NEW YORK – Don Bernstine travels the world visiting rock stars in their homes and backstage and spends tens of thousands of dollars of his employer's money buying guitars, concert costumes and other music memorabilia.
So, it's no surprise that the Hard Rock Cafe's memorabilia hunter says he'll give up his job when someone pries it from his "cold, dead fingers."
Bernstine's job for the past five years has been hunting down the instruments, clothes, lyrics and other music ephemera that adorn the Hard Rock's 124 cafes, seven hotel-casinos and stand-alone casino in 43 countries.
"I'm looking to ... preserve certain moments of rock history," said Bernstine, 51, who sports a gray beard, six silver earrings, and three piercings in his right eyebrow.
Hard Rock International — based in Orlando, Florida, and owned by Rank Group Plc — claims the biggest collection of rock memorabilia in the world, with more than 69,000 items and counting.
Bernstine, whose title is manager of acquisitions/artist relations, has gone to Australia and Japan as part of his job and this week spent just under $100,000 in New York on several items at Christie's fall auction of rock and pop memorabilia.
This included paying $24,000 on a black leather vest worn onstage by guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, and $13,000 on a typed draft of a poem by Bob Dylan.
He didn't win all his bids, dropping out when prices got too high. One that got away was a notebook containing lyrics and set lists written by reggae star Bob Marley that sold to an online bidder for $60,000.
For him, auctions are just one way of tracking down hard-to-get items. Other hunting grounds include rock concerts, rock stars' homes, tour buses, and the warehouses where bands store instruments, costumes and other items.
The Hard Rock's first bit of memorabilia was a guitar that Eric Clapton donated on impulse in 1971 to the original Hard Rock Cafe in London. Fellow British rocker Pete Townshend soon followed suit — and the collection grew from there.
Sometimes Bernstine, whose adventures are chronicled in a recently released 90-minute DVD, "Hard Rock Treasures," will make a deal to buy items from a rock group's tour before they go out on the road.
"I've got a lot of personal relationships," Bernstine said. "My forte is the artists, being able to work with the artists directly, and I've been given some very special stuff."
In deciding what to go after, he considers the item's significance and the impact it will make on customers.
Lately, he's been looking for larger pieces for the casinos, such as a 1967 Camaro driven in a music video by Metallica singer-guitarist James Hetfield.
A cafe's memorabilia is changed every seven years with removed items sent back to Hard Rock headquarters in Orlando, where they are taken out of their frames and stored until needed again.
"We never throw away anything, we never destroy anything," said Bernstine, a former music manager and promoter.
Sometimes, Bernstine returns an item to a rock star who wants it back, such as a guitar formerly owned by '70s sensation Peter Frampton that wound up at the Orlando cafe, where Frampton noticed it.
A collector himself, Bernstine owns a roomful of guitars and drums — but doesn't play an instrument.
"Air guitar I'm great at," he joked.