Lawyers for the Michael Jackson estate quietly threatened to sue a pop culture collectibles website this week over plans to auction off unreleased Jackson studio recordings that the estate claimed were “unquestionably stolen,” resulting in the items being withdrawn from sale.
Last month, Gotta Have Rock and Roll said it planned to auction more than two dozen masters tapes purportedly recorded by Jackson during 1994 sessions at The Hit Factory, a famed New York City studio. The auction house called the tapes “incredibly rare unreleased recordings” and said each would eventually sell for as much as $4000.
But after correspondence from attorneys for the Jackson estate that was obtained by Billboard, including an email from well-known litigator Alex Spiro earlier this week that threatened to seek an immediate court restraining order, the tapes are no longer listed on the auction site.
GHRR did not return a request for comment on the status of the tapes. A rep for the Jackson estate declined to comment.
The incident highlights the sometimes blurry line between legitimate rock and roll collectibles and goods that have been stolen from artists. Last year, three men were indicted in New York for attempting to auction Don Henley’s handwritten notes and lyrics for the Eagles album Hotel California; they claim they lawfully obtained the materials from a journalist who was simply given them.
The Jackson tapes, posted for sale as part of GHRR”s “Rock & Roll Pop Culture Winter Auction 2023,” cover 25 recordings that purportedly include “Oh Love,” “Sexy Love,” “Doing What My Heart,” “New Jelly” and many others. The site estimated that each tape, which it said was “an artifact ONLY with no copyright” with reproduction “STRICTLY prohibited,” would sell for between $2,000 and $4,000.
But in a letter dated Nov. 29, Jackson estate attorney Jonathan Steinsapir warned that the tapes had been stolen. He demanded that Gotta Have Rock and Roll not only “cease and desist from any and all efforts to further auction these tape,” but also immediately return them.
“Neither Michael Jackson nor his record company, Sony Music Entertainment, ever sold or gave away master tapes from his recording sessions at The Hit Factory (or anywhere else),” Steinsapir wrote in the letter, obtained by Billboard. “These tapes were unquestionably stolen or otherwise taken without authorization. Accordingly, they are the property of the Jackson Estate.”
The letter was apparently unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, the estate contacted the Gotta Have Rock and Roll again, this time represented by Alex Spiro, a nationally prominent attorney who has previously represented Jay-Z, Megan Thee Stallion and Elon Musk in court. In an email to the auction house’s lawyer, Spiro noted that Gotta Have Rock and Roll had informed Steinsapir that it “will not comply with these demands.”
“We write to notify you that we intend to seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction tomorrow (December 13) in New York Supreme Court,” Spiro wrote. “Please feel free to contact me should you have any questions.”
Less than two hours later on Tuesday, the company’s attorney responded to Spiro with an email: “There is no contact information on your email. What is the best phone number to reach you?”
By Wednesday, the tapes had been removed from Gotta Have Rock and Roll’s site. The auction site still lists numerous Jackson items as part of the sale, including a “Michael Jackson Circa 1984 Owned & Worn Red Military Style Jacket” that they estimate will sell for more than $10,000. But the tapes, and the specific lot numbers they occupied, are no longer visible.
The auction house did not respond to specific questions from Billboard, including how the auction house came into possession of the tapes, and whether they had been returned to the estate.
It’s not the first time the Jackson estate has sued over materials allegedly stolen from the late star. In 2022, the estate sued Jeffré Phillips, who was once engaged to Michael’s sister La Toya Jackson, over allegations that he stole various materials from the singer’s Carolwood estate in the wake of his death. In October, the estate said that case had been “amicably resolved” after Phillips “voluntarily returned Michael Jackson’s property to the Estate.”
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