A Piece of Texas Music History Sells at Auction Amid Claims That It Was Stolen

Former employees of Armadillo World Headquarters suggested the sign was taken right before the Austin venue closed in 1980. Sotheby’s countered the claims

A black and white image of the entrance to the Armadillo venue
In the 1970s, famous acts like Willie Nelson, the Clash, Ray Charles, the Ramones and James Brown performed at Armadillo World Headquarters music venue in Austin, Texas. Alan Pogue / Courtesy of Sotheby’s Auction House

Hippies, musicians, country music lovers and free spirits active in the Austin, Texas, concert scene during the 1970s were likely familiar with Armadillo World Headquarters (AWHQ), a popular music hall and beer garden that acted as a renowned haven for indie artists. Among the famous acts who played gigs at the venue were the Clash, Elvis Costello, the B52s, the Talking Heads, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, and Willie Nelson—a regular patron.

A sign that once decorated the Armadillo’s entrance sold at Sotheby’s this week for $52,920, drawing ire from former employees who claim that the 16- by 2-foot piece of pinewood was stolen from the venue right before its closing in 1980, reports Deborah Sengupta Stith for the Austin American-Statesman. The auction house and the sign’s seller, Michele Krier of San Antonio, have countered these accusations.

“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,” Leea Mechling, a longtime Armadillo staffer, tells Kevin Curtin of the Austin Chronicle. “… It’d been an odd time, and everybody knew the joint was closing and people were emboldened.”

Speaking with the Chronicle, Armadillo founder Eddie Wilson, who left the business years before it closed, says he also believes the sign was stolen. Crew member Don Cowley painted the pinewood, which once hung above the venue’s beer garden and patio.

According to Mechling, someone attempted to sell the sign to AusPop, the Austin cultural memorabilia nonprofit where she serves as executive director, in 2011.

“[He wanted] us to buy it for $100,000 and he posted it on eBay for that much,” she says. “We declined and actually suggested he donate it to us, but he didn’t and it didn’t sell.”

A hand-painted sign in red, yellow, green and black that reads ARMADILLO World Headquarters Concert Hall and Beer Garden
A sign that used to hang above the Armadillo's beer garden prior to its closing in 1981. Courtesy of Sotheby's Auction House

On Monday, Sotheby’s vice president Derek Parsons refuted the AWHQ employees’ claims, telling the Statesman, “In looking into the Armadillo sign, it was established that the sign was sold at auction in 1981, and there were no concerns about the chain of ownership. There is no evidence to support the claim of theft.”

Krier maintains that her ex-husband, Don White, purchased the sign at an auction hosted by the Armadillo after the club closed in 1980. A second source, filmmaker Debracarol Hearne, also came forward Monday. She told the Statesman that she witnessed White purchase the sign at the auction while they were working on a documentary about the closing.

The year 1980 was a chaotic time for the Armadillo. Founded in 1970 on the site of a former National Guard armory, the sprawling venue and stage managed to grow its national profile by leaps and bounds in under a decade. Despite its outsized reputation, AWHQ struggled financially. As Brad Buchholz reported for the Statesman in 2016, one former employee claimed that by the mid-1970s, the venue was losing as much as $50,000 every six months. The Armadillo held its last concert on December 31, 1980; its former home was later torn down to make way for a 13-story government building, according to Erin Geisler of local NPR station KUTX.

Nevertheless, the Armadillo left an indelible mark on Austin’s music scene. 

“The Armadillo World Headquarters was the most colorful live music venue in our city’s history,” wrote Buchholz. “The concert hall was like a giant hangar, covered in painted murals, which forever smelled like pot and stale beer and fresh-baked cookies. It was a haven.”

The venue borrowed its name from the artwork of Austin artist Jim Franklin, whose psychedelic poster designs and fondness for the armadillo—a common animal to spot on the roadside in central Texas—helped turn the quirky animals into a counterculture symbol, as Madeline Hollern reported for Austin Monthly last year. His lettering inspired Cowley’s design for the Armadillo sign.

Playing at the Armadillo could make or break one’s career. After failing to find success in Tennessee, Nelson played a “career-changing” gig at the Armadillo on August 12, 1972, that encouraged him to return to music after an early retirement, per the Austin Museum of Pop Culture.

“Austin wouldn’t be called the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ if it weren’t for the Armadillo,” reporter Art Levy told KUTX in 2020.

In honor of the venue’s 50th anniversary, Levy produced an hour-long oral history of the institution that listeners can access online