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The Beatles created a painting together while on tour in Japan. It sold at auction for $1.7 million

It was the summer of 1966.

The Beatles were in the middle of a tour that had them play five shows in just three days at Japan’s famed Nippon Budokan arena — but when they weren’t performing, they were holed up in the presidential suite of the Tokyo Hilton creating a work of art that came to be known as “Images of a Woman.”

That painting, believed by some experts to be the only artwork jointly made by all four Beatles (or at least signed by all four), was sold at Christie’s auction house in New York on February 1.

“Images of a Woman” was estimated to fetch somewhere in the realm of $400,000 to $600,000 and “crystallizes a magic moment in Beatles history,” said Christie’s specialist Casey Rogers during a phone interview. Its final sale price was nearly three times the high end of that estimate — $1,744,000.

“It’s such a rarity to have a work on paper outside of their music catalog that is (a) physical relic, this tangible object with contributions from all four of The Beatles,” Rogers said of the 21.5- by 31-inch painting.

“It’s memorabilia, it’s a work of art, it appeals to probably a much larger cross-section of collectors… It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling.”

How ‘Images of a Woman’ was created

As the story goes, the Fab Four spent about 100 hours in Japan during their 1966 tour.

Outside of performing (and aside from two instances where Paul McCartney and John Lennon each slipped out with members of their entourage for sightseeing adventures in Tokyo), the group stayed put in their hotel room at the behest of local authorities who were concerned about their safety. The band’s visit to the country drew adoring fans and protesters alike — there were reports of threats from Japanese nationalists, including some angry about a Western rock band playing an arena considered a spiritual home for martial arts.

The Beatles arrive at Tokyo's airport for their brief tour of Japan in 1966. - Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images/File
The Beatles arrive at Tokyo's airport for their brief tour of Japan in 1966. - Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images/File

A visitor gifted them some art supplies, according to Christie’s press release; the band soon wound up around a table, with a blank sheet of Japanese art paper in the middle and a lamp roughly centered on top of it. Each Beatle sat at a corner, painting something different. Recordings for the album that would become “Revolver” played in the background.

Photographer Robert Whitaker, who was represented by the band’s manager Brian Epstein, was on hand to capture the group at work. “I never saw them calmer or more contented than at this time,” he observed, according to Christie’s release.

The Beatles were no strangers to visual art. Lennon attended art school and McCartney had studied the subject, too. Both George Harrison and Ringo Starr drew “often and with plenty of talent,” the Christie’s press release added.

Each corner of the painting reflects a personal touch, with plenty of variety in shapes, colors and even the paints used. Harrison’s portion, which uses darker and angrier-looking brush strokes, seems to sprawl out the most from his corner, while Starr’s area is smaller and cartoonish. Both Lennon and McCartney worked primarily in acrylic, Christie’s noted, while Harrison and Starr relied more on watercolor.

And then at the center, where the lamp once sat, are the signatures.

The Beatles never gave their painting an official title, but it became known as “Images of a Woman” in the late 1980s when “a Japanese journalist thought he could see female genitals in Paul’s quadrant,” according to Christie’s.

“It’s all very much in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?” said Rogers. “It wasn’t the intention, necessarily, of the painting as it was being done. I think it was more fluid, it was more freeform and just the members expressing themselves.”

“It’s really interesting that it’s had other interpretations over time and probably will carry on having other interpretations.”

This photo taken on June 29, 1966 shows The Beatles, (left to right) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, holding a press conference in Tokyo. While not playing the Nippon Budokan arena, the group spent most of their time in their hotel room where they worked on a painting. - Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/File
This photo taken on June 29, 1966 shows The Beatles, (left to right) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, holding a press conference in Tokyo. While not playing the Nippon Budokan arena, the group spent most of their time in their hotel room where they worked on a painting. - Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/File

After its completion, the painting was acquired by Tetsusaburo Shimoyama, an entertainment industry executive who was then the chairman of Tokyo’s Beatles fan club. In 1989, it was purchased by record store owner Takao Nishino, The Atlantic reported in 2012, when Nishino in turn put “Images of a Woman” up for auction. (Nishino had, for some years, stored the piece under a bed, the magazine noted.)

After Nishino had decided to part ways with the painting, he told The Atlantic: “Originally, I thought it might be best kept as a piece of Japan’s cultural heritage; it has never left Japanese soil in 46 years. But the Beatles phenomenon was and remains a global one.”

The Beatles’ enduring appeal

Beatlemania has continued in the decades since the band broke up, and as Rogers noted, “they’re never out of the headlines.” Interest in the band’s music, its members’ lives and their contributions to pop culture play a large part in their “perennial” appeal, she said.

“We’re even seeing them in the news as recently as (last month) with the help of AI,” she said, nodding to the release of “Now and Then,” a long-unfinished song now completed using artificial intelligence.

“Images of a Woman” was part of Christie’s “Exceptional Sale,” a yearly auction event held in New York, London and Paris.

“These are masterpiece level, often one-of-a-kind rare objects with historical importance,” said Rogers, who noted that The Beatles’ painting was up for auction alongside other rock and roll memorabilia, as well as fine works of art, sports-related artifacts and more.

The Beatles perform during a concert at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1966. By August of that year, the band made the decision to stop touring and shifted their attention to their studio recordings. - Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/File
The Beatles perform during a concert at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1966. By August of that year, the band made the decision to stop touring and shifted their attention to their studio recordings. - Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images/File

Though not widely celebrated, or even known, “Images of a Woman” was the unique result of a particular moment in the band’s career. By the end of August 1966, less than two months after leaving Japan, The Beatles had played their last concert — one 1969 rooftop performance notwithstanding — at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, putting an end to rigorous touring and shifting their focus to studio work.

“I think (‘Images of a Woman’) is really reflective of those 100 hours that they spent together… probably one of the last times to sit together, to reflect, to not have schedules that required them anywhere else but Budokan for their concerts,” said Rogers.

“And maybe, at the same time, it was a release during this lockdown,” she noted. “Just this great creative outlet for them.”

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