the car in person.

“We’ve come to the difficult but realistic decision to sell (it) and use those funds to promote and extend her legacy – be it focused through charitable, foundation, museum or other educational interests – in the most meaningful ways.”

Kelleher said pre-auction interest in the car is high. “It’s on par with the James Bond Aston Martin cars. I wouldn’t say it exceeds those, but has definitely grabbed the public’s attention. It’s a $400,000 to $600,000 car, which compared to the Bond cars makes it more approachable for car collectors and non-car collectors.”

While Kelleher can only guess what the Porsche will bring at auction, he is certain “you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a celebrity female-owned car as dynamic and unique as this one. It’s a very special car.”

RM Sotheby’s “Driven by Disruption” event includes 31 “creatively styled and pioneering motor cars,” as well as auto-themed artwork and memorabilia. For more information, visit www.rmsothebys.com.

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