Kurt Cobain’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ Cardigan Is Expected to Fetch More Than $290,000 at Auction
The sweater is in perfect “mint-grunge” condition.
The world’s most expensive cardigan is locked in a gun safe in rural Pennsylvania. It has a mysterious stain in one of its pockets—“some kind of brown, crunchy something in there,” according to the sweater’s owner, which he guesses could be chocolate, or vomit. There’s a missing button and two cigarette burns. It smells like a grandmother’s musty attic. Still, the last time it sold, it fetched a whopping US$137,500 (around A$200,000).
The cardigan’s not studded with diamonds or knit by a couture atelier. But more than 25 years ago, it was wrapped around Kurt Cobain during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance. The story of where it came from and what happened to it is more than a half-century long.
Garrett Kletjian, the owner of professional race car team Forty7 Motorsports, is the current self-described “custodian” of the garment; he purchased it at Julien’s Auctions in November 2015. When the sweater arrived at Kletjian’s house via overnight mail, he says, “I opened it up and it immediately hits me: ‘Oh, now I’m also going to be responsible for this.’ It was kind of like when my children were born years ago; I was so happy to see them, but then I was like, ‘Oh no…’ ”
Cobain’s sweater came into being just before the Nirvana frontman’s own 1967 birth. According to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, the acrylic, mohair and Lycra blend cardigan was likely made between 1960 and ’65, when silky mohair was a popular material for menswear. The cardigan’s label—a sporty affair featuring a boat and a skier—comes from Manhattan Industries, a garment company that was established in New Jersey in the mid-1800s and acquired by what is now known as Perry Ellis International in the Eighties. “It was an innovative, iconic American brand,” says Lorraine Medici. As the label’s SVP of Marketing & Corporate Communications, it is possible she’s biased, although Chrisman-Campbell confirms, “It’s a very classic style. The color is wonderful. Kind of that off-green, that olive green color that was popular for home décor in the Sixties.”
Perry Ellis no longer employs anyone who worked at Manhattan Industries during that era, so Medici can’t confirm which line the piece came from. However, Chrisman-Campbell located a Manhattan brand ad from the early Sixties in which a similar sweater cost US$15.95. The cardigan is now worth more than 8000 times its approximate original price—despite (or, rather, because of) the funk.
“It’s very important that we don’t wash it,” Darren Julien of Julien’s Auctions told Rolling Stone earlier this month. “The stains are still there.” Kletjian confirms that he’s kept the sweater in mint-grunge condition; he put it on only once, but took it off after less than 40 seconds. “It’s kind of a weird, powerful thing when you do something like that, when we put on somebody else’s [clothes],” he said. “It’s like when they say you should walk in somebody else’s shoes. When I put that on, I was like, ‘Ah, no. God, I don’t want to wear this.’”
Cobain was a frequent thrift shopper and likely purchased the sweater at a second-hand shop, according to Chrisman-Campbell. “It was part of a much larger trend in Seattle in the early Nineties, where people were buying vintage, recycling clothes, and creating clothes from found objects,” she says. “Of course, it was all part of the grunge aesthetic — that you didn’t want anything too new or too pretty. And, of course, this being Seattle, it was cold, it was rainy. You wanted to be wrapped in something that was warm and cuddly. This was really kind of the security blanket of a sweater.”
Cobain wore the sweater for months preceding his 1994 suicide, on the now-legendary Unplugged performance in November 1993 and several times on tour before his death in April. “I look at that sweater from a different perspective than maybe some people do,” Kletjian says. “He was obviously in a bad way at the time. I look at this sweater as something that he put on every day. It was comfortable and it was familiar. So I liked the idea that, while he might have been tortured inside, this was a piece that offered him a bit of comfort.”
Following Cobain’s death, the garment was gifted to the family’s nanny, Jackie Farry. “There were a lot of people coming in and out of the house to show support and pay their respect to Courtney,” Farry says. “She was giving a lot of people that knew him things he owned; valuable things like sweaters, and even a guitar. I remember she kept going into the bedroom closet and coming out with more. It was around then that she gave me that cardigan.”
Farry shuttled the sweater around with her for the next two decades in a safety deposit box. (She didn’t wash it, either.) Along with gifts from Cobain, including a painting and a grey suitcase with funny drawings on it, the cardigan reminded her of good times with Kurt, Courtney and Frances Bean.
Farry initially bequeathed the sweater to Frances in her will. But after 10 years of fighting cancer, she agreed to bring it to the auction house in 2014. “I wouldn’t have got involved if I didn’t need the money,” she said. “Before I would commit to selling it, I got in touch with Courtney and Frances to make sure they were cool with it. I remember thinking and saying that if Kurt knew the situation I was in, he would definitely want me to sell it. They agreed.”
Since the sweater was only expected to go from US$40,000 to US$60,000, Farry was surprised when the numbers crept into the six figures. “My dream was to get a swimming pool when it sold,” she said. “When in real life the money I earned from the sweater went to boring stuff like rent, insurance and existing for a couple of years — which is exactly what I needed.”
Kletjian is a longtime Cobain fan—he has a giant painting of the man in his kitchen—and decided the sweater would be a good investment. “There are certain things that I won’t collect, sure, because I think that they’re going to depreciate in value,” he says. “Then there’s things that I would collect that really have a solid place in my heart. This Kurt Cobain sweater has a special place.”
Julien stresses that these kinds of purchases are becoming more and more common; he says they give buyers a way to “diversify” their portfolios. “It’s not just a collector’s market — it’s an investor’s market,” he says. “We anticipate that [the sweater] will sell for more than double [the last sale price]. I call it the new fine art market. People are investing more and more in pop culture, especially rock & roll.” Earlier this year, a sweater worn by Cobain during his final Nirvana photoshoot sold for US$75,000 at auction.
Kletjian admits that he got carried away at the 2015 auction. “I went way over,” he says. “There was a fever pitch with this auction. It was moving quick, quick, quick, quick, quick. I was with my wife and I said, ‘All right, I’m up for one more bid.’” Nearly $140,000 (today around A$200,000) later, he was the proud owner of an unwashed piece of rock & roll history.
While Kletjian has enjoyed owning something his idol wore, it can feel like a burden to protect it. When the Louvre asked to display the cardigan, Kletjian declined; he felt he needed to personally make sure it was safe, and Paris was too far away. Which means the knit is locked in his home, where no one else can appreciate it. “That’s what started to bother me,” he says. “I have this sweater. And in a million years, you would never think that this thing would be sitting in a safe in some house in rural Pennsylvania, right? That this is not what you would expect from such a significant piece of rock & roll history.
And so the sweater will hit the auction block the weekend of October 25, where it’s expected to double its value. (Kletjian has his eye on one of the custom-built guitars Cobain used during Nirvana’s In Utero tour, which is also up for auction that weekend.)
Kletjian is aware that investing in rock & roll memorabilia—especially an exorbitantly priced thrift store item owned by a strident anti-capitalist—might rub some fans the wrong way. But he’s adamant that he purchased the cardigan for the right reasons. “Each person makes a purchase based on their own emotions at the time,” Kletjian says. “I didn’t buy an Elvis concert outfit because I’m not an Elvis fan. [The sweater] was the right one for me; and now it’s time to part ways with it. I’m happy about that. I hope that it’s going to go to somebody who won’t just see it as an investment—that they’ll get some joy out of it, too.”