The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Beatles relic was stained with gravy. Now it’s valued up to $25,000.

Before the Beatles played their last official concert in San Francisco in 1966, they sat down to dinner and doodled on a tablecloth

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon of the Beatles arrive by plane at San Francisco International Airport on Aug. 29, 1966, before their performance at Candlestick Park. (AP)

After the Beatles played San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, fans hung around to pick up mementos — tickets stubs, an amplifier cord and even cigarette butts from the stage. It turned out to be the band’s final official concert, imbuing those keepsakes with added meaning.

Joe Vilardi, the owner of a catering company in San Francisco, got something more unusual than a cigarette butt. That night, he served the band their preconcert meal — roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, a stuffed baked potato, salad and a French pastry, which the band “devoured” over a white tablecloth they splattered with gravy, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time. On the tablecloth, they also drew “doodles of psychedelic persuasion” and signed the impromptu artwork, according to the Chronicle.

Vilardi and his catering company laid claim to the tablecloth and hung it in the window of his business’s headquarters. For about six days it remained there — an attraction that drew crowds, the Chronicle reported — until someone broke into his display window and made off with the cloth. It was seemingly lost forever.

But in a twist of events, Vilardi’s surviving family members say the tablecloth was returned to them out of the blue last year — and on Friday, the piece will be available in a public auction online. It is estimated to be worth between $15,000 and $25,000, according to Bonhams, the international auction house.

The tablecloth features a sketch by John Lennon of a “hairy creature on a bike next to a series of wheels,” according to Bonhams. Ringo Starr and George Harrison signed their names, while “Paul McCartney” is spelled out in bubble letters near the words “did not lay a hand on this table.” The tablecloth also features sketched portraits by folk singer Joan Baez, who joined the band for dinner, the auction house wrote.

For Michael Vilardi, Joe Vilardi’s grandson, the tablecloth was the stuff of family legend — a story he frequently heard from his grandfather at holiday dinners. Michael Vilardi was only 6 when the tablecloth was stolen, and he had little recollection of that day, save for a vague memory of sweeping up the glass from his grandfather’s broken window.

The tablecloth’s fate “was always a mystery,” Michael Vilardi told The Washington Post.

After Joe Vilardi died in the late 1990s, Michael’s father and uncle scoured the internet for the cloth but nothing materialized. After they died, Michael began his own searches online, which also turned up nothing.

Then one day in March 2021, Michael Vilardi was sitting on his couch when he received a call from a woman in Texas.

“She was pretty emotional, and she told me a story that her brother had the tablecloth all these years,” Vilardi told The Post.

While Vilardi described her story as “a little foggy” — and one that may have changed over time — he said the woman told him that her brother got the tablecloth several years after the theft while living in San Francisco. During an argument over money, one of his roommates pulled out the tablecloth, threw it at him and said it was worth enough to settle their dispute. The woman told Vilardi that it remained in her brother’s possession for more than five decades. He never displayed it and took it out only to show family and friends, Vilardi recalled the woman telling him.

“And so it never was damaged, never faded,” Vilardi said.

Last year, the woman’s brother tried selling the tablecloth, she told Vilardi. But a dealer told them that it had probably been stolen, and they might have a hard time selling it. So the woman said she convinced her brother that the right thing to do would be to find the Vilardis, who were documented in news articles as being the original owners, and return it.

“I was elated, and I was trying to keep my composure,” Vilardi said.

A family mystery had, in many ways, come to an end. After they received the tablecloth, they all had a chance to look at it and touch it, but they agreed they didn’t need to keep it, Vilardi said. While the tablecloth was very special to the family, he said they decided to put it up for auction with the hope that it would go on display somewhere.

“It’s kind of a unique piece of history,” Vilardi said. “And, you know, I’ve got the story. I can tell the story. We lived the story.”