Most records are not worth a lot of money. You can obtain a diverse and interesting collection in almost any genre without having to spend very much. But a few records stand out as among the most valuable. They have that rare combination of scarcity and demand that, when they do come up for sale, they command a lot of money.
Meat and The Beatles: The Most Valuable LP I
Two albums come up frequently when valuable records are discussed. Both can be found in ordinary, common editions that fetch just a few dollars in near-mint condition, but both of the oddities are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
The first is Yesterday and Today by the Beatles. When this album was first issued in 1966, it had a front cover with the group posing with raw meat and decapitated baby dolls. It was supposed to be an artistic statement; contrary to popular belief, it was not a commentary on how Capitol Records, the Beatles' U.S. label, shortened and otherwise chopped their British albums. Perhaps tens of thousands of them made the stores with a new cover pasted over the old, and those can fetch hundreds of dollars. The truly rare editions are those that never had another cover on top. The most collectible is a still-sealed copy in stereo that came from a small collection once owned by former Capitol president Alan Livingston; with provenance, those are believed to be worth in the $40,000-$50,000 range.
Talkin' Dylan Changin' Blues: The Most Valuable LP II
The other album frequently mentioned as the world's most valuable is another that underwent a change before it was mass-released.
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, his second album, was issued in 1963. Before it hit the streets, it underwent a significant change: Four songs were deleted from the original lineup, and four newly recorded songs replaced them. The reason for the last-minute change isn't clear, but what is clear is that a small number of LPs with the original tracks made it into the shops. Today, approximately 20 known copies exist in mono and only two in stereo; the stereo copies list the original songs on the labels, but the mono ones don't. The only foolproof way to identify a rare Freewheelin' copy is to check the trail-off wax (the blank space between the last song and the label). These rare originals have a stamped matrix number ending in "-1A" in that area. If it ends in "-2" or any higher number plus a letter, it's a standard edition. The approximate value for the rarer stereo version is $30,000-$40,000, while a near-mint mono copy is worth a "mere" $10,000-$15,000.
Only a Northern Soul: The Most Valuable 45
The unquestioned king of valuable 45s is by an artist few Americans know.
Frank Wilson, a producer at Motown Records and not to be confused with J. Frank Wilson who had a hit with "Last Kiss" in 1964, recorded a song called "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" in 1965. Wilson was considered more valuable to the label as a producer than as a recording artist, so, with his consent, the record, originally scheduled to be issued on the label's Soul subsidiary, was withdrawn before release. Only two copies of this 45 are known to exist today. Adding to the song's mystique is that it is considered to be one of the greatest records in the genre of Northern Soul, which got its name from clubs in the North of England, where DJs would try to one-up each other by seeing who could play the rarest soul record that also got patrons onto the dance floor.
In 2009, one of the two known copies sold for more than 25,500 British pounds at auction, which, depending on the exchange rate, is around $35,000-$40,000 U.S.
The Punk Stops Here: The Most Valuable Non-U.S. 45
In recent years, early punk singles, especially from the middle to late 1970s, have become highly collectible. Usually, the more obscure the label and the song, the more sought-after it is. But the king of 45s produced outside the U.S. is actually a well-known song on a well-known label.
In 1977, the Sex Pistols found themselves bouncing from one British record label to another, sometimes overnight, because of their outrageous behavior. Briefly, Johnny Rotten & Co. were signed to the U.K. version of A&M Records, and their first single for the label, "God Save the Queen," was about to be released when, because of another outburst, A&M dropped the band before the single was issued. It was supposed to be destroyed, but approximately 300 copies escaped. Only a few of those have reached the collectors' market. In U.S. dollars, this record goes for $15,000-$20,000.
Like a Rolling Stone: The Most Valuable Picture Sleeve
Rather than having a blank sleeve or one advertising the label, many U.S. 45s from the 1950s through 1980s were issued with a special picture sleeve exclusively for the record inside. They are often more valuable than the 45 inside.
The most extreme example of this was from a single released in 1968.
Because of the images of police brutality on the sleeve, the Rolling Stones' American label, London, withdrew the picture sleeve for their single "Street Fighting Man" before it was widely distributed. Very few copies are known to exist today -- somewhere in the 15 to 20 range. When these are offered for sale, they sell for more than $15,000. (The record itself is worth a lot less in near-mint condition; original copies contain a different mix than the LP version and sell in the $15-$25 range.)
Look Sharp: The Most Valuable 78
Since 2000, demand for vocal group, sometimes called "doo-wop," 78s has declined as the primary buyers for these records have started to age out of the market. But one record retains a mystique it has held for more than 50 years.
In 1952, a nondescript vocal group called The Five Sharps recorded a single for the Jubilee label in New York. As was probably Jubilee's procedure at the time, the label pressed a few 78s but didn't press any 45s, as 45s were still a new format. The song, "Stormy Weather," did nothing, and the single faded into obscurity. Then, in 1961, a collector in New York bought a copy of the 78 and, some time later, his copy was accidentally broken. He figured that finding a replacement would be easy, but despite years of searching and advertising, he never did.
Today, that cracked 78, and possibly three others, are known to exist. A current estimated value is $20,000-$25,000.