Massive music collection may set eBay record

Paul Mawhinney has collected a whopping 3 million records and 300,000 CDs. On Thursday, he's selling them all on eBay.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Plenty of people use eBay to rid their lives of clutter, but perhaps no one before has done it on the scale that Paul Mawhinney has.

The Pittsburgh man is the owner of a staggering archive of 3 million records and 300,000 CDs that hit the auction block this week. Snapping up a jukebox of this magnitude requires a rock star's spending habits, with $3 million pegged as the minimum bid.

Mr. Mawhinney's collection spans a century of music, from Thomas Edison to "American Idol." It includes almost every US music genre and artist imaginable.

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Now his treasure trove (Mawhinney puts its value at $50 million) of recordings is taking its decidedly analog act to the high-tech stage.

This Library of Congress-size collection of the history of American music has the potential to be the biggest eBay sale ever. (The highest-priced item to date, a private jet, sold for $4.9 million.) Already, the prospect of selling records is setting records: More people have window-shopped the collection (129,000 and counting as of Tuesday night) than anything ever offered on the site in company history.

"That is a massive collection by any standard," says Susan Sliwicki, associate editor of Goldmine magazine, a leading publication devoted to vinyl in Iola, Wis.

She says a highlight of Mawhinney's collection would be an unreleased, untitled Rolling Stones album of early singles. Originally recorded in mono, which is very desirable for collectors, Ms. Sliwicki says she's seen equally rare LPs sell for $5,000 to $10,000. "In terms of reflecting a lot of what's going on in musical culture, this collection does that. In terms of value, value is a tricky thing." But, she adds, "he's not just a single high value collector, he's got a real history of music."

Needed: one big basement

If you're thinking of getting in on the action, be warned: You're going to need a bigger garage. Or attic. Or aircraft hangar.

How big is Mawhinney's collection? Next time you're in Boston, drop by the Hard Rock Café, a familiar pop music tourist trap covering 16,000 square feet. That's the size of Mawhinney's combination record shop and archive located in a nondescript suburban Pittsburgh strip mall.

"The first time I saw it, my jaw dropped," says J. Paul Henderson, a former Top 40 and R&B deejay now representing Mawhinney in the auction and sale. Forty years ago, Mr. Henderson was an aspiring musician who cut one record. Mawhinney owns it. "I about passed out."

The 6 million unique pieces of music in the collection would take 57 years to listen to from beginning to end, Mawhinney says. (And you thought Bruce Springsteen could play forever.)

Mawhinney wants a buyer who will keep the archive intact; (he also has many duplicates that the buyer could keep or sell to recoup costs). He nearly sold the entire collection for $28 million a decade ago, before the buyer declared bankruptcy.

The lifespan of CDs and other digital recordings pales next to that of records and, for that reason, Mawhinney hopes the winning bidder will put the archive in the hands of a library or a museum.

If you're wondering whether the Library of Congress would be interested in this kind of thing, they were. Several years back, Mawhinney almost sold his collection to the nation's library, only to be rebuffed when federal budget cuts nixed the deal. In an interview, a spokeswoman for the Library of Congress confirmed they were in talks with Mawhinney.

"It is interesting that talks with foundations and museums, etc., broke down," says Ian Shirley, editor of "Rare Record Price Guide" via e-mail from Great Britain. "The problem with this collection is its vastness. For music lovers, it is a wonderful collection, but having to store it will be a nightmare. And also, how would a museum make their money back? After all, unlike paintings you cannot loan out rare records to other galleries."

As for individual buyers, Mr. Shirley says, "Private collectors with the resources to buy this collection will already have large collections. What they usually seek are the missing gems or gaps in their collections rather than a massive collection. Saying that, a serious collector might consider buying at the $3 million price tag. It seems a bargain to me at that price."

From one record to 3 million

Mawhinney's collecting bug bit him when he was 10 and bought Frankie Laine's "Jezebel." He played it until the grooves were gone, as his website (www.thegreatestmusiccollection.com) puts it.

From there, Mawhinney started buying records – and never stopped. A neighborhood paper route and, later, a job as a traveling salesman for a paper company funded his habit. Mawhinney was up to 161,000 records in 1968 when, he recounts humorously, his wife offered a stern ultimatum: He, or the records, had to go. Colette Mawhinney remembers the birth of Record-Rama Sound Archives somewhat differently. She just longed for a clutter-free home.

"I'm looking in my basement and he has all these records and I'm thinking, 'What's he going to do with all of this?' " she says.

That inspired the birth of Record-Rama Sound Archives, which the Mawhinneys, who have been married for 45 years, run together. Mawhinney has vowed to sell everything because he has health concerns and wants to be certain he and his family are in decent financial shape for retirement.

But there will still be music in Mawhinney's life. He's not rocking an iPod and he has an old-school preference for vinyl, but Mawhinney also has several hundred CDs in his personal collection that he'll be holding on to. Fifties-era doo-wop remains his favorite, but, befitting a man with millions of records at his disposal, Mawhinney is in tune with an eclectic play list: Stephen Foster, Rodgers and Hammerstein, jazz, Motown, you name it.

"If [the buyer] is going to break it up and sell it, it's going to break my heart," says Mawhinney. "But I don't think they will."

At press time, no one had met the reserve bid. If the collection does not sell, Mawhinney plans to try again in 10 days.

The dicey economy means it may be "tough" to sell the collection intact, says Sliwicki. "But people buy things on eBay every day. People buy jars of Rottweiler spit, for heaven's sake. To say it would sell or not sell, that's anybody's guess."

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