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Inside Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts’s ‘incomparable’ library

Howzat: Charlie Watts browsing cricket memorabilia at Christie's in 1987
Howzat: Charlie Watts browsing cricket memorabilia at Christie's in 1987 - ANL/Shutterstock

The release last week of the new Rolling Stones single, Angry, heralded the band’s first album of new material in 18 years, Hackney Diamonds. So it is poignant that Charlie Watts – the drummer who for decades, until his death in 2021, kept his head down at the back of the stage – is having his own moment in the limelight.

Watts appears on two of the tracks on the new album, recorded before his death, and soon takes centre stage in an auction to be held at Christie’s in London of the extraordinary collection of rare books and jazz memorabilia that he accumulated throughout his lifetime.

In the fashion of an auction house dating back almost three centuries to the time of James Christie himself, the catalogue for the sale describes the collection as being the property of “Charlie Watts | Gentleman · Collector”, adding, for the avoidance of any doubt, “Rolling Stone”.

The son of a lorry driver from Wembley, Watts was unquestionably, to everyone who knew him, a gentleman, in his manner, temper, appearance and bearing. While a part of the Stones, he always seemed curiously apart from them – a man with his own passions and enthusiasms. Watts was always happiest curled up with a good book – and, as the items in Charlie Watts: Literature and Jazz suggest, not simply “good”, but rare and valuable, too.

The collection, described by Mark Wiltshire, the rare books specialist at Christie’s, as “the best of its kind in a generation – I know of nothing comparable”, is, quite simply, staggering, in both scale and quality.

Among the 500 lots are signed first editions by Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Graham Greene, George Orwell and Oscar Wilde. Watts’s particular fondness for detective and spy fiction and American noir is reflected in books by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie of which there are more than 80 titles in the collection. (One of the most intriguing is a copy of Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs inscribed to PG Wodehouse, “with reverence, admiration and many long years of deeply enjoyed reading – no one like you!”)

The jewel in the crown is a first edition of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby inscribed “For Harold Goldman, the original ‘Gatsby’ of this story, with thanks for letting me reveal secrets of his past. Alcatraz Cell Block 17” – an ironic reference to the office at MGM Studios in Hollywood where Fitzgerald and Goldman worked as screenwriters on the film A Yank at Oxford (1938). Jay Gatsby, of course, was a Yank at Oxford himself, boasting to Nick Carraway that “all my ancestors have been educated there”.

Jewel in the crown: Watts's first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald
Jewel in the crown: Watts's first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald - Christie's

Watts’s passion for jazz is reflected in rare recordings, sheet music, gelatin prints and books. There is the sheet music for Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, along with the score for Acts 1 and 2 of Porgy and Bess, signed by George Gershwin. A copy of Negro Folk Songs As Sung by Lead Belly, by John A Lomax and Alan Lomax, is signed by Huddie Ledbetter – Lead Belly – himself.

Watts’s greatest musical hero was Charlie Parker, and the auction includes reel-to-reel recordings by Parker and a touching letter from Parker to his common-law wife Chan. “To my Darling: To my Beloved, reward for braveing [sic] any and all miseries, I adore you”, signed ‘Bird’, with the original envelope addressed ‘To The Summation of Beauty’.

Jazz is where Watts’s enthusiasm for collecting first began as a teenager, searching out hard-to-find records by his musical heroes in specialist shops in Soho. Collecting became an obsession. Over the years he would collect  American Civil War armaments, Horatio Nelson memorabilia, vintage Tailor & Cutter pattern books, suitcases, hats, Stuart silver, and cars, including several Rolls-Royces, a Bugatti Atlantic and a 1937 Lagonda – although he never learnt to drive.

Faced with the task of assessing all the objects Watts acquired over the years, his daughter Seraphina lamented that there were periods in his life when her father had gone “OCD collecting mad”. Sorting through one chest of drawers she came across objects including Edwardian glasses and carved pipes. “I wanted to say to him, what is this? It could be Roman and incredibly valuable or it could just be a piece of junk.”

