Friends and Family of the Original Owner of the Armadillo Sign Being Auctioned at Sotheby's Say Sign Was Purchased, Not Stolen, Despite Claims of Armadillo Associates
Bidding underway for piece of Dillo history
By Kevin Curtin,
1:00PM, Fri. Jan. 21, 2022
Sotheby’s, the planet’s oldest and most prestigious art auction house, is currently accepting bids on an artifact from one of Austin’s most historic music venues: the Armadillo World Headquarters.
The 16-foot long wooden sign, reading “Armadillo World Headquarters Concert Hall & Beer Garden,” once hung over the patio entrance to the famed Seventies venue. Now it holds a starting bid of $35,000. However, multiple people involved with the Armadillo have claimed that piece's provenance is sketchy. That is disputed though by the auction house and eyewitnesses to the original sale.
“Shortly before the club closed someone stole it,” says Leea Mechling, a core staffer at the Armadillo for most of its run who is also the executive director of AusPop, a nonprofit that collects and exhibits Austin pop culture – and countercultural – artifacts. “All they had to do was pull up in the middle of the night when no one was there and unscrew it from the wall and take it… and they did. It’d been an odd time and everybody knew the joint was closing and people were emboldened… usually it was for sentimental reasons, but some people took things with an eye of selling it later. I don’t know what happened after that. Around 2011, a guy contacted [AusPop] wanting us to buy it for $100,000 and he posted it on eBay for that much. We declined and actually suggested he donate it to us, but he didn’t and it didn’t sell.”
The Armadillo closed in 1980. Mechling says the sign was created by ‘Dillo staffer Don Cowley in late 1978 or early 1979. Cowley had also created the famous papier-mâché statue of Santa being pulled in his sleigh by armadillos that was featured at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, but wasn’t a famed poster artist like the “Armadillo Art Squad” folks including Guy Juke, Micael Priest, Jim Franklin, and Kerry Awn, whose works are inherently collectible.
Mechling says a polite representative for Sotheby’s contacted AusPop about procuring Armadillo photographs to accompany the sign auction, but she declined.
“It’s a noteworthy item, bonafide, and an important relic, but I think the original logo sign we have for the museum, in storage now, is more important,” says Mechling, who admits to being less outraged by the Sotheby’s auction than many others who were connected to the Dillo. “It’s just interesting how things resurface after time goes by.”
Turk Pipkin – the actor, documentary director, Nobelity Project founder, and retired mime/juggler/magician who’d been a staple at the Armadillo – tweeted at Sotheby’s yesterday: “Why are you auctioning a sign that was stolen from Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin? Do you specialize in stolen art?”
An Austin American-Statesman story, which misstates the sign as being hand-lettered by Jim Franklin (the auction page lists Cowley as its creator, based on lettering that Franklin had used, which itself was based on Camel cigarette packaging art), reveals the sign’s current owner to be Michele Krier, of San Antonio, who claims her ex-husband bought it from Eddie Wilson at an auction and then later gave it to her on her birthday in 1984.
Susan White, sister of former Dillo employee Don White, wrote to the Chronicle, explaining the matter:
“My brother Don White worked at the Dillo taking video recordings of the performances. He purchased the sign at the auction.
“He had a large video production company for 42 years, Match Frame both here and in San Antonio. The sign hung in the rec room of his Austin office in the 1990's through early 2000's.
“Don's ex-wife is Michele Krier who is selling the sign.
“I hope the sign finds its way to the ACL building as part of Austin's musical history or the Bullock Museum.”
Debracarol Hearne says she was there when Don White purchased the sign. She knew White from San Antonio as a cameraman and she’d hired him to help him make a documentary about the closing of the Armadillo, which didn’t pan out.
“But he got caught up in the auction. It was just awesome – they had an auctioneer and it was going crazy and he bid on that sign. This was early 1981,” recalls Hearne. “I was there when he wrote the check. I don’t remember what he paid for it, but I remember it was a lot of money. He said ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this!’ And my background is art history, I’m an artist, so I told him ‘Look, this is the only one – this is the only sign like this. It’s a one of the kind sign and it’s worth having it.’ We had to rent a U-Haul and it was a big event to get it loaded up and people helped us. He’d checked out with his little auctioneers ticket and everything. Nobody stole that.”
Armadillo founder Eddie Wilson, reached by phone, told the Chronicle last week he believes the sign was stolen – though he had exited the business years before its closure. Wilson, who has held multiple auctions in the last decade where Armadillo art, artifacts, and posters have gone for large sums of money, notes that the sign’s perceived value isn’t derived from artistic reason, because “there was no artwork involved.”
“The sign had no value for any of the standard reasons, other than it came from Armadillo,” he says. “It just sounds like a money grubbing scheme someone is trying to run on the general public to see if they can score a big hit.”
There have been four bids on the Armadillo sign, which is currently at $40,000. The auction ends Tuesday at 2:56pm CST.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since original publication to include comment from Sotheby’s, Susan White, and Debracarol Hearne.