'He was proud of this sense of being a completist': The Thirteen Problems, one of many Agatha Christie first editions owned by Watts
'He was proud of this sense of being a completist': The Thirteen Problems (1932), one of many Agatha Christie first editions owned by Watts - Christie's

Browsing through the catalogue for the forthcoming auction begs the question of whether Watts actually read all, or any, of the books he collected.

“He certainly was a voracious reader,” says Paul Sexton, the author of a biography of Watts, Charlie’s Good Tonight. “It was one of the things he had in common with Keith – which people tend not to associate with Keith. I remember Charlie saying to me once that Keith never reads anything less than three inches thick.”

It is particularly striking how the collection comprises mostly books and jazz artefacts from the 1920s to the 1950s – spanning the period from immediately before Watts was born, through to his teenage years.

“If you consider Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, I think Charlie would have drawn a comparison between the style of those books and the style of the jazz musicians he admired so much – the understated gracefulness in both those cases,” says Sexton.

It’s “no coincidence”, says Wiltshire, that the outstanding item in the collection, The Great Gatsby, is the novel that defines the Jazz Age.

“I think in his mind there was a clear cross-over between those two things, both thematically and chronologically. And when you find books published in the 1970s it’s because he was a completist collector of the authors who had their heyday in the pre-war period, Twenties and Thirties. He just had to have them.

'He liked the good things in life' Charlie Watts on stage with the Rolling Stones in 2018
'He liked the good things in life' Charlie Watts on stage with the Rolling Stones in 2018 - Andrew Timms

“He was very proud of this sense of being a completist. I think he started with the authors, fell in love with the text and in the way so many of us do when we have a particular author that we love, he wanted to get as close as he could to their lives and the interaction they’d had with that copy of a book.

“HG Wells is a very good example. In the copy of The War of the Worlds, Wells has obviously spent some time drawing quite an elaborate caricature on one of the endpapers. Charlie would have loved the fact that these were copies that meant something to the authors themselves.”

Over the years, Watts built up a network of dealers who knew his tastes and would notify him first of anything they felt would be of interest. The copy of The Great Gatsby was previously sold at a Bonhams auction in 2015 for $191,000, to one of his dealer contacts, who then offered it to Watts. It now carries an estimate of £200,000-£300,000.

“He was a connoisseur,” says Watts’s friend, the influential music manager and creative Tony King. “He wasn’t just collecting because he had the money to. He could tell you in detail about everything if you asked him.”

King tells the story of Watts once staying at Shugborough Hall, the home of the photographer Patrick Lichfield – and being given a tour of the house’s treasures. Pausing at a display of plates and dishes of the Huguenot silversmith Paul de Lamerie – valued at some £3.5 million – Watts pointed out that the caption below the display was incorrect. It was subsequently changed.

'He was a connoisseur. He wasn’t just collecting because he had the money to': Watts's edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle
'He was a connoisseur. He wasn’t just collecting because he had the money to': Watts's edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle - Christie's

King says that “Charlie was a very down-to earth, straightforward bloke. He wasn’t snobby in any sense of the word, but he definitely liked the good things in life. He was a total gentleman, and he liked other gentlemen.” He numbered among his friends Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Redé – the banker, aesthete, collector and socialite. It was de Redé who pointed Watts in the direction of George Cleverley, bespoke shoemaker to the Duke of Windsor – and subsequently to Charlie Watts. He went on to acquire several pairs of the Duke’s shoes, and two of his suits.

“He loved clothes,” says King. “He had so many beautiful things made. I think he knew he was only going to wear them once, but he liked the gentleman experience of going to Huntsman or Joseph, his tailor in Savile Row, and being measured and fitted and choosing the buttons.”

Watts kept a huge collection of suits in London, and in Devon. “I remember once when [Watts’s wife] Shirley was going up the stud farm, Charlie put on a beautiful Savile Row suit. She said, why are you dressed like that? He said, we’re the bosses; we might as well look the part. But all the staff there loved him. He commanded a lot of respect, in the band too.” 
Watts, says King , “was a very quiet, under-the-radar collector; you never knew what he was up to.”

Quiet and under the radar. It seems the perfect description of Charlie Watts, the most modest and unassuming Stone of all.


The two-part auction of more than 500 lots will take place at Christie’s in London SW1 on September 28, with an online sale open for bidding from Friday to September 29. Further details: christies.